The Sunken Garden
"Speak not - whisper not;
Here bloweth thyme and bergamot;
Softly in the evening hour,
Secret herbs their spices shower.
Dark spiced rosemary and myrrh,
Lean-stalked, purple lavender;
Hides within her bosom, true,
All her sorrows, bitter rue."
Walter De la Mare (1873-1956)
Beaumont Press, 1917
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow from seed. It's an annual plant, meaning the seeds must be planted each year. I simply spread a packet of basil seeds in a small bed. After a few weeks, I transplant the individual seedlings into a larger bed, separating them about 4 inches apart. I use the basil in salads and to make pesto. You can find lots of pesto recipes online. Pine nuts are rather expensive You can find substitutes like walnuts. What could be better than pesto spread on pasta with shredded cheese. I grow lots of basil and Anna makes the pesto for many winter meals.
Three interesting basil varieties that I like are: `African blue basil' is a giant bush-type basil with blue-purple flowers that bees love. `Rosie basil' has an intense dark purple color with no green. It's rare to see any bruising on the leaves as you would with green basil. `Basil Perpetuo' is a variegated green and white basil, which doesn't look like a basil and doesn't flower.
Chamomile (German) is similar to dill in that it self-seeds and reliably comes back the following year. I use the yellow sun-like flowers in teas for calmness and sleep along with valerian. Chamomile can also be used in herbal medicine for stomach aches and irritable bowel syndrome.
Chamomile is one of the biodynamic herbal preparations. It comes from the Greek meaning "on the ground" and "apple". This lovely small white flower with a yellow center spreads easily without being too invasive. You can learn more about chamomile and biodynamics in The Top Twenty Garden Questions and Answers.
Cilantro, also known as Chinese parsley, is an annual herb used in Asian and Latin American dishes like salsa. It will go to seed when stressed, which results in coriander. Cilantro is a fast growing, cool season herb that needs to be started early in spring once the earth has warmed a bit. It will bolt with too much heat, too little water, or if it is overcrowded with weeds. It's best to plant it in small batches in early summer and then keep cutting the leaves, to prevent it from going to seed. Cilantro usually drops seed (coriander) during the summer and comes back the following year as young cilantro plants. Go online for many salsa recipes.
Dandelion (chicory) can either be cultivated after being grown from seed, or they can be foraged. I like the wild foraged ones that I harvest in spring and fall. I cut the greens and place them in ice-cold water. This takes some of the bitterness out of them.
The seed-grown dandelions need a decent soil, lots of water and competition from other plants. Poor soil will increase the bitterness of dandelions. What's great about these "dandy lions" is that you can continue to cut the greens and use them in salads and in stir-fries with pasta.
I place dandelions in the same category as burdock, mustards, and march marigold (Woodchuck spinach). Like dandelions, they all have medicinal benefits, such as better digestion. Urban Moonshine - a Burlington, Vermont bitters company, hopes to bring bitters back into the American palate.
Dill is either a perennial or annual herb, depending on where it's grown. In my neck of the woods, it's an annual that goes to seed in summer and comes back the following year as a young plant. I don't need to plant dill seeds each year as I find young dill plants spread over my community garden plot in spring. I have also found that dill is very difficult to transplant, so I just leave the young plants alone and use them for making dill pickles and in flavoring fish. The flat dill seed is the dried fruit of the herb. Icebox kosher garlic-dill pickles are easy to make.
Lovage comes from the parsley and dill family and is a great herb in the spring when it is tender. It grows like giant celery and is delicious with egg salad and chicken dishes. The stems make great straws for bloody Mary's. Chervil is an old-fashioned self-seeding annual that is easy to grow. It makes a great addition to mesclun mixes. But be careful as chervil can be quite invasive.
Parsley is similar to cilantro but is less prone to stress and can withstand the cold, even early frosts. Sometimes, it will last all winter depending on your hardiness zone. Parsley is a great fall herb because the flavor turns sweeter and plant thrives with cool, damp fall weather. In November, I cover the plants with a light mulch to protect them from the freezing and thawing action of the weather. Parsley and oregano will survive over the winter if mulched properly.
Can you grow watercress in Vermont? Yes.
Watercress is an herb that is a relative of the mustard family and grows in the cool-running waters of brooks and springs. It originated in the Mediterranean. The small, rounded deep green leaves have a peppery tang that makes a great addition to salads and soups. Try tossing them in just before serving. A word of caution on growing watercress. Make sure there is no giardia in the water source.
Once when I was doing a book signing in Hawthorne Valley in New York State, I was fortunate to be seated next to Juliette de Bairacli-Levy, the famous writer on common herbs and health.
Two former University of Vermont environmental-studies alumni, Courtney Hennesey and John Stoddard, are growing herbs like basil and lemon balm, along with greens and tomatoes, for local chefs on an acre-sized garden on a rooftop at the Boston Design Center. Drip irrigation is used to water the plants.
There are basically two types of roof gardens: one with shallow four-inch soil, which is a low-maintenance option for popular ground-covers like sedum, which act as sponges. (See below) The other type of roof-type garden is more food-crop-intensive with soil six inches deep.
Green roofs can act like sponges as they hold water, which reduce the buildings run-off. They create a cooling effect in the structure and cut interior noise, but they aren't cheap. One building in the Fletcher-Allen Hospital complex in Burlington, Vermont has a rooftop garden with plum and birch trees, an herb garden, and 10 raised vegetable beds along with lots of ground covers like sedum. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon and sod-topped cottages are among earlier modes of green roof-type gardens.
There are many herbs you can bring in for the winter. Oregano, thyme, chives, and sage can be grown in small pots and saved for indoors. All of these plants need to be potted up in the fall. Trim them as needed. Of course, they do better outdoors. Woodchuck gardeners like me prefer to simply dry these herbs during the summer and fall months and store them in glass jars for use in the winter. I like them to stay outside, but that's up to you.
I also dry rosehips from rosa rugosa for teas.
Tender herbs like rosemary can't survive the winter's wrath so they must be repotted and brought inside. Bring them into your home in early October, place them out of direct sunlight or don't over- water. Older rosemary houseplants will wither and die if the roots dry out too much.
Peppermint, spearmint and other mints as well as lemon balm will do well indoors if they are not placed in the direct sun. However, I just dry them in the summer and use them for herb teas in the winter along with berry and comfrey leaves.
Don't bring herbs inside that are infested with little critters like white flies and other insect pests like aphids. Use Insecticidal Soap and Neem to control these insects in your home. Cool temperatures (60 degrees Fahrenheit), especially at night, will keep herbs at their best. Grow lights help where there is little sunshine.
Borage plants, also known as Star-Flower, have some of the loveliest blue flowers you will ever see. They are known to help with melancholia by giving you courage. Borage also helps with rheumatism, colds, and bronchitis. Infusions have been used to induce sweating. They self-seed in the cold-frame in front of my house, as does calendula, which also self-seeds. You can make soothing oils from calendula for your skin.
The Common Sage is a small evergreen sub-shrub with woody stems, grayish leaves, and purplish flowers. It is cultivated equally as a kitchen and medicinal herb, and is also called Garden sage.
If you add a little maple syrup to sage, it will help to soothe a stomach ache and other digestive disturbances. I've used it many times. Sage is also used as an antibiotic and astringent.
See the chapter on herbs called, "The Good Witch on the Hill" in The Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening, for more information on calendula and other herbs like comfrey, that are known for their healing qualities.
Old-Time Herbs for Northern Growers
Common Herbs for Natural Health
Juliette de Bairacli-Levy
The Woodchuck's Guide to Gardening