Monday, January 16, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (9/22/05)

The spice of life is closer than most of us think, as close as window sills, backyards, patios, decks, balconies, or garages. It can be in pots, planters, window boxes, tubs, plots, under grow lights, and hydroponically in water. It’s in our herb gardens.

"Variety’s the very spice of life\That gives it all its flavor" wrote William Cowper, an 18th century English poet, sometime lunatic, marginal theologian, and avid gardener. A variety of herbs spice our food from eggs to babybacks. Of course, fresh herbs are spicier than dried, commercially-packaged herbs, just as living human beings are more piquant than mummies and a lot less expensive. One of the delights of an herb garden is picking the herbs, rubbing them between our thumbs and forefingers, and savoring the aroma.

While most people don’t grow their own vegetables, they can easily grow their own herbs. As for growing herbs, there are three kinds, perennials, biennials, and annuals. As with children they are better off in separate beds in different bedrooms. Annuals mature in one season and then die. Their beds should be replenished each year with compost and other organic material to lighten the soil. Fertilizer should be used sparingly. Highly fertile soil produces excessive foliage with poor flavor.

Biennials live for two seasons, coming of age the second year. Their beds can be renewed every two years. Perennials return every year. Their beds cannot so easily be renewed. The whole bed has to be dismantled, digging up everything and replenishing the soil, and then replanted. Renewing a perennial bed is arduous and should only be undertaken every few years.

Annuals and biennials tend to be more shallowly rooted than perennials. The perennials’ roots explore the earth more deeply in search of moisture and nutrients than annuals. Annuals like moist, not wet, soil and perennials good drainage which means that the best beds, as all beds, are raised off the garden’s floor.

Most herbs come from softer climes, such as the Mediterranean Basin, which means that herbs on the Colorado Plateau like warm beds, such as beds of rocks which hold the heat during cool nights. Happily, on the Colorado Plateau there are plenty of hot rocks.

Not only are there perennials, biennials, and annuals, there are many classes of herbs, culinary, aromatic, ornamental, and medicinal. Our first concern is oft-used culinary herbs, such as the popular biennial parsley (Petroselinium crispum) and the perennial sage (Salvia officinalis).

Other commonly used culinary herbs are the perennial chives (Allium schoenoprasum), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), oregano (Origanum vulgare), lovage (Levisticum officinale), peppermint (Mentha piperita), and rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis).

Widely-used annual culinary herbs are sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), dill (Anethum graveolens), sweet marjoram (Marorana hortensis), cilantro/coriander (Coriandrum sativum), cilantro the leaves and coriander the seeds, fennel (Foeniculum dulce), and summer savory (Satureja hortensis).

Rosemary, a tender perennial, does not winter well on the Colorado Plateau and is best potted and taken in the house when cold weather looms. Also, peppermint is a control-freak with no sense of boundaries and is best restricted in a pot. If not, for all of its aromatic and gustatory charms, it will take over and become a noxious weed.

Esthetically, herb gardens are best encased in rock gardens. Better yet, herb gardens as rock gardens are best set on slopes of land. Slopes allow for good drainage with different degrees of moisture from top to bottom. The result are gardens delighting the eye as well as the nose and palate.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2005

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