Fun with Herbs in the Garden. See them Bolt!

After several weeks, and an unimaginable amount of research, I have documented the plants in my garden. Herbs, perennials, bulbs, shrubs, trees, ground covers, natives and vines. They have all been identified, scrutinized and documented using their Latin and common names. The total number of unique plant names, so far: 136.

I started keeping track of new plants a few months ago, but that left almost two years of unidentified plants, volunteer plants that just show up unannounced, divisions from fellow gardeners I didn’t document, or what appeared to be a dead stem in the ground that turns out to be a successful rooting project I have long since forgotten.

The result of this journaling project is that I know more about my garden than I ever would have otherwise. I’ve looked out the window a million times to take stock of a newly identified specimen. Is it in the ideal spot? Is it growing the way it’s supposed to be growing? Sometimes I decide things are coming along swimmingly, and sometimes I’d like to rip out every plant and start over. I’ve also realized a pattern in my plant choices. The one plant group that never seems to disappoint my garden is the herbs.

Herbs are possibly the most forgiving plant among them all. They tolerate drought, abuse and downright neglect. And a garden devoted only to herbs can be as beautiful as any other garden you’ll see.

Oregano and peppermint were the first perennial herbs in my garden. In a moment of desperation, I planted them in the front of the house as placeholders until I could find something I liked better. They’re still there today and divisions from those two plants have filled in all around the rest of the garden and even the flower boxes.

There’s also chives, thyme, allium, lavender, rosemary, ajuga, foxglove, anise hyssop, catnip, evening primrose, several varieties of sage, elder, chrysanthemum, garlic, blue flag iris, horsetail, Solomon’s seal, artemisia, bergamot, honeysuckle, yarrow, and a few (unwanted) dandelions.

Sweet woodruff, oregano, sage, artemisia, catnip, chamomile, corsican mint and rue make excellent ground covers that are evergreen, flowering or both.

Bronze fennel has dramatic feathery leaves with a mix of blue-green and bronze hues. Its yellow flowers are tiny but prolific. Of course, the plant is as well. Horseradish is another perennial that grows into large clumps of floppy, glossy-green leaves with stems of small white flowers.

Bay (Laurus Nobilis or Bay Laurel) is a slow grower but can eventually reach 40 -50 feet creating a handsome tree or fragrant hedge. Juniper is a tall evergreen with blue-green foliage and silvery blue berries that are used to flavor gin, if that happens to be on the menu. Yew has been investigated as a cancer drug, but it’s also an excellent evergreen hedge of medium height.

Last year I planted oregano around the iris to control the aphids that had ruthlessly attacked them the year before. Then I learned lavender repels fleas and moths so I planted more than a dozen all around.

Catnip keeps out aphids, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, ants, and weevils. Artemisia produces a strong antiseptic smell that repels almost every insect. Garlic repels aphids when planted close by rose bushes.

I became infatuated with yarrow this winter while pouring over the seed catalogs and ultimately planted two varieties.

Yarrow is referred to as “life medicine” since it was once used to cure everything from toothaches to inflammation and allergies. In modern medicine, salicylic acid is extracted from this plant and used as an element in Aspirin. It’s also good for the garden since it attracts predatory insects and its chemical properties actually improve poor soil. Some sources suggest it can be used as a lawn alternative in sunny areas with little foot traffic.

You may soon realize the most recurring descriptive word among this group of plants is prolific . . . . . .

There are two books in my personal library dedicated to growing herbs: Herbs by Emelie Tolley and Chris Mead and Herbs for the Home by Jekka McVicar who grows 300 varieties of herbs in her nursery. Both books were written many years ago, but they are a wealth of information and garden inspiration.

Jekka McVicar’s book includes data on all the favorite herbs, as well as the most useful and garden-worthy varieties, including the history of the plant, species, maintenance, various uses, warnings and garden cultivation.

Her description of horsetail is a cautionary tale for herbs in general: “If grown in open ground unconfined, horsetail becomes a permanent inhabitant and is only eradicated with great difficulty. The only sane way to grow horsetail is in a container.”

Despite what my husband believes, not all herbs will take over the garden, especially if you also use them in the kitchen. (Chives, mums, elder, rosemary and lavender are examples of herbs that have a somewhat mounding rather than spreading habit.)

Fresh herbs can be substituted for dry herbs in most recipes, although it doesn’t always work the same way in reverse. Since fresh herbs aren’t as strong as dried herbs, the rule of thumb is to use 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs for each teaspoon of dried herbs, or 3 to 1.

Also, it’s best to avoid combining two strong herbs such as sage and rosemary. Or when you use a strong and a delicate herb in the same dish, keep the most aromatic herb to a minimum so the more delicate one doesn’t become overpowered. You have only to add too much of one herb to know how devastating the effect can be (substitute ‘person’ for ‘herb’ and that’s sage advice for humans too 😊).

Some herbs (and vegetables) will flower if you don’t use them regularly. Flowering transfers the plant’s resources from the foliage to setting seed, which may alter the flavor of the leaves. Herbs, such as artemisia, just look better by pinching flowers off as they develop. Although there are a few herbs that look good, taste good and flower all at the same time.

Basil, thyme, marjoram and oregano can produce flowers without it having affected their flavor. In some cases, you can eat the flowers too. They’ll look pretty on the plate even though they don’t have much flavor. Mint flowers are edible and don’t change the flavor of mint. The same with chives and parsley.

Maybe the herb’s most valued attribute in the garden is their reaction to stress. Where other plants wilt, go into shock and die under duress, herbs produce flowers to set seed so that they can reproduce. In gardening terms, they bolt.

Bolting happens when certain herbs become uncomfortable – it’s too hot, too wet or the wind blows a bit too hard. Makes them seem a bit fickle, but any plant that will decide to save it’s lineage just because I’ve neglected to give it a spot of afternoon shade earns an A+ in my garden.

So I say to all the herbs, go ahead and bolt. I love you even more.

About the Photos

(All photos are my own except where noted)

  1. A screenshot of the first spreadsheet I’ve ever created for gardening. 😬
  2. Flowering oregano in the front garden with mint just behind. Bees love the flowers on these herbs. The featured photo in the header is a closeup of the oregano flowers.
  3. The community herb garden at the front entrance of our neighborhood. Everyone is encouraged to take a pinch and leave a pinch.
  4. Creeping thyme growing over the boulders in the back garden.
  5. Corsican mint grows along the slopes and between the flagstones in the back. Native to Corsica, Sardinia, France, and mainland Italy, it is not always recommended for areas with heavy foot traffic or full sun, although it has held up well in our garden – so far.
  6. Achillea millefolium ‘Paprika’ Bloom (yarrow) – a photo taken by fellow N.C. Master Gardener, Jim Robbins.
  7. Chives and artemisia in the community herb garden.
  8. Herb infused oil photo by Lauren Ross
  9. Bronze fennel is naturalized in the western U.S. and grows wild in Europe. The generic name, foeniculum, derives from the Latin foenum which means “hay.” In American Puritan communities, it became known as the “Meeting Seeds,” because seeds of fennel and dill were taken to church to allay hunger during long services.
  10. A delicate white flower on the mint in my garden.
  11. A mature elder in a flower bed by the Welcome Center of our neighborhood.

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