Fragrant, flavorful and colorful herbs are some of the most enchanting, versatile and functional plants in the garden.
Used since ancient times for medicinal remedies, cooking and fragrances, present-day use of herbs has exploded in the last decade. Flavoring foods has become a major use, but creative crafters make potpourris and sachets, tie herbs into wreaths and use their dried flowers in everlasting arrangements. Folks create herbal teas to provide relief from a variety of ailments. I love using herbs in container gardens, where their beautiful foliage in a wide range of colors and textures add lovely contrast to flowering plants.
For beginning gardeners, herbs are a perfect introduction to gardening. They are easy to grow, whether you begin with small plants or seeds. They need little special care and are generally resistant to the pests and diseases that target more temperamental plants.
Herb gardens are as diverse as their gardeners. Traditional herb gardens are often formal and distinctly geometric, but herbs are just as beautiful in more naturalistic plantings. Most herbs require good drainage and lots of sunshine. Thyme is an appropriate choice for covering a sunny spot in the landscape. It is beautiful filling the gaps between flagstones in a patio. It doesn't mind an occasional footstep, and its pretty pink flowers are a summer bonus.
If you lack the space to grow herbs in the ground, these garden stalwarts grow happily in containers with a light planting mix. Herbs are ideal companions to flowering annuals in container gardens. Fine-textured dill or fennel is a lovely choice for height; sage, basil and rosemary fill in gaps and play peacemaker between brightly-colored flowers; and oregano and thyme spill over the edges of your pots.
Once you've used fresh herbs in recipes, you may never be satisfied with dried herbs again. Flavor is all about an herb's essential oil and the freshness of that oil, which declines during the drying process.
Herbs bring out the best in foods, enhancing the flavor and sensory appeal of your favorite recipes. They can reinvent a familiar dish and lift an ordinary entree to gourmet status. They flavor soups, stews, salads, breads, drinks and even desserts. A simple garnish of herbs or a sprinkling of herb flowers adds to the visual allure of any meal.
If culinary purposes are the focus of your herb gardening, grow your herbs in a spot with easy access to the kitchen. You'll be more likely to snip a few leaves if they are right outside the kitchen door.
For the most intense flavor, harvest herbs in the morning, after the dew has dried but the plant has not been stressed by the heat of the day. The tender tips of sprigs are most flavorful. Harvest often or pinch plants frequently to keep plants from getting leggy and to promote lots of branching and fresh growth.
Good garden centers will offer a wide selection of herbs but also a large diversity within each type. Basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, mints and more -- all offer several varieties with differences in flavor, intensity and even foliage color.
If you have little experience cooking with herbs, start small. Try adding herbs to a recipe you already make or omelets, cottage cheese, cream cheese and other spreads. Herbs should enhance the flavor of other ingredients, not overpower them. Avoid combining herbs with strong flavors like sage and rosemary.
I love everything about basil -- shiny green leaves, delicious taste and incredible fragrance. Last summer, I discovered a new use for basil that keeps me hydrated while working at The Planter's Palette on hot summer days. Before I leave for work each morning, I clip a few leaves from the top of one of my basil plants and drop them into a large bottle filled with cold water and a wedge of lemon. It's so refreshing!
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.