From the June/July 2013 Issue:

Thyme for Something Different?

    Writer: Mary Vinnedge |

Culinary herbs can fill out your landscape as well as your recipes

Article Photo
enlarge | The blooms of chives (left foreground) and cilantro (right foreground) put sparks of white in a mixed planting of ornamental plants, herbs and vegetables. Courtesy of Dear Garden Associates Inc.
You can put a punch in your landscape and your menus at the same time with culinary herbs. We got three gardening experts to rattle off the following list of benefits to growing your own.

You’ll have fresh herbs at the ready. “We’re a foodie nation now with all of the celebrity chefs and TV cooking shows,” says Peg Reynolds of Reynolds Garden Shop in Manahawkin. She and Christopher Stout of Dear Garden Associates Inc. in Princeton and Pipersville, Pennsylvania, suggest planting herbs near indoor and outdoor kitchens so they’re handy as you prepare meals.

You’ll know the herbs weren’t grown with toxic chemicals, says Drew Madlinger of Madlinger Exterior Design in Branchburg. (He recommends feeding with Garden-tone, an all-natural organic fertilizer from New Jersey-based Espoma. Don’t overfertilize, which dilutes flavor; most herbs should be fed no more than every other week.) Reynolds notes that U.S. Department of Agriculture certified-organic starter plants are available to be sure you’re chemical-free. In addition, many herbs can be grown from seed.

You’ll save money. “Have you seen the prices on those little packages of herbs in supermarkets?” Reynolds asks. For dishes such as basil pesto, the savings can be considerable. A packet of herb seeds that can produce bushels of leaves costs $2 or so; a few basil leaves can be $3.

The herbs’ fragrance adds dimension to your landscape. “Brush against them and you have that nice scent,” Reynolds says.

A bonus is that herbs are easy to grow: They adapt to most soils except tight clay and usually aren’t deer fodder because of their pungent scents. Few insects bother them. “Amend the soil so it’s not too rich,” Madlinger says, probably with decomposed granite or sand (not peat) to promote drainage. Most are drought-tolerant sun-worshippers so don’t overwater. But they’re not cactus either, Stout warns—“they can’t go four weeks without water.”

Madlinger also provides herbs with ample air circulation. Basil and mints, for instance, can suffer from powdery mildew, which he treats by wiping the leaves with horticultural oil.

The free-flowing shapes of most herbs make them ideal for informal landscapes, although some—such as thymes between steppingstones and rosemary pruned as topiary—work well in formal designs too. “I personally have herbs all throughout my yard, especially staples like basil, rosemary and sage,” Reynolds says. “It’s easy to get so many colors and textures with herbs. I stick them in everywhere. They’re great for plugging gaps in the landscape. They don’t cost a lot, and they spread like crazy.”

But Reynolds concedes “they can be a little rambly for someone who likes a manicured look.” She cuts them back to keep them full. Or as Stout suggests, you can keep a formal landscape but grow herbs in containers (put gravel or clay pot shards at the bottom for drainage) on decks, patios, porches and even in planting beds. If you grow large culinary herbs such as rosemary and lemon verbena in pots, he suggests using one plant per pot.

“The trick is to look at the landscape plan aesthetically and functionally at the same time,” Madlinger says. Meet herbs’ basic needs for soil, sun, water and nutrients, he adds, and “they grow almost like weeds.”

Mary Vinnedge is an award-winning garden writer based north of Dallas-Fort Worth. She loves having basil and rosemary in her landscape and her dinners.

Herbal Lessons
Christopher Stout, manager/client liaison at Dear Garden Associates, recommends these primers on growing herbs:

Kitchen Garden Planner (Country Home, 1999) by Darrell Trout.

The Herbalist’s Garden (Storey Communications, 2001) by Shatoiya and Richard De La Tour.

Herb Garden Design (Frances Lincoln Ltd., 2003) by Ethne Clarke.

Easy-Growing Herbs (Basil to Garlic)
These culinary herbs are favorites of Christopher Stout of Dear Garden Associates, Drew Madlinger of Madlinger Exterior Design and Peg Reynolds of Reynolds Garden Shop. Primetime for snipping herbs is before their bloom periods and in the mornings, when oils are concentrated. Except as noted, herbs generally require full sun (six or more hours daily) and excellent drainage. To help perennial herbs survive a hard winter, in late fall cover the surrounding soil with a thick layer (3 inches or so) of mulch such as coarsely shredded bark. Stout also suggests rotating your annual herb crops to avoid depleting soil nutrients.

Easy-Growing Herbs (Mint to Thyme)

More Palate-Pleasers
Here are nine additional culinary herbs at least one of our garden experts recommends