January 19, 2022
Foragers & Herbalists: Why Herbs Part I
By Merrie Witkin
At this time of year—in the dead of winter—my physical and virtual mailboxes are overflowing with plant and garden catalogues filled with luscious pictures of flowering plants and shrubs, telling me it’s time to plan for the coming spring. So when, after coming in from an afternoon walk and curling up with these catalogues (which I consider a form of “garden porn”), I am seduced into ordering one of the luscious pictured plants, and it arrives four months later as a tiny dormant specimen I think, OMG, will I ever live long enough for this baby to grow into the catalogue picture? Gardening keeps you humble and teaches you patience. But while you are waiting for that amelanchier shrub to settle in and take off, or maybe annoyed that your previous efforts have been eaten by the local fauna, you can have relative success with herbs.
Chances are, if you are reading this column you’re already interested in gardening and may have an herb garden. So I may be preaching to the choir. If you are a gardener (beginner or otherwise) and do not already have a patch where you grow herbs, you should consider adding one.
What, exactly, is an herb? The botanical definition is a non-woody plant that dies back each winter. But that covers a lot of ground, figuratively speaking, and many perennial herbs do develop woody stems over time. Historically, herbs are understood as those plants (or plant parts) that have been used for culinary, medicinal or aromatic purposes. The difference between herbs and spices depends on the part of the plant used: the leaf or other green plant parts are considered the herb, while any other part of the plant used to season or flavor a dish would be considered a spice, including the berries, seeds, roots, or dried bark. Herbs are classified as being either annual, biennial or perennial, depending on whether they need to grow from seed each year or come back from overwintering crowns, roots, or bulbs.
So why add herbs to your garden?
So what works well in our zones?
Chives. A member of the allium family, chives are hardy, drought-tolerant, and add a subtle oniony flavor to dishes. They are recognizable by their long, thin, round and hollow leaf stems, and purple-pink clover-like edible flowers in mid-summer. Their flowers attract bees, but if left to fade, they can self seed and spread.
Lavender. A woody-stemmed perennial that has long been a favorite of gardeners for its pungent, long-lasting fragrance and insect repellent properties (explaining its popularity as a “strewing herb” in the Middle Ages). It is more often grown for its fragrant flowers than its culinary use, although it is a staple in the French herb mixture, Herbs de Provence. Lavender requires full sun and well draining soil, but once established it will perfume your garden and attract legions of bees as well as butterflies. Select varieties such as Munstead grow well in our zone, but some of the French or Provençal varieties are not reliably hardy here.
Mint. One of the most widely used herbs in the world, there are many varieties of mint and they thrive in most locations. The most commonly used varieties are spearmint and peppermint. They are fast growing, and thrive in partial shade with moderately rich soils. However they can become rampant through root spread, which can be controlled by planting in a contained area or using bottomless cans or pots sunk into the soil at least 10 inches deep.
Oregano and Marjoram. Closely related, oregano (from the Greek oros ganos, meaning “joy of the mountain”) is known as wild marjoram. Oregano has a slightly sharper flavor. Both grow in a shrubby habit and can reach up to two feet high, depending on the variety. Both need full sun and well drained soil. They are staple seasonings for Italian and Greek cuisine.
Rosemary. A perennial evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves, rosemary is not reliably hardy in our zones but grows well in containers so that it can be brought indoors to overwinter. Rosemary has an intense piney aroma, and can grow from 4 to 6 feet tall, with some varieties having a trailing habit making them attractive for cascading over walls or hanging pots.
Sage. An easy to grow shrubby perennial, it’s savory aromatic leaves are renowned for seasoning stuffings, sausages and cheeses. It’s botanical name, Salvia officinalis, means to save or heal, and it was used medicinally as an aid to digestion and for its antiseptic and antifungal properties. Like most of the perennial herbs that have adapted to our climate zones, sage needs full sun and well drained soil.
Savory. There are two types of savory— one grown as an annual (summer savory) and a related perennial (winter savory). Winter savory has a slightly stronger flavor than summer savory, and both are valuable additions to herb blends, and as seasoning for beans, poultry and egg dishes. Savory requires full sun and well drained, alkaline soil.
Tarragon. An elegant, pungent herb, closely associated with classic French cuisine and its famous sauces. Tarragon leaves have a flavor reminiscent of anise, and its leaves are used both fresh and dried in cooking; it is one of the French “fine herbs”, along with chives, parsley and chervil. Grow in full sun and well drained soil, in a sheltered spot if possible. When purchasing starter plants be sure you are purchasing French tarragon, and not the Russian variety which has no culinary value.
Thyme. A beloved culinary herb, thyme is recognizable by its small, strongly aromatic leaves and twiggy stems. There are many varieties, including the citrusy fragrant lemon thyme, and all are comparatively low growing (up to 12 inches high) spreading herbs that work well as underplants for roses, flowering vines and other flowering plants, and with creeping varieties making good ground covers. Thyme takes well to shearing, which helps keep it from getting woody. It requires full sun and well drained, preferably alkaline, soil.
Check back next month for the second segment on Herb Gardening to read more about Annual and Biennial Herbs as well as site selection and planting!
There are many books devoted to herbs, their cultivation and culinary and medicinal uses. My personal references (collected over many years) include:
Bremens, Lesley, ed., Herbs, 1990, RD Home Handbooks.
Hutchison, Frances, ed., Garden Herbs, 2003, Barnes & Noble Gardeners Handbooks.
Lust, John, The Herb Book, 1974, Bantam Books.
Miloradovich, Milo, The Art of Cooking with Herbs and Spices, 1950, Doubleday & Company.
Reliable online information can be found on state university extension sites, including:
Iowa State University (https://hortnews.extension.iastate.edu);
University of Illinois Extension (https://web.extension.Illinois.edu/herbs) Information on pollinator pathway gardens: