Chapter 3 : Which Herbs?

Now that you've established the purpose of your herb garden you can make some choices about exactly which herbs you'll include.

Yes, you're definitely excited now.  You can't wait to start your garden.  You can smell the aromatic plants growing in your back yard or even closer your kitchen windowsill.  You can even visualize yourself reaching for some fresh herbs to add to your ingredients as you prepare you dinner.

But, as you drive to the nursery to choose your plants, you're still puzzled about which ones exactly to grow.  I can understand your confusion.  When I first began planting herbs, I experienced the same uncertainty.   

That's why I've developed what I call my "Top Ten List of Must-Grow Herbs."  These are not only some of the most commonly used herbs in cooking, they represent some of the easiest ones to grow.  And I've also provided with this list, what type of soil and other essential growing conditions for success.

Top 10 culinary herbs.

With this list in hand on your first trip to the nursery, you're bound to have success in finding what not only works in your yard but choices that will mesh well with your taste buds.

1  Basil

Basil is the best herb for pesto, hands down.  Its leaves have a warm and spicy flavor.  You need to only add a small amount of this delightful herb in such dishes as soups, salads and sauces.  Basil is also particular suited, by the way, to season anything dish with tomato flavoring. Don't hesitate to use basil to enhance the flavor of your meat, poultry or fish.  You can even add it to your morning breakfast omelet.

You'll want to start your basil plants early in the spring, preferably in a greenhouse or a sun-drenched windowsill.  Early in the summer transplant this herb to your garden.  Or, if you have the courage, sow basil seeds directly into her garden early in the spring.  Or you may want to try your hand at both methods, just in case those seeds don't catch.

2.  Chives

Who doesn't love some fresh chives on a hot, newly baked potato?  If you're as mad about this herb as me, then you've already noticed that chives have a mildly onion taste.  This makes them an excellent addition to salads, any egg and cheese dish, cream cheese, sandwich spreads and sauces.  And, oh, by the way, don't restrict chives to just the baked potato. Taste how in adds a little zing to your mashed potatoes as well.

If you plan on growing chives from starter plants, then you'll want to get these into your garden in the early spring.  And you'll want to give these plants plenty of room.  My recommendation is to plant them a good 9 to 12 inches from each other.

If you plan to plant the chives seeds, then plant them in the fall or the spring, digging down a good half inch and setting the seeds in rows that are spaced about 12 inches apart.

3. Coriander

Now here's a versatile herb.  Its versatility is so great that different parts of this plant are known as different herbs.  Grinding the dried seeds to use them in your meats, like veal, ham or pork?  You're using coriander.  Using the leaves to add to some Indian or Asian dishes?  You're actually using cilantro.

And of course you can use the roots of coriander as well.  If you can't use them right away, don't worry you can freeze these.  They can be used to flavor soups.  Or chop the roots and serve with avocados.  You'll find this deliciously delightful!

Even a novice herbalist should have no problem growing coriander from seeds (I know I did it my first time around and there was no novice who was more naïve and at a loss than I!) 

Sow these seeds in the early spring.  Dig a hole about ¼ inch in depth.  Plant them in rows that are just about a foot apart.  Once the seedlings appear, you'll want to thin them down some, making sure they're at least 6 inches from the other.

4.  Dill

Here's another herb that you can use both the seeds and the leaves.  Both of these parts have a sharp, slightly bitter taste.  (But then who among us doesn't know the taste of dill?)

Whether you use it fresh or dried, you'll find it a most tasty addition to fish, meat and poultry dishes.  But don't be afraid to add it to salads and soups as well.  And many people use the leaves in potatoes and even in omelets.  Another way to enjoy the unique taste of this herb is to sprinkle a little dill on sliced cucumbers for sue as a sandwich filling.

Dill is another easy plant to grow from seed.  Plant  your seeds in the early spring, about ¼ inch deep.  You'll want to make sure you leave at least 9 inches between these seeds.  Once the seedlings appear, be sure to thin them, keeping them that 9 inches apart.

5. Fennel

Like fish?  Then you'll have to try fennel the next time you create that delectable sauce for your fish.  You can also use it for with pork and veal.  Many individuals love to use fennel in soups and salads as well.

The leaves themselves have a sweet flavor.  The seeds, though, have a sharper flavor to them.

Want to try your hand at growing fennel from seeds?  These are easy enough to do so. Plant your seeds in groups of three or four about mid-spring.  You'll dig a small hole about a ¼ inch deep.  Place the seeds about a foot and a half.  Once these grow into seedlings, you'll want to thin them.

6.  Mint

Ah, what would a herb garden be without mint.  Mint is an essential herb whether you plant a culinary herb or medicinal herb garden (or a little of both!).

Use the leaves to brew into a nice, satisfying hot tea.  Or use them to add a dash of sunshine to cold drinks as well.  Mint is also a great garnish.  Spearmint, specifically, is used to make a mint sauce or jelly.

Mint has historically been the spice of choice for anyone who's preparing lamb.  Sprinkle the dried or fresh leaves over the meat prior to cooking it.

You'll want to start planting your mint in the autumn or spring.  You'll also have the best results if you begin with the actual roots of the plants.  Plant four- to six-inch pieces of the root.  Make sure they're about two inches deep and a good 12 inches about.

Then make water these guys well.  Check the roots occasionally.  They are quite aggressive.  By this, I mean they seem to easily overtake the roots of neighboring plants.  You can easily prevent this by sinking boards or brinks about one-foot deep around the beds. 

You may also take an extra precaution when you first plant them.  Plant them in the garden bed itself, but enclose a plastic bucket with no bottom around it.  That keeps them contained for a specific depth.

7. Parsley

For me, parsley brings back memories of my grandmother. She had parsley planted everywhere.  And she used in everything, but especially in soup.  As a youngster we lived next door to my grandmother.  When my mother had planned to make soup herself, she would send me over to my grandmother to retrieve a supply of parsley.

In addition to soups, parsley makes a great addition to salads, casseroles and omelets.  And of course, it's an attractive garnish for meat and fish, as well as any dish that features onions.

If you're planning on growing the plant from seed, start planting them in mid-spring if you want to use the herb in the summer.  Plant the seeds in mid-summer if you want fresh autumn and winter parsley.

Before you plant the seeds, you'll need to soak them overnight.  When this plant reaches seedling stage thin the bed out and make sure the plants are between nine to 10 inches apart.

8. Sage

If you've ever eaten sweet sausage with sage, then you know how awesome this herb can prove in culinary enhancement.  The dried leaves of the sage plant are also a traditional addition to the stuffings of chicken and turkey.  Many chefs additionally use sage with lamb and pork as well as a variety of cheese and omelet dishes.

Sage is another plant that can easily be grown from its seeds.  You'll want to start planting in the early spring if you plan on doing this.  If you prefer, though, you can be starter plants from your local nursery.  If you're going this route, you can wait until mid-spring to set these out.  Just be sure to plant them about one-foot apart.

9. Tarragon

If you think anything like I do, you hear the word tarragon and immediately think vinegar.  And  it is a great flavoring for vinegar.  Up until now you may have run to the store to buy your tarragon vinegar.  But consider waking up one morning, picking some tarragon from your garden, placing it in vinegar, steeping it for two to three weeks and then enjoying your own homemade tarragon vinegar!

But vinegar is just the start of how this plant can dramatically change your eating habits, given a little time and experimentation.  The leaves of this herb have a taste that is something akin to anise, which makes it ideal for a variety of dishes.  Try placing the leaves in soups and stews.  From there you can experiment with salads. 

But don't let your use of this versatile herb stop there.  Think egg dishes as well as any type of soft cheese.  Let your imagination soar when it comes to your use of tarragon.

This is another herb that seems to have been made especially to season lamb. If lamb isn't your meat of choice you can still enjoy the flavorful benefits of tarragon with fish, steak and even vegetables.

When you grow this herb though, steer clear of trying to it from seeds.  You just won't have any luck.  Instead, visit your local nursery and buy some small plants.  You'll dig and plant these in early spring, making sure they have lots of room to grow.  In this case, give them at least 18 inches from another.  Yeah, these guys get pretty big.

10. Thyme

Yes, thyme.  And no, I have no idea why we have to spell it this way.  But despite its awkward spelling, and its fame as a starring role in an old Simon and Garfunkel song, thyme is a must grow for any self-respecting herbalist. 

Thyme is a great seasoning for just about any meat.  Rub the chopped fresh leaves (you can use dried as well) onto lamb, pork veal or even beef before you even put them in the oven.

This herb also goes to work for you in various other capacities too  Consider adding it to eggs, or cheese dishes as well as vegetables.  And don't be afraid to experiment with it on your fish or poultry either.  You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Once you've tried all that though, use thyme as a great seasoning for soups, stews, stuffings and even rice.

I even know one person who brews her thyme to make tea. She just adds a bit of rosemary and a sprig of mint to go with it!

Go ahead, you can start this herb from seeds.  Sometime in mid-spring make shallow rows for the seeds about one foot apart.  When the thyme seedlings are established, then you'll thin them out placing them about six inches from each other. 

If you don't feel up to starting thyme from seeds, you'll want to plant your nursery-bought seedlings about mid-spring -- again keeping them at least six inches apart, preferably nine inches if you have the room.

Growing medicinal herbs?

Top 10 healing herbs.

So you want to try to hand at a few of those herbs you've read about -- and used in various forms -- to help improve your health. But, you haven't fully decided about all the plants to be included in your garden.

While you're making that decision, let me supply you with some of the most popular of the herbs.  Not only have I included the herb, and the growing conditions it likes the best, I've also included how it may improve your health.

Here's my "top ten list" of medicinal herbs for gardeners.  Some of these are fairly common, some of them you may not have heard about unless you know your healing herbs -- and a few may come as a surprise to you!

1. Nettles

Easy to grow, the nettles plant family has been used for generations (and then some) as an effective aid against inflammation due to allergies, arthritis and even lupus.  It's also been used successful as a tonic for helping alleviate the symptoms of anemia. And no wonder it's effective.  It's rich in iron and vitamin C.  Herbalists not only use the leaves of this plant, but they also put the roots to good use treating symptoms as well.

But that's not all because the plant is abundant in various antioxidants, as well as flavonoids -- all health-giving properties that medicine is only now beginning to appreciate.

When harvesting this plant for medicinal purposes, you'll want to be sure that the ones you choose are "sticky."  This indicates the presence of resin which is its active healing ingredient.

Sometimes called stinging nettles, you'll want to be sure to wear gloves when you harvest this plant.  It packs a good sting, while harmless, still hurts.  And you'll find that you can harvest nettles several times throughout the year.

Nettles is also a plant that "reseeds" itself, which is wonderful because you'll have access to it all year round.  Be careful where you plant this herb though.  If not pruned back this plant grows to over six feet, which means it may just squeeze out some others in your garden. 

If you begin your first season by growing nettles from seeds, be sure to germinate them for 10 to 14 days even before you place them in the ground.  Keep the seeds at room temperature.  Start your planting in the spring. 

Then transplant the seedlings to an area where they receive full sun and just partial shade.  Keep the plants at least eight inches from each other, and preferably 12 inches.

2.  Calendula

This plant, with its bright flowers, is an important part of any healer's garden.  Never heard of it?  Ah, but I'm betting you've seen it.  You probably called it a marigold.  That's right!  It's also called the calendula and is one of the most versatile healing herbs available.

 Starting with its striking orange bloom, which is used by many as a soothing skin wash, a tea and a salve, this plant is a staple in my herb garden.

The flower is also edible, so feel free to brighten up your next salad by garnishing it with the calendula.  The overall gentle healing qualities of this plant makes it a great ingredient for -- you guessed it -- diaper salves as well as other baby-related skincare items.

Scientific studies show that the calendula may actually help stimulate your immune system and support improved microcirculation -- that is the circulation of your blood right down to those tiny capillaries!

The calendula is easy to grow from seeds.  Plant the seeds early in the spring and cover them lightly with about a quarter-inch of garden soil.  Once the seedlings pop up, you'll want to transplant them so they are about 15 inches from the other.

You'll discover that they germinate early as well as grow quite quickly.  And you'll be pleasantly surprised they produce their very first blooms by mid-summer.

The best part of this wonderful plant is that it reseeds itself.  Once you've planted them the first time, they will grow for years as long as you don't disturb them.

Calendula love rich, well-drained soil, but they're hardy and they can live in just about any type of soil. While these may sound like the perfect herb -- a gorgeous flower, many healing qualities and a hardiness to survive just about any terrain -- the plant does have one drawback.  They attract insects.

Aphids seem especially found of this plant.  But don't let that discourage you.  Simply wash the plant with an insecticidal soap of spray it with a repellant. Before you bring them indoors, make sure you inspect thoroughly for the presence of these insects.

3. Burdock

You may be hard pressed to find this herb in most gardens, but including it in yours will make your garden all that much more distinctive.  Sometimes this herb is referred to as gobo, but if you haven't heard it as either name, I'm not really surprised.

Burdock tea, moreover, is beneficial for your gastrointestinal tract as well as used by many to boost a slacking appetite.  Herbalists have also used this tea to help restore liver function.

Though not native to this country, burdock grows freely in many areas.  It was brought over by the original settlers during early colonial at times.

Most people start burdock from seed.  Start planting in the early spring -- the earlier the better in fact.  Cover the seeds with one half to one quarter inch of find garden soil or seed starting soil.  If the water seems dry when you plant, then you'll want to water it as well.

The seeds germinate quickly, so you should notice some sprouts in about four to seven days. Take the seedlings and thin them until they're about three inches apart, in rows separated by at least two feet. This plant prefers the full sun, but is hardy enough to tolerate some shade as well.

If you're considering growing burdock then you also need to consider the soil in which you place it.  This plant needs a rich well-drained soil.  The soil itself should be loose and definitely free from rocks and stones. 

And that's not just on the surface.  Be sure that the area below this plant for at least several feet in depth is rock-free.  This allows the burdock's root to take hold securely.  And it does have a big, strong root.

And yes, you can eat this herb too.  Pick the leaves when they are quite tender, then cook them just like you would spinach.

If you're planning on using the roots as a medicinal tool, then you'll have to wait for a while.  They take a good long time to grow. Some herbalists say you need to wait about 100 days.  Don't pick the roots before they're two feet long.  Then you simply peel them.  You may either eat the root raw or cook it.  Many people use the root in soups, salads and even in stir fry dinners.

4. Chamomile

This is perhaps one of the best known of all the healing herbs, thanks to the commercialization, marketing and popularity of chamomile tea. You may already buy and drink this tea prior to going to sleep at night, or when your nerves seem agitated.  The plant is best known for its calming effects on the human body.

And more recently, scientific studies coming from England are conferring additional healing powers on this already beloved plant.  Drinking chamomile tea may do more than just make you sleepy.  It could also boost your immune system, making you more resistant to colds and the flu as well as other infections.

But did you realize that you can grow this fascinating herb and make your own tea?  And use the plant in several other ways to help your system?

This herb is easy to grow from seed. It loves the full sun and does well in average soil -- but really thrives in a rich environment.  You'll want to plant your seeds in the spring.  Once they grow into seedlings, thin them to 15 to 18 inches of each other.

They require little care.  When harvesting this herb, you'll want to wait until the flowers reach their peak bloom.  For remedies, you can use the plant either fresh or dried. Drying of the flowers is quite easy by the way.  Simply spread them out in a cool and well-ventilated place. That's all you need to do!

Use the flowers to brew the tea.  You can also add the flowers to other kinds of tea to make a light and refreshing blend.  You can serve this hot or cold, or be imaginative and serve this mixture in a punch.

5. Echinacea

Definitely give this healing herb a chance in your healing garden.  You've no doubt heard about the wonderful properties of this plant.  Echinacea has been noted for the last several years as a powerful booster for your immune system. 

Many individuals take this herb in capsule or tablet form as a supplement, especially during the winter months, to avoid contracting colds  and the flu during the winter months.

This plant, with its large, bright flower is also known as the purple coneflower. There are three distinct varieties of Echinacea:  Echinacea pallid, Echinacea angustifolia and Echinacea pupuea.  All three have similar medicinal effects.

This plant is also used for respiratory infections by many herbalists.  In Europe, it's not unusual for medicinal doctors to prescribe this to their patients for a variety of remedies.

You might think with all these wonderfully effective health benefits, Echinacea would be near impossible to grow (aren't we conditioned to believe there's a catch behind every good thing?).  Well nothing could be further from the truth.  It's actually quite easy to grow.  One of the most amazing aspects of their success is their tolerance for dry conditions.

And you can actually grow this amazing plant from seed with little trouble.  Plant the seeds when your soil reaches between 55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring.

You need do nothing more initially than sow the seeds on the surface.  Within 10 to 20 days, you should notice the seeds germinating. Once this happens, then you'll cover them with about one-eighth of an inch of soil.

When they reach the seedling stage, you'll want to thin the plants so they're about 18 to 24 inches apart. 

This plant prefers shade over full sun.  You may also want to test your soil's pH balance before planting your seeds. This plant prefers neutral soil, with a rating of six to eight.

Echinacea bloom from June to October.  And oh yes, they attract the most beautiful of butterflies!  Even if you don't use the plant for health reasons, its presence in your garden lifts your spirit when you watch the butterflies hover around it!

6. Lavender

No herbal healing garden would be complete without at least a small place dedicated to the lavender.  Lavender is to healing pain what Echinacea is to the immune system:  indispensible!

One of the most effective topical creams I've ever used had lavender as its main herbal ingredient!

The health benefits of lavender are many. In addition to relieving pain, it's noted for it relaxing effects -- the remarkable ability to relieve anxiety.  Partly because of this ability, it's used by many as a "cure" for insomnia as well as a muscle relaxant.

But beyond that, they may be some hard scientific evidence that lavender may also help support healthy blood pressure levels.

If you're not familiar with what the plant looks like, you'll recognize it once you see it.  It has needle-like, foliage that's bluish-grey in color, topped with violet-blue slender-looking flowers.  The long-blooming flowers are sure to delight you throughout the entire growing season.

This plant is, thankfully, drought tolerant, making it easy to care for.  Don't try to start this herb from seed though.  Your best bet is to go to your nursery to buy a flat of small plants that were cuttings from another plant.

 If you insist on trying your hand at starting lavender from seed, then grow the seeds in small pots early in the spring.  The drawback with this method is that the seeds may die before they fully germinate.

Even if you get some seeds to survive, the next obstacle you need to overcome is the slow sprouting of the seeds -- in some cases more than two weeks.  This invites the growth of fungus on the small plants.  In some cases, these poor things actually rot before they get the chance to grow.

Once you have a successful plant in your garden, make sure it's in an area that is well drained.

7. Lemon Balm

Here's another staple of every healing herb garden.  Originally native to southern Europe, lemon balm is now found everywhere on the globe.

Its medicinal traits are similar to those of the mint.  It produces a positive effect on the digestive system, for starters.  This herb is also used to relive pain and discomfort that usually comes with indigestion.  Individuals who suffer from anxiety, nervousness as well as mild insomnia also use this plant with much success.

The most common method of using the medicinal healing powers of this plant is through seeping the leaves for tea.

Part of the mint family, lemon balm grows to be about a foot to a foot and a half tall, and has a small two-lipped flower that blooms in the late summer.  And as you might guess from its name, its leaves have a definite aroma and flavor of lemon.

This marvelous plant is really quite easy to grow outside.  It actually grows in clumps and then spreads vegetatively as well as by seed.  You'll find that in the winter, the stems of the plant will die off, but don't worry about that.  They shot up again on their own the following spring (don't you just love it?)

You can also start growing lemon balm simply by taking stem cuttings or, if you prefer from seed.  But I'm warning you, if the seeds find the right environment, you'll soon have lemon balm everywhere!  Of course, there are worse things to have in your garden.

When you're planting the herb initially, the plants should be placed about 12 or 15 inches apart to give them plenty of "elbowroom."

8. St. John's Wort

Yes, St. John's Wort is not native to the United States, but today you can find it growing along the roadside in many regions where the climate is mild.  This prolific plant normally blooms from late May through September, depending on the climate. 

In fact, its name comes to us because of the timing of its flowering.  It once was believed that the plant bloom on the birthday of St. John the Baptist, June 24.

You probably are already familiar with this plant as a healing herb. Lately its been not only recommended by just about everyone, but scrutinized closely by the medical community.  Its best known healing treat is in the treatment of depression.

By all means, this is one of those perfect plants to try starting by seed.  But if you're not up to that challenge, you can also propagate it through small cuttings or by rooting.  No matter how you choose to start the plant, you'll eventually want to give it at least quite a bit of space so they don't crowd each other out.  You can thin them when the seedlings are about two inches tall.

It really doesn't matter -- for optimum growing purposes -- where you plant this herb.  It'll grow just about anywhere.  It grows well in full to partial sun, but also tolerates the shade well.  It grows best though in moist light soils.

9. Feverfew

The name not familiar?  I'm sure the flower is.  Feverfew, known for centuries as a natural cure for a migraine headache, has a flower that closely resembles the daisy.  White petals with yellow centers, accent the green serrated leaves of this plant.  If left to its own devices, these gorgeous flowers can grow to a height of nearly two feet.

In addition to migraines, many individuals say that using this plant has helped their arthritis and rheumatism.

And the most beautiful aspect of this amazing plant -- it'll bloom just about all summer long. 

And really isn't a fussy plant at all.  Feverfew grows in just about any type of soil.  This makes it the perfect plant to place between stones or pavers on your walkways and paths. 

Go ahead, definitely try starting this plant from seeds.  You'll probably have good luck with this method.  If you're not quite brave enough, that's alright too. Feverfew will catch on and grow from cuttings just as well.

10. Valerian

Never considered this plant as part of your herbal garden?  Perhaps you should give it a second look.  Oh, yes, I know that the first year or two of growing these plants you're not even going to find one flower on them.

And yes, I know they won't be the most pleasantly fragrant herb in your garden.  But if you're a serious herbalist, you'll probably want to include this herb anyway.

Why? It appears to be on versatile healing herb.  But you really don't have to take my word for it.  Herbalists and other healers throughout the ages have been using this plant for a variety of illnesses and health conditions.

Valerian is said to be a great natural treatment for anxiety, as well as nervous tension and restlessness.  It has also been said to help relieve stomach cramps and various digestive disorders.  And that's just the start of what herbalists like about this plant.

Don't let its lack of flowers the first several years deter you from growing this.  Its foliage alone -- without any blooms -- will add texture and color to your garden.

The best method of starting your own plants is by separating the roots and then planting these separately.  Another advantage to growing valerian is that it really isn't particular about where it grows.  It can grow almost anywhere. 

If you've got a damp area in your garden where nothing else grows, try placing a couple plants here.  Or if you have some rocky spots that look empty, valerian plants will fill those nicely too!

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