Spices and Herbs for the Home Garden

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Lemon Balm
People have prized the aromatic, medicinal, and flavouring characteristics of herbs for over 4,500 years. Wormwood, elderberry, hemlock, and other herbs were used by the ancient Egyptians as early as 1600 BC. Although most herbs have been used primarily for cooking and as scents to enhance our environment, there has been a resurgent interest in medicinal uses of herbs and their decorative qualities in an edible ornamental garden.

Herbs and Spice Definitions

The term "herb" has many definitions. It is often defined botanically as an annual, biennial, or perennial that does not produce persistent woody tissue. This, however, would leave out many aromatic trees and shrubs that are often used as herbs. A broader definition might be any plant or plant part that is used for its culinary, cosmetic, medicinal, or aromatic qualities. Spices tend to be more aromatic or fragrant than herbs and have a pungent taste. Spices are generally produced from flowers, fruit, seeds, roots, or bark, while herbs are generally made of fresh or dried leaves, although there are some exceptions.

Growing Conditions

A 10-ft by 12-ft area generally supplies ample space for an herb garden for an average-sized family. It is wise to devote one side of the garden to perennials and biennials and the other side to annuals, which need to be replaced each year. Many herbs, however, are well suited to an edible landscape where their dual natures can be exploited. Good examples include perennial sage with its purple flowers and savoury leaves; and Florence fennel whose long, fern-like aromatic leaves surround stems topped with small, yellow flowers.
Soil for an herb garden should be well prepared. Early in the spring, fertilise the soil with a balanced fertiliser and ample quantities of compost. Bed design varies according to the mature sizes of the select plants and the watering technique applied.
Planting depth and distance between plants varies with herbs.

Preparing Herbs and Spices

For curing, stems, flowers, and leaves can be tied together in small bundles and hung upside down in a dry, shady location (such as a garage, shed, or kitchen) until dry. Leaves and flowers can be dried in shallow trays placed in the shade. Dry leaves and flowers can then be pulverised by rubbing them between the palms and hands. Store in airtight glass containers in the dark. Seeds from plants like coriander, anise, and dill, can be collected by placing the dry heads in a paper sack and separating the seeds by hand.

Descriptions of Herbs and Spices

The following descriptions can be helpful in selecting herbs to be grown in a small area.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica). A biennial or perennial plant up to 8 ft tall. Often called wild celery, angelica has purplish, hollow stems. Umbel-shaped flower head with small white to greenish flowers. Prefers moist, well-drained, rich soil and partial shade. Seeds require light (do not cover seed) and 62°F to germinate. Add leaves to soups, stews, salads, and fish for flavour.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum). Often referred to as sweet basil, this annual grows up to 2 ft tall. Leaves are very fragrant. Prefers moist, well-drained, rich soil and full sun. Germination is optimum at 75/85°F. Has a rich, mildly spicy flavour. Use fresh leaves for maximum flavour in tomato sauces, salads, vinegar's, and eggs, and on lamb, fish, and poultry. Add dry leaves to potpourris and sachets for indoor fragrance. Other species of basil vary in colour, form, flavour, and fragrance.

Bay (Laurus nobilis). A medium sized evergreen tree that can grow to 21ft, although will successfully live in a pot for a number of years. Half hardy, it should be brought indoors where frost is likely. Can be used as a topiary subject. Bay leaves are best used fresh to flavour marinades, soups, sauces, stews and meat dishes.

Borage (Borago officinalis). An annual, 1-1/2 to 2 ft tall with hollow stems and numerous greyish green, hairy leaves up to 6 inches long. Star-shaped blue flowers. Prefers rich, moist, sandy loam soils and full sun. Easily grown from seed. Has a crisp, cucumber-like flavour. Leaves can be used in teas and salads, and cooked as greens. Leaves have also been used by some herbalists as bandages to soothe external inflammations.

Caraway (Carum carvi). Annual and biennial types grow to 2 ft tall with small, white flowers. Prefers sandy loam soils with full sun to slight shade. Easily propagated directly from seed. Seeds commonly used to flavour rye breads, salads, soups, and sauerkraut. Leaves also are popular in salads, soups, and stews. Roots can be steamed, chopped, and used in soups and stews as well.

Catnip (Nepta cataria). Grey-green perennial that can reach a height of 1 to 3 ft. Soft, white fuzz covers leaves and stems. Flowers are white with purple-pink markings. Germination takes place in 20 days at 67°F, but propagation is easier using cuttings. Likes sandy, well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Dry leaves and flower heads can be used to make tea to aid digestion and sleep.

Chamomile, Roman (Chamaemulum nobile). A low-growing perennial that can reach a height of 9 inches. Leaves are feather-like with downy fuzz. Daisy-like flowers have yellow disks with silver-white to cream coloured rays. Has fresh apple scent. Seeds require 15 days at 65°F for germination. Easier to propagate from mother-plant offshoots. Flowers used to make tea. Plant extracts also are used in various lotions, ointments, and inhalations.

Chervil (Arthriscus cerefolium). A hardy annual plant (plain and curly types) with fern-like leaves reaching a height of 1ft. Flowers are small and white. Likes moist soils with ample quantities of organic matter. Prefers partial shade. Leaves used as a seasoning for soups, stews, and salads. Sprigs popular as garnish.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus). A deep-rooted perennial with dandelion-like blue flowers. Grows to a height of 3ft. Propagated from seed in most soils. Prefers full sun. Fresh leaves can be cooked like spinach, used in salads, or sautéed. Dry roots can be used as a substitute for coffee.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum). A perennial plant with small bulbs and hollow green leaves that can reach a height of 12 to 18 inches. Forms clumps of plants that periodically have to be separated. Seeds germinate slowly at a temperature of 60/70°F. Forms small, purple flowers during second year after seeding. Prefers well-drained, moderately fertile soil and full sun. Fresh, minced leaves are used to season many cooked vegetables. Also adds flavour to poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese sauces.

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea). A biennial plant with square, fuzzy stems reaching a height of 2ft. The plant's pleasant, balsam-like fragrance is popular in both the garden and sachets or potpourris. Prefers sandy loam, well-drained soil and full sun. Flowers vary from purple to white. Tea is used for upset stomach. Fresh or dried leaves can be used to flavour eggs, soups, poultry, and salads. Flowers can be used as a garnish.

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum). A bright green, hairless annual plant reaching a height of 1 to 3 ft with small, pinkish flowers. Prefers sandy loam soils with ample organic matter and full sun to partial shade. Minced leaves have a strong citrus taste and are often used to flavour many foods and salsas. Ground seeds are used to flavour gingerbread, biscuits, pastries, baked apples, and pears.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). A herbaceous perennial with yellow flowers often found in lawns. Grows 6" to 1ft tall. Younger leaves used in salads, older leaves steamed like spinach. Roasted roots used as substitute for coffee, similar to chicory. Flowers can be made into wine.

Dill (Anethum graveolens). A biennial plant with taproot similar to a carrot. Can reach a height of 2 to 3ft with blue-green feathery leaves. Numerous yellow flowers make up a flat head. Prefers well-drained, moist soil and full sun. Leaves used in fresh salads. Seeds can be ground or used whole to flavour various meats, eggs, cheese, and vegetable dishes.

Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia). A perennial, multi-stemmed plant that grows to a height of 1 to 3ft. Stems covered with bristly hairs. Pink/red honey scented daisy like flowers with purplish cone-shaped centres. Likes well-drained, fertile soil and full sun to light shade. Roots are black and contain an antibiotic that helps heal wounds.

Elderberry (Sambucus). A deciduous shrub that reaches a height of 12ft. White flowers in clusters produce purple to black, juicy berries. Prefers fertile, moist soil and full sun to partial shade. Purplish berries are popular in jams and wine. Makes an excellent ornamental shrub.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). A perennial plant that is often grown as an annual. The blue-green plant has erect, smooth stems that often reach a height of 3 to 4ft. The small, yellow flowers are borne in a compound umbel. Likes well drained soil and full sun. Fresh leaves are popular in salads, herb butters, and on vegetables, fish, cheese, and eggs. Tender stems can be eaten like celery. Seeds can be ground or used whole for flavouring.

Garlic (Allium sativum). A hardy perennial reaching a height of 2ft. Produces segmented bulbs with flat, solid leaves. Bulbs are composed of 5-16 cloves enclosed in a white or purplish parchment-like outer sheath. Prefers well-drained, rich soil and full sun to partial shade. Used as an antibiotic and as seasoning to flavour various foods including herb butters, casseroles, stews, soups, meats, fish, poultry, pickles, and vinegar.

Ginger (Zingiber officinale). A perennial plant grown for its tuberous roots. It can reach a height of upto 2m in hot areas and bears spikes of white flowers with purple streaks.It can be grown successfully outdoors in warm, frost free temperate areas. Dried and powdered ginger is used in sweet dishes and cakes. Often considered to safeguard against marauding tigers!!

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare). A perennial plant that reaches a height of 1 to 2ft. Stems woolly and bushy. Likes deep, sandy loam soils and full sun. Used in sweets and teas to soothe coughs.

Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis). A compact perennial growing to a height of 2 to 3ft. Very aromatic with blue to purple flowers occurring in spikes. Flowers can be used to make a mild expectorant tea. Minty leaves and flowers are used to flavour soups, salads, stews, and poultry.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia). A bushy, perennial shrub that grows to height of 3 ft. Purple flowers occur in spikes. Prefers well-drained, sandy loam soil and full sun. Generally propagated from cuttings, but can be grown from seed. Seeds require 30 days to germinate at 65°F or higher. Seeds should be stored moist in a refrigerator for 3 days before germination. Leaves and flowers can be used as condiments and for teas. Can also be used in wreaths, dried flower arrangements, sachets, and potpourris. Excellent ornamental in garden.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis). A perennial plant with square stems and small white flowers. Reaches a height of 2ft. Prefers rich, moist soil and full sun to part shade. Very aromatic, lemon-like scent. Fresh leaves are used in fruit salads, iced tea and summer drinks. Can be used in cooking as an emergency substitute for lemon.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale). A perennial plant with hollow, ribbed stems like celery growing to height of 5 ft. Prefers fertile, well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. Its celery-flavoured leaves are used fresh in salads or used dry in soups, stews, and sauces. Stems can be cooked and eaten. Seeds can be ground or used whole for pickling, cheese spreads, sauces, and salads.

Majoram. See Sweet Majoram and Oregano (Wild Majoram)

Sweet Marjoram (Origanum hortensis). A highly aromatic plant that can reach a height of about 2ft. Majoram is grown for its sweet and spicy, small grey-green leaves. The flowers are tiny white clusters from which the plant gets another common name of "Knotted Majoram". Leaves can be used fresh or dried for savoury foods. Majoram works especially well with tomatoes and is excellent with many meats. For medicinal use, infuse as tea for colds and headaches.

Oregano, Wild Marjoram (Origanum vulgare). Oregano has a sharper flavour than Sweet Majoram. It has a sprawling habit and grows to about 2ft tall, with dark green, oval leaves and small white or pink flowers. The leaves are used fresh or dried, mainly in Mediterranean dishes.

Mint (Mentha). A perennial with square stems and spreading roots. It grows to a height of 2-ft. Prefers rich, moist soils and full sun to partial shade. Beware, all types within the Mentha species are rampant spreaders by means of underground runners, grow in a pot to prevent spreading. Numerous species with various scents. Used to calm upset stomach and relieve muscle spasms. Leaves are used in jellies, sauces, and teas, as well as for flavouring vegetables and various sweets.

Nasturtium(Tropaeolum majus). A low growing, annual that reaches a height of 1 ft. Leaves are saucer-shaped; red to yellow flowers. Prefers moist, well-drained soil and full sun. Grown from seed planted early in the spring. Fresh leaves and flowers give a peppery taste to salads. Excellent ornamental in garden.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum). A biennial plant growing to height of about 1ft. Leaf blades can be flat or curled, depending on variety. Prefers fertile, well-drained, moist soil and full sun to partial shade. Soak the seeds overnight in warm water to speed up germination. Leaves and stems are used as garnish in salads and as a condiment. An excellent source of vitamin C, calcium, and iron.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). A perennial evergreen that varies in height from 2 to 5 ft depending on cultivar. Has green, needle-like leaves and pale blue flowers. Plants are generally propagated from cuttings or by layering. Can be propagated from seed, but germination is very slow (25 days at 65°F). Leaves used for tea and as flavouring for beef and pork.

Sage (Saliva officinalis). A hardy 2ft perennial with woody stems and white to purple flowers. Leaves look pebbly and greyish green in colour with velvet-like texture. Propogate from cuttings. Leaves are used to flavour soups, stews, sausage, roasted meats, poultry, pork, and vegetables. Attracts bees and makes an excellent ornamental in the garden.

Savory (Satureja). The most popular species are S. hortensis (summer savory) and S. montana (winter savory). Summer savory is an annual with fuzzy stems. Winter savory is a semi- evergreen perennial with a woody base that forms a compact bush. Both reach a height of 1-1/2 ft and prefer full sun. Winter savory is strongly aromatic, while summer savory has a slightly sweeter aroma. Summer Savory is traditionally used to flavour bean dishes, herb butters and vinegars and has a sweet, spicy flavour with a hint of Thyme. Winter Savory has a sharper more pepperer taste and is used for flavouring meat casseroles and roasts.

Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). A perennial plant that reaches a height of about 3ft. Leaves are very aromatic. Prefers well-drained, fertile, soil and full sun. Propagate by dvision in early spring, as this plant produces no seeds. Do not use Artemisia dracunulordes (Russian Tarragon) as this is flavourless. Use fresh leaves sparingly in fresh salads or combine with various French sauces. Also used to flavour meat, fish, poultry, various vegetables, vinegar's, soups, cheeses, eggs, and herb butters.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). A perennial plant reaching a height of 12 inches. Many branched, aromatic shrub with lilac to pink flowers. Prefers light, well drained soil and full sun. Propogate by division or layer stems. Used to flavour cough medicines. Leaves are used in salads as garnishes and as flavouring for poultry, fish, meat, butters, and vinegars.
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