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Top 10 Herbs

I have always been a simple herb gardener-dabbling
and adding herbs here and there. And in recent years I have also started to develop
an interest in cooking, but I am trying to keep it simple. Now my herb garden
has taken on a whole new meaning and the herbs that I plant are more than just
beautiful additions.

When choosing herbs, it’s easier to divide them into
two groups: annual or perennial. The annual herbs-basil, rosemary, dill, and parsley-must
be planted in our Kentucky gardens each year. The perennial herbs-oregano, sage,
thyme, tarragon, lavender, and mint-will live from year to year without replanting.

Bountiful basils. Basil is a common name
for a group of annual herbs all found in the genus Ocimum. Within this
genus there are several species: the most common one is Ocimum basilicum,
sweet basil. This is the one generally used for cooking. The large dark-green
leaves can be 2 to 4 inches long and are very aromatic.

Basil is very easy to start from seed indoors, or
outdoors after the threat of frost has passed. Small transplants are also easy
to find at most garden centers in the spring. You can expect sweet basil to
grow to about 2 feet tall, even with constant pinching.

Other types of basil to look for are: Ocimum
americanum
, lemon basil, with a strong lemon fragrance; O. basilicum
‘Cinnamon,’ cinnamon basil, with a sweet cinnamon fragrance and flavor; and
O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles,’ an attractive purple-leafed form that
is a striking garnish or annual for the garden.

Aromatic rosemary. Rosmarinus officinalis,
rosemary, is the second most popular. Hardy to USDA zones 8-10, this evergreen
shrub is an annual for us but can be successfully over-wintered inside. The
long, thin leaves have a predominant mid-vein and blue flowers are borne nestled
among the leaves. This extremely aromatic herb does excellent in a container,
but must not dry out completely or it will not recover.

Delightful dill. Anethum graveolens,
dill, has beautiful yellow flowers. Its blue-green foliage is soft and ferny
and the flower and foliage look great in flower arrangements. I planted dill
once in my garden and it comes back every year because it self-sows. Dill grows
to a height of 2 to 4 feet, so it may need staking. I maintain it in one area
by pulling the small seedlings up as they appear out-of-bounds.

Biennial parsley. The last of the annuals,
Petroselinum crispum var. neopolitanum, Italian parsley, is actually
a biennial but is grown as an annual-the second year it will flower and the
foliage will be coarse and not as abundant. 

Most cooks prefer Italian parsley, but curly parsley,
Petroselinum crispum, is beautiful as filler foliage in containers and
annual beds.

The most popular perennial herbs are oregano, sage,
thyme, French tarragon, lavender, and mint.

Mountain of joy oregano. Origanum vulgare,
oregano, is sometimes called wild marjoram and its name actually means "joy
of the mountain." It looks like Origanum majorana, sweet marjoram,
and both are used similarly, but oregano is stronger in aroma and flavor. Flavor
can vary greatly with seedlings, so it is best to start with a cutting or transplant
to ensure good flavor. This perennial herb has a nice mounded habit with white,
almost light-pink flowers.

Sage and thyme. In my garden I have dozens
of varieties of sage and thyme. Salvia officinalis, common sage, and
Thymus vulgaris, garden thyme, are the best to cook with. Two of my favorites
for garden ornamentals are S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’ and S. officinalis
‘Purpurascens’; both are only marginally hardy but will survive a mild winter.

Tasty tarragon. Artemisia dracunculus
‘Sativa,’ French tarragon, wants full sun and a well-drained soil with a
pH around 6.9 (it will not tolerate acidic soils). Be careful not to choose
A. dracunculus, Russian tarragon, which lacks the flavor desired for
cooking.

Refreshing mint. Mentha ssp., mint,
is an obnoxiously aggressive perennial, whether it is lemon mint, chocolate
mint, peppermint, or spearmint. After spring, weed the mint back to a small
patch and keep it there for the rest of the summer so it won’t take over your
garden. By the next spring it will be a great big patch again, perfect for cutting.
You can tell mint by its square stems.

Lovely lavender. Last but not least is the
"queen of the herbs," Lavandula angustifolia, common lavender.
This favorite herb is a little finicky to grow, mainly because it can take two
or three years to get fully established and take off in the garden. It is one
of the best herbs for the edge of a walkway, perennial border, or herb garden.
All parts of the plant are equally fragrant. Cut them back to 6 inches or so
above the ground every year to promote fullness and vigor.

In general, herbs prefer full sun with moist, well-drained
soil for optimum production. For more detailed herb gardening information, see
the "Herbs in the Garden" feature beginning on page 30.

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