Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Here is my half finished herb garden. It is nearly finished now, but my camera is on the blink. I will publish finished photos when I have the chance. In this post I will discuss the herbs, their uses and ways to preserve them. This is my third herb garden, having to leave one behind when I divorced and one when I left Cape Cod behind. This was by far the easiest to build. Perhaps it was not difficult to come up with materials, as we have manure from the horses and a huge supply of stone on the property, but since the stones were ranging upwards of 400 pounds in some cases, easy might not be the best word.
It is set in the sunniest part of the yard behind my house. The walls were started with broken fragments of the concrete salvaged from the back patio then cased and topped with stone. The inner walls that hold back the raised beds are half buried stones, some of which are huge. I back-filled the beds with the original earth from the site mixed with yards and yards of sandy loam from my local nursery.(Brigg's in North Attleboro) Then came wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of manure from the back of the property. All the manure is at least four years old. As rich soil is not necessarily what herbs like best, I will probably never do the manure again as a top dressing like I might with roses. I mixed all of this in and planted the herbs. At least, many herbs tend to be stronger flavored and more heavily scented in poor and dry conditions. Many of the herbs I plant are there for nostalgia and to illustrate what kinds of herbs there are. So many of them can be a little on the dangerous side if used in uncontrolled doses. I like them for the scent and their beauty and I use only a few of the more well known and safest herbs for cooking. Sorrel, for instance, is a wonderful, lemony herb/vegetable. It is great in soups and as a lemony note in recipes. However, it contains large amounts of Oxalic acid which crystallizes in the urinary tract. It is fine for occasional use, but not a regular thing.
All of the herb garden gets shade at least part of the day, but for the most part it is in full sun. There is one bed, however, that gets shade from an overhanging tree in the heat of the day. This bed got the plants that prefer shade or would be entirely too rampant in sunny conditions. Funny, I planted my favorite shade lover that I have tended most carefully for nearly twenty years in the sun because I was so impatient to move it in the Spring while it was still damp outside. I had only one bed ready at the time. Now I am trying to devise ways to make sure it is shaded. It hates to be moved once established. I am petrified that I will lose it if I move it again. Fortunately there is a Lilac there and a trellis will be nearby. Both will provide shade. The lilac is a white one that came from the front yard of the Olsen house in Cushing, Maine. I went up to help out when I was a curator of a small mueum in Maine. The Lilac was invading the driveway, so I took a few sprigs that I removed from the gravel. The Olsen house is famous as the house on the hill in Andrew Wyeth's: Christina's World. I will post a photo of the painting and hope no one will mind.
I have all of the standard herbs and now am looking for the more unusual things. I have plants such as Skullcap and Sweet Cicely that no one ever heard of. There will be plenty of Basil and Oregano for Spaghetti Sauce. There will be plenty for other day to day uses as well.
I put a round bed in the center. Lavender needs very will drained conditions, so the center bed got rather a lot of the worst and driest soil. I have the big pot full of flowers there as well as the statue of St. Fiacre. All are surrounded with various Lavenders and annual Calendulas. My luck with Lavender has been rather poor in the past, so I hope this will be a better start. Now for some general and unsolicited advice. I am best at the unsolicited part. I have had a bad habit since my first contact with herbs in my late teens. I have always planted every herb that will survive in my area, and many that would not survive more than that one season. It is probably a good strategy to look in your cupboard and decide what herbs you will truly use. Add to that list a few that have some nostalgia for you. Perhaps you had a mother-in-law that had plenty of Spearmint in the yard for some obscure dish that she always made. It is nice to has few uses ...and it will run crazy in your garden. Plant it in a tub sunk in the ground if you must have it for nostalgia's sake, but if you do not need it...leave it out. I will use Thyme, Oregano, Sage, Basil, Mint, all the onion relatives(chives, garlic chives, walking onions and garlic), Sweet Cicely, Horseradish, Sorrel, Lovage, Hyssop, Valerian, Sweet Woodruff, Costmary and a few I can't remember right now. I should not be growing things like Skullcap, exotically flavored Thymes, Feverfew(though I like it's pretty little flowers),Angelica(which can be toxic), Wormwood, and Rue. I will never use them and I should be concentrating my space and time on things that can be of use. You should be using the space that you are now saving to wean yourself off the local nursery...Sorry Briggs. Plant several waves of three or four plants each, for the first couple of years. Have enough woody plants growing so that they are more likely to survive a rough winter. The woody plants are always a worry. In subsequent years, cut and root cuttings from your woody plants and plant new ones. (Look for sprigs of the plant that are still soft and green. Cut off a piece of the plant, including the little node or collar that attaches to the next branch. Dip the cutting into water, and then into rooting powder. Shake the excess loose and sink the end into freshly turned, soft soil, damp sand or potting soil. Firm the soil around it and keep it watered. Do more than you think you need as half or more will die as a rule.) Reserve a couple of annual and biennial plants like Basil and Parsley so that they will send lots of energy into producing seeds instead of cuttings to eat. Remember to harvest and store the seeds. Start new Parsley plants each year so that there will always be a crop of healthy and flavorful plants mixed with the second year ones that will produce the seed. Divide clumping plants like Chives(my Ex-wife used to call them Clives because their gardener in England called them that). These plants will thrive for some time, but eventually the center will die out as the clump ages. Keep the plants fresh by starting a patch of them instead of a single clump and give away plants as they become too numerous to be practical. These are a good source of onion flavor in your foods without spending a fortune on onions every week. The only difference is that they should be added at the end of the cooking process intead of letting all their flavor cook away at the beginning. A huge patch of walking onions(Egyptian onions) is a good idea. Though there is a lot of work involved in skinning a couple of dozen tiny, top onions, blanching will hurry the process and they are wonderful roasted or grilled quickly with a litte Balsamic vinegar, reduced to become sweet and syrupy. Add a couple of Cloves and Thyme to the roasting pan or the vinegar to make it very Neapolitan. Try setting up gardens that are for separate uses. If you like, you could reserve a bed for herbs that will be useful only for herb teas. This is where you might consider Bee Balm, various flavored mints, Lemon Balm and exotic Basils. Use one part just for savory cooking; one for sweet cooking, and one for scents. Put all of your mints and plants like Tansy around your house as underplantings for standard flowering trees and standard roses. The masses of mint and Tansy will ward pests away from your house.

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