A Garden for Your Senses
A well-designed herb garden will smell wonderful and look beautiful. The butterflies attracted to your herbs are a lovely bonus. Fresh-grown herbs greatly enhance the flavors in your cooking, and if they are at hand, you'll learn new ways to use them. If I don't have flowers in my cutting garden, I trim some of my rosemary or lavender branches to use as a fragrant, green bouquet.
Over the millennia, humans have gathered and grown culinary and medicinal herbs. Garlic (Allium sativum)and onions (A. cepa)have been in cultivation for over 5,000 years. Garlic doesn't produce seeds and appears to be unknown in the wild. Onion seeds were found in the Egyptian pyramids. American colonists brought their indispensable herbs to the New World. Think about how limited their luggage must have been because of the small size of the boats back then. The fact that they made room for their essential herbs, both plants and seeds, for their new homes is noteworthy.
First a little background:
Culinary herbs are those aromatic plants used to flavor our foods. Without them, our food would be bland indeed, but many herbs also make great additions to our flower gardens. A rosemary bush (Rosemarinus officinalis) might be just the right plant for a hot, sunny corner where many typical garden plants would suffer under the Floridian sun. Creeping thyme (Thymus vulgaris) makes a good, salt-tolerant groundcover for small places like between flagstones with the added benefit of releasing its fragrance as you step on it.
North Florida's climate with its hot summers is similar to the Mediterranean area. Many of our most beloved herbs are native or naturalized to this region. If you look at the typical contents of the "Herbes de Provence," that gourmet herb mixture, you'll find your favorites: basil (Ocimum basilicum), thyme, lemon thyme, oregano (Origanum vulgare), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), marjoram (Origanum majorana), summer savory (Satureja hortensis), rosemary, bay leaf (Laurus nobilis), lavender buds (Lavandula angustifolia), fennel seeds (Foeniculum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis), and maybe garlic. This dried mixture may extend the taste of summer year round, but oh the tang of fresh herbs is hard to beat.
When we moved to Florida two years ago, I pictured a classic herb garden or kitchen garden by the back door. This mostly sunny, west side of the house was a perfect spot for herbs. That first spring I pulled out the suffering rose bushes that the previous owner had planted there, bought herb seeds and a rosemary plant, and waited for my perfect herb garden to develop.
My results were spotty: the rosemary plant and the basil did very well, but the dill and parsley did not. What I'd failed to consider is the heat of our summer nights is not conducive to growing the cooler weather herbs. This year I've finally learned that even though the seeds are displayed together on the rack, they may need to be planted at different times here in Florida.
Florida's herb seasons
One way to get a good head start with your herbs is to buy plants instead of seeds, and a reputable Florida nursery will offer the plants in their proper seasons. The other big advantage to this method is that you may shop with your nose. Brush your fingers lightly over the leaves and put the plant right under your nose. You'll find that the intensity of the odors varies from one plant to the next. If the plants are equally healthy with good white roots, purchase the ones with the most fragrance.
Group the herbs with similar requirements together, both in the garden and in your containers. Create a pot for a sunny spot with sage as the focal point surrounded by creeping thyme and a couple of oregano plants. A pot with a variety of mints will do well in a shadier location and a richer soil mixture.
An herb garden can be an informal cottage or kitchen garden with a mixture of flowers and herbs arranged closely together in groupings, not rows. You may also create a more formal garden with neat rows and small hedges. Here in Florida you might plant a rosemary hedge instead of the traditional (and stinking) boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). This way you can have your hedge and eat it too. The formal arrangement will require more of your time because of the clipping and maintenance required to keep it in shape. Either way, be sure to include stepping stones or mulched pathways so you have easy access to all areas. As you plant perennials like chives and sage directly in the ground, think about grouping them where they won't be in the way when you prepare the soil to plant your basil and other annuals each season.
To attract butterflies include parsley in your herb garden and let some of your plants flower. Don't get upset if you find that you are sharing your herbs with some caterpillars--they are, of course, going to become beautiful butterflies or moths. Herbs will recover well from a caterpillar attack, but if there are too many for you, just pick them off. You never need insecticide for herbs. Also most herbs don't need extra fertilizer: if they grow too fast from over-fertilization, they may not develop as much fragrance.
Think about the proximity to your kitchen and to your nose when arranging your herbs. Various pots artfully arranged on your patio or deck, hanging baskets, or raised beds will tempt you to rub the leaves each time you walk by. My three-foot high rosemary bush is located just outside the back door. More times than not, I just can't help myself and stroke one of its branches as I round that corner.
So cater to your senses and start an herb garden this year.
Ginny Stibolt would like to hear from readers who have suggestions and questions. After all, there are more than a few transplanted gardeners here in northeast Florida trying to figure out what works and what doesn't in planting zone 8/9. She's in the process of writing a book, "Sustainable Gardening for Florida," to be published by University Press of Florida.