By Jodi Torpey
Strictly speaking, an herb can be just about any plant, from dandelions to roses. But who wants to be strict when it comes to gardening?
Most gardeners plant culinary herbs, such as basil, oregano and thyme, to use in the kitchen. But herbs are versatile plants, and most serve double duty. Many of the tastiest herbs can also help you solve common gardening problems.
Ordinary chives make a nice garnish, but they’re also hardy perennials that serve as attractive filler plants for empty containers or sparsely planted flowerbeds.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is another herb with special garden powers. These lemony plants easily spread through the garden as a living mulch to help maintain soil moisture. An added bonus: plentiful foliage contributes to a refreshing and healthful iced tea.
Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) is a woodland herb for planting as a ground cover in shady spots — for example, under leafy trees. The sweet foliage, with or without its tiny white flowers, is an essential ingredient in an old-fashioned recipe for May wine. Just add champagne and strawberries.
Even though most gardeners warn others to avoid planting mint, I often recommend it. Instead of shunning mint’s invasive nature, embrace it.
Mint is a fragrant, leafy herb that’s exceptionally hardy and drought tolerant. I’ve planted mint in parts of the yard where I couldn’t get anything else to grow because of poor soil or dry conditions. When mint spreads to other spots, I simply pull it up at the beginning of the season.
Mint adds a pleasant green backdrop to the garden, and the bees go crazy for the tiny white flowers. Best of all, mint is the go-to herb for mixing fancy summer drinks, like mojitos.
Of all the herbs I grow, my favorite is lavender because it offers so much and asks so little. Lavender can fill in large spaces with its woody structure. Once lavender is established, it requires minimal water and care.
The plant is beautiful on its own with fragrant — and delicious — flowers that attract bees. Mix dried lavender blossoms into tea cookies, sprinkle them into potato salad, or add them to specialty spice blends. Stir lavender into a recipe for herbes de Provence and you can feel instantly transported to the south of France.