Herbs and spices – just the sound of those words conjures up memories of fragrant flowers, delicious foods, or beautiful gardens. Herbs and spices have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes including flavoring foods, masking unpleasant odors, healing wounds and curing illnesses, and adding mystery to events or rituals.
Herbs are usually the leaves, flowers, or seeds of annuals and can be used fresh or dried. Spices are the aromatic substance usually derived from woody stems or seeds of heartier plants. Some plants, such as fennel, are used both for their softer vegetative parts and feathery leaves as well as their dried seeds as a spice or flavoring.
“Many gardeners include herbs as part of their usual plant selection,” said Helen Johnson, Northern Neck Master Gardner. “They include herbs they use in their own cooking or just because they enjoy the fragrance of a specific one such as lavender. Basil, thyme, oregano, chives, and garlic are culinary herbs that are easy to grow and do well in the Northern Neck.”
“Fresh herbs add amazing flavor to recipes and basil is especially easy to freeze for later use,” said Johnson. “Parsley and fennel are great in the kitchen but are also attract black swallowtail butterflies to your garden.”
When adding herbs to your garden, think in terms of companion planting. Companion plants are planted together to create a beautiful and healthy garden. Roses love plants in the allium family, which includes garlic and chives. Marigolds and calendula attract insects that eat aphids. Garlic and basil near tomato plants repel flies and mosquitoes. Chives and mint in the garden are said to improve the flavor of home-grown tomatoes.
There are other creative ways to use herbs. Dried herbs, rose petals, citrus peel, and anise seeds can be a base for dry potpourri and sachets. Pomander balls are citrus fruit studded with cloves and allowed to dry. Almost any herb alone or in combination can be used to flavor vinegar, and herbs can add interesting flavors to teas and other beverages.
Consider visiting a historically focused garden. Formal herb gardens, such as the ones found at Historic Christ Church in Weems and Stratford Hall in Stratford, are often divided into specific areas of culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, fragrance herbs, and biblical herbs.
“Herb gardens have become another layer of authenticity for visitors to our treasured historic sites, such as the herb garden at Historic Christ Church in Weems,” said Sally Beard, Northern Neck Master Gardner.
“They played a vital role in the Colonial household and served to cure ills, bandage wounds, flavor foods, and beautify homes. We view and enjoy them on tours, but the message of how vital they were to Colonial life is what sets them apart from other garden plants. They were as much a tool as they were beautiful. Their purpose cannot be overestimated,” explained Beard.
There are many herbs that do well in the Northern Neck. Start with basil, thyme, oregano, garlic, chives, fennel, and parsley. Then add variety to spice up your garden.