By Evelyn Alemanni
To earn a place in my garden, plants have to work as hard as I do. That means performing well and, above all, multitasking. That’s why herbs are so great — they’re reliable, look good, and taste good. There are annual and perennial varieties, and I like to use the perennials, such as rosemary and oregano, as ground covers and shrubs that last year after year. All herbs are happy companions planted among flowers in beds and containers.
Because all herbs eventually bloom, the herbs in my garden find their way into bouquets as often as they find their way into dinner. Dill flowers are gorgeous in bouquets. If you allow the plant to go to seed, use the seeds as pickling spices.
The foliage, which is also quite attractive, goes great on sliced cucumbers, in dips, and on fish. It’s easy to dry: Place the leaves between two paper towels and pop them into the microwave on the defrost setting for 30 seconds. (Time may vary depending on your microwave.) This technique works well for drying other herbs too.
Good to Know: Herbs typically need full sun and well-drained soil. They perform well in the ground and in containers, where they use less water. Fertilize monthly with a balanced compound, such as 10-10-10, or use compost tea. Spring and summer are the best times to plant herbs — the hardest-working plants in your garden.
Some herbs, for example oregano (Origanum vulgare), can serve as ground covers. So while they make lovely additions to flowerbeds, you can snip some any time to add to spaghetti sauce or sprinkle on a pizza! Just remember that when using fresh herbs, you typically need to use three times the volume of dried herbs because they are not as concentrated as the dried version. For example if your recipe requires 1 teaspoon of dried herbs, use 3 teaspoons of fresh herbs.
Other herbs, such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), can serve as groundcovers or shrubs, depending on whether you choose the upright or prostrate variety. You can trim upright rosemary into hedges or even topiaries. Cut branches can be skewers for grilling. Chopped up, they add flavor when sprinkled on chicken, fish, and potatoes.
Good to Know: Rosemary and lavender (Lavandula spp.) are among the few truly drought-tolerant herbs. If you grow mints and their relatives, such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), plant them in pots, as they can become invasive in the ground.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a favorite summer annual herb that comes in a wide variety of colors and flavors. It’s tasty used fresh in salads and on sandwiches. Put it through the food processor with garlic, parmesan, pine nuts, and olive oil to make big batches of pesto that freeze well.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), an essential ingredient for salsa recipes and fish tacos, blooms with delicate white flowers. If I don’t pick the flowers, coriander seeds form and can be ground as a spice.
Years ago I added a caper bush (Capparis spinosa). You can pickle the flower buds to make capers. But the flowers are so pretty, I have yet to make a jar of capers!