Whether you pronounce it with a silent "h", or whether you blatantly hiss it out like the blunt edge of a sword, herbs are plants that are not to be dismissed.
Ancient Greeks and Romans reveled in their healing powers. During the Middle Ages, when cleanliness was next to nothing, herbs were used to counteract the stench of everything from last night's dinner to the strong odor of oneself. William Shakespeare mentioned herbs in great detail in several of his plays. Herbs also are represented several times in the Bible. By the time medical science dismissed the healing powers of herbs as home remedies, they evolved into culinary delights, seasoning our foods from apples to zucchini. Even when herbs were not readily available as garden plants, as late as 30 years ago, they were a large part of old-fashioned gardens and formal landscapes.
It has been asked, what is the difference between herbs and spices? While many people use the descriptions interchangeably, botanically, herbs are herbaceous plants that grow in temperate regions of the world, while spices originate from the tropics. Others describe herbs as leaves, stems and roots of plants, while calling seeds and pods spices. Some herbs, such as cilantro, a common flavoring in Latin dishes, have two identities. While the leaves of the plant are cilantro, the seeds are coriander and provide an entirely different flavor.
Described by "Herb Companion" magazine as "the useful plant," herbs are still available as dietary supplements for those who value their healing properties. They are used extensively in cooking and in a myriad of ways that decorate, scent and bring pleasure to nearly everyone who adds them to the garden. Books abound about the uses of herbs and new ways to utilize the powers of these plants are constantly being discovered.
But what about using them in the garden?
Whether your plans are to use them in cooking or crafts, herb gardening has been around for centuries. And although you may think about putting a few basil plants in the vegetable garden for your annual pesto party, you may want to think about herb gardening as a theme. In actuality, the use of the plants in the herb garden is often more important than the garden itself.
Visit any botanic garden and you will see an herb garden somewhere among the midst of other theme gardens. In public gardens, herbs are planted, labeled and shown off for their beauty. But in real life, herb gardens are separated by what you really want these plants to do. If the garden is close to the kitchen, chances are it is a culinary garden filled with aromatic plants that season our food.
Many herbs are perennial, meaning they will come up in the garden for several years. Some of these plants include sage, oregano, tarragon, thyme and most mints. Others are annuals that we have to replant each spring, including basil, summer savory and cilantro. In many cases, annual herbs are easy to grow, but some are best purchased as plants. Some, such as rosemary and lemon verbena, are perennial herbs in warmer climates, but are treated as annuals in our gardens. Still others are biennials, meaning they spend their first year growing leaves and the second year making flowers and seeds, after which they die. Parsley is a biennial herb and should be planted yearly to maintain a constant supply.
While the kitchen herb garden is delightful, perhaps your forte is more along the artistic vein. Many artisans and craftspersons use herbs in many ways, from drying flowers, seeds and seedpods to use in art work, sewing crafts such as sachet bags and sleep pillows, or mixing with essential oils to make scented potpourris.
Other artisans use herbs in fabric arts for dying textiles in creative ways. Everlastings, flowers that look the same or are equally attractive when dried as when they grew on the stem, are used in floral arranging and interior design.
But the artistry didn't stop with the plant. Simple herb garden designing has been around as early as the ninth century, but those gardens were plain and the plants were grown for a reason, such as healing or cooking. As gardeners evolved throughout the centuries, so did the garden. Early culinary kitchen gardens generally square or rectangular with pathways for easy access to different sections, became old school as gardeners learned to express their creativity. They created circular gardens with walkways, often centered by a water feature or birdbath. Stepping stones were used to create pathways through even the smallest garden to enable the gardener to enjoy and harvest plants without disturbing the soil.
Eventually herb garden artistry became more complex. Knot gardens brought circles, arcs and curves into the design. Foliage color and texture was equally as important and gardens were beginning to look like patchwork.
Herbal knot gardens, used mainly for aesthetics in the landscape, were pushed aside for theme gardens. Gardeners were perusing literature to create Bible gardens, Shakespeare gardens and even the more macabre "witches garden."
Vegetable gardens are for vegetables and flower gardens are for flowers, but there is no limit when deciding on an herb garden for your yard.