Good to Grow: A little history, gardening and folklore on herbs

As published in the Charleston Gazette.

My first kitchen garden was truly just that … a few pots hanging on the railing outside my kitchen door. I loved it! I felt like a gourmet cook, stepping out the door and snipping plants, then adding them to my dish.

My garden has grown, and I still love the ease of growing herbs. To start, pick a spot with five to six hours of daily sun and well-drained soil. Herbs love organic matter.

A good rule of thumb when beginning an herb container: use three-parts potting soil to one-part sand; this will aid in drainage. As always, if planting in a container, layer a few rocks in the bottom to keep the plant roots from sitting in wet soil. If planting directly into a garden bed, try adding peat moss and dig deep, at least one foot to amend the soil.

When it comes to fertilizing and caring for herbs, never spray with a pesticide. Bone meal or compost make good fertilizers, or a 5-10-5 (nitrogen, phosphate and potash) combo if buying a mix. Here’s the CliffsNotes on the three common ingredients: nitrogen helps the plant “green up,” phosphate creates healthy roots and potash or potassium helps the plant with disease resistance.

Sweet basil is planted for love (and pesto). This short-lived annual is from the mint family and grows to about 24 inches tall. It loves the full morning sun. As with most herbs, it is grown for the foliage, so pinch the blooms. The more you harvest your plant, the more it will produce.

Don’t be afraid of a deep prune once a month. You will be rewarded with a robust plant. Basil pairs with tomatoes — I even put the leaves in iced tea. Purple basil makes beautiful bottles of flavored vinegar. There is even a basil/Harry Potter connection with the serpent monster Basilisk.

Speaking of the mint family, mint is the herb of hospitality and welcoming. Spearmint is cooling and often used to flavor chewing gum. Peppermint is known for menthol and Cuban mint is used for mojitos.

Beware, mint is invasive. I strongly suggest planting it in a container. It grows by rhizomes and will quickly take over your garden space. That said, there is nothing like fresh mint for your drinks, and salads. Harvest in the late afternoon by cutting the stems.

In Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” Shakespeare made many references to rosemary throughout his work. In my garden, rosemary is an annual. In warmer climates, rosemary grows in bushes. The leaves and stems dry easily for use over the winter. This is a plant I love to brush against and enjoy the oils as they are released in the air.

Oregano is from the Mediterranean region and was brought back home by World War II soldiers. This plant with its small square leaves, when worn as a crown during a wedding, will ensure couples a long marriage. For culinary purposes, oregano pairs well with onions, tomatoes and dry wine.

Thyme is the herb of courage. In ancient times, thyme was given to soldiers to bring them courage as they went to battle. I grow creeping thyme as ground cover and a pollinator. This perennial covers the sunny bank off my lower deck, and I have fun on lazy days watching the bees buzz around the blooms. This is also the herb my silly pup loves to roll around in.

When buying or planting parsley, you may notice curly and flat leaf varieties. Flat leaf parsley is more flavorful and what I use when cooking. I chop and add it to rice, potatoes, sauces and other dishes. It is also a primary ingredient in tabbouleh. For an easy salad dressing, bruise the leaves, then add lemon and oil.

The curly leaf is pretty, but can be tough, I use it mostly for garnish. Parsley is a biennial, meaning under the right circumstances it will have a two-year life span, but I usually plant it every year.

Fun fact about coriander — it’s the oldest herb ever recorded. It was even found in Egyptian tombs, but that’s not what blew my mind. Just when you think you have grasp of understanding, along comes the fact that coriander and cilantro are the same! How did I not know this? The leaves and stems are what we call cilantro and the seeds are coriander.

The plant’s Latin name is Coriandrum sativum, so it’s an easy jump to coriander, while cilantro is the Spanish translation of the word coriander. The seeds grow in the flower of this annual plant.

There are so many different avenues to take when talking about herbs — culinary, medicinal, mythology and history. We have just touched on a few highlights. The Herb Society of America and the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., are great resources when delving into herbs.

Talk with local herb growers at your farmers markets. I must give thanks to a friend and local herb legend, Kathy Muehlman for sharing her time and knowledge as I began to write about herbs. Kathy sure knows her herbs.

When planting herbs, my take-aways would be to pick a sunny spot, create good drainage, and know you are growing for the foliage, so use them and prune them often. Be part of history, folklore, and the culinary world by creating your own herb garden.