MARCH 2004

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The Herb Lady

by Nadine Johnson

Beginner’s herb garden

My gardening days are in the past but I have not forgotten the pleasure I derived from this productive hobby. This column is about the plants I would choose if I were planting a beginner’s herb garden. 

At the top of my list would be onion chives (A. schoenoprasum), garlic chives (A.tuberosum) and garlic (A. sativum). These relatives are called Alliums. They head my list as I think they’re almost necessary for any good cook. 

Onion chives is an old culinary favorite. The tubular leaves and pink, ball shaped flowers can both be used in seasoning. This is a hardy perennial with an average height of twelve inches. 

Garlic chives has flat blade-like leaves and white flowers. It grows as high as two feet. One must be careful in planting so that these low growing herbs will not be shaded out by taller plants. 

If started from seed it takes at least a year for either of these two chives to reach maturity. If potted plants are purchased they can be transferred to garden soil at any time of year. 

Garlic should be planted in the fall of the year. Each clove planted and grown to maturity will produce an entire bulb (or cluster of cloves). Elephant garlic will produce a much larger bulb than regular garlic, therefore it’s my favorite. Soon after planting in September the cloves sprout blade-like leaves which can be used in food preparation all winter long. These leaves usually reach from two to three feet in height. By mid April (here in central Alabama) garlic begins to flower. Often the flower spikes reach a height of five feet. Fully opened, ball shaped, whitish blooms are often five inches in diameter. 

Soon after flowering, the garlic plants turn brown, wither, and gradually disappear from sight. At this point some people dig the bulbs and dry them for later use. I never did that. Instead I left my garlic in the ground and dug a bulb whenever needed. I never had to replant garlic. In fact, I still have a garlic bed in my back yard. Each fall it springs forth with renewed vigor to repeat its growing cycle. 

All alliums grow best in rich, loamy garden soil with full sun and moderate moisture. 

Basils are a group of herbs with delightful aromas. They come from a number of countries around the world. The best known is sweet basil (Ocinum basilicum). It is one of the most commonly used herbs in the cuisines of many countries. 

For a beginner’s garden I’d plant both sweet basil and flat leaf opal basil (O. basilicum purpurescens). Both of these varieties grow to an average size of three by three feet. Basils enjoy the same growing conditions as tomatoes. In fact basil and tomatoes are good companions – both in the garden and in the kitchen. No culinary herb garden is complete without sweet bay (Laurus nobilis). While this evergreen shrub or tree is small, it can easily be container grown with winter protection. This is important since the plant is not entirely winter hardy here in this weather zone. Ten years ago, I planted one under a pine tree. The pine was destroyed by Hurricane Opal. Now the bay is protected by a young live oak. It receives plenty of morning sun but is protected from wind, frost and other severe weather. Sweet bay is native to the Mediterranean area where it grows to a height of up to 60 feet. It’s doubtful that mine will ever reach that height in this area of the world. 

I would plant Vietnamese coriander (Polygonum Odoratum) instead of cilantro/coriander/Chinese parsley (Coriandrum sativum). Vietnamese coriander is much easier to have available year round as a fresh substitute for cilantro (the green herb). Whenever coriander (the seed) is needed I’d purchase some from my grocer’s spice counter. 

Vietnamese coriander looks and grows much like the ornamental plant we call “Wandering Jew.” It makes a very attractive hanging basket planting. It grows best in semi- shade with plenty of water. Use it in any recipe which calls for cilantro. 

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is very easy to grow. It is an annual which grows well in rich garden soil with full sun and average water. It reaches a height of three to four feet. If seed are allowed to dry on the plant and fall to the ground, new plants will automatically appear the next spring. It is an early grower. Usually by mid summer fresh dill is no longer available in our gardens. The fresh or dried leaves, flowers and seed are all used in our foods. For those of you who wish fresh dill for pickles, here’s a suggestion. If your cucumbers are not ready when your dill is mature, gather dill and preserve it in vinegar until needed. I’ve done this and it worked fine. I’ll continue with more about a beginner’s herb garden next month. 

Nadine Johnson is a resident of Goshen, Alabama, a member of the Goshen Farmers Co-op and a long time user and promoter of wise herb use. Her telephone number is 334/484-3580. Her email is [email protected].



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Date Last Updated January, 2006