Old-Time Herbs For Modern Gardens: A Trendy Choice?

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To herbs, our forefathers credited the most miraculous powers. 

Mallows would keep witches away from the house. To stop bleeding, one had to write the word “veronica” with pen and ink on the ball of the left thumb.

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The chaste tree (Vitex agnuscastus), when eaten by wicked, unchaste people, would make them as chaste as lambs. 

Dogs would not bark at anyone who carried the herb columbine. A wine made from lilies of the valley smeared on the forehead, and the back of the neck would impart good common sense.

Today, herbs are considered simply those plants in current culinary and medicinal use. But herb gardeners, although they expect no such miracles, still agree that they are plants of many virtues.

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They provide flowers and foliage in the garden and decorations for the house all year round. They also offer pleasing fragrances to scent rooms and linens and help stock the kitchen spice shelf with savory accents for the best dishes.

Good Time To Replenish The Herb Shelf

After the third sowing of mignonette and dill, the brief midsummer lull is a good time to replenish that shelf. 

Herbs should be picked at just the right stage and hung to dry for winter use. Freshly chopped leaves. It may also be packed in glass jars between layers of coarse salt (butchers’ flake salt or a kosher product) and refrigerated for use in recipes calling for flavored salt.

Herb mustards may be made by adding fresh chopped sage for flavoring cheese sandwiches, tarragon for fish, rosemary for ham, or whatever variation you choose. 

Tarragon, basil, mint, or mixed herb vinegar may be prepared by filling a jar loosely with the leaves of your choice, pouring in wine or cider vinegar, covering tightly, and letting it stand for two weeks to a month.

Mint leaves may be crystallized, like rose petals prepared in June. Wash and dry the leaves. Beat the white of an egg to a foam. Dip a small pastry brush in the saliva and brush on the leaves.

Both sides should be moist but not wet. Shake very fine granulated sugar over both sides and place leaves on a tray to dry. 

Store in a covered box. These make tasty decorations for cakes and ice cream and are a pleasing addition to cold drinks on hot, lazy afternoons.

Fresh leaves of lemon balm are as good in claret cups or other drinks made with wine as the dried leaves are in a hot cup of tea. 

Burnet, with a slightly cucumber-like flavor, is nice in fruit drinks. Float the blue star-flowers of borage for special occasions in the punch bowl. Suppose you are having a real herb-fancier to tea.

In that case, you might also serve thin bread-and-butter sandwiches, with a bit of finely chopped rosemary blended into the butter on some and Burnet for the others, cookies sprinkled with sesame or coriander seeds, and a dish of crystallized sweet violets or borage blossoms.

Herb Arrangement

An arrangement featuring herbs could grace the tea table frosty sage, fluffy white circlets of apple mint, and white petunias.

Many herbs have such beautiful foliage that they are an addition to any arrangement, even when not in flower – graceful rosemary, sturdy geraniums, with their variety of leaf shapes, plushy mint, silvery lavender and broad-leaved Stachys lanata (lambs’ ears).

The latter two and sage are almost evergreen and make unusual and fragrant additions to Christmas decorations. Shining among the greens or bunched for the center of interest.

Sweet-scented geranium leaves, tied in tight rosettes, complement a wreath of short-needled pine. But the most popular of all our wreaths is the one we make for the guest room door.

Bunches of dried lavender flowers alone or against a background of flat cedar fans, tied with soft-colored ribbon, make a charming souvenir for the feminine guest to take home and lay in her linen closet or bureau drawer.

Of course, working with these herbs is always a special pleasure since the slightest touch releases their delightful aromas. These alone make it necessary to bring a few potted herbs into the house for the winter. 

Placed near the telephone, a mint geranium or rosemary plant may be touched and sniffed to alleviate a long, boring conversation.

Herbs Indoors

For success indoors, herbs should be potted toward the end of August. A good potting mixture is three parts loam, 1 part sand, and 1 part compost. 

Sink the pots in the soil for easy care. Leave parsley, chives, pot marjoram, sage, burnt tarragon, and mint outdoors until after the first hard freeze.

Sweet marjoram, rosemary, and geraniums must be brought in before the first frost—all the herbs like a cool temperature and just enough water to moisten the soil. 

Do not let the pots stand in water unless you keep them in a hot, dry room. When they are regularly cut for kitchen use, a little fertilizer should be added every ten days.

Seeds may be sown indoors. Plant nasturtiums at the back of a window box, training them across the window, with several sowings of winter cress in the front of the box. 

Both are tangy additions to a salad. Nasturtium seeds, indoors, as in the garden, may be saved for homemade capers.

If you can get fresh seeds of angelica, which have been cut as soon as ripe, sow them immediately. To keep the plant, cut off the buds before flowering. This is a good time to cut the stems you wish to candy.

The early Iris florentina, from which comes the sweet orris root, is planted in August, as is the sweet flag (Acorus calamus) if you have a boggy spot for it. 

Calamus spreads rapidly, but give it a good start before digging roots to dry for potpourri. Saffron. (Crocus sativus) should be planted by September 1, but the alliums may be divided at almost any time.

One could enjoy a year-round garden with alliums alone. One clump of chives, Alpine schoenoprasum, pulled apart to one or two bullets each, will soon make a border of clumps. Its lavender halls bloom in May, as do Alpine moly’s clusters of yellow stars.

(According to one old botanist, you can spill salt, meet a spider, sit thirteen at dinner, or do anything on Friday the 13th that you like and snap your fingers at bad luck if you have Alpine moly in your garden!)

Alpine karataviense, the pincushion allium, also blooms in May, its enormous head of lavender flowers sitting squarely upon a flat rosette of broad blue leaves.

Then in July, come the early white Alpine tuberosum and lavender Alpine giganteum. It is amusing to watch the great head swell. 

Guessing how long it will take to push off the little peaked hat all alliums wear. Violet Alpine pulchellum, the rocket allium, has bloomed for us from July 6 to August 4, and the beautiful Alpine stellarianum album from August 4 to September 1.

Dividing Perennial Herbs 

It is safest to divide perennial herbs in the spring, but some young plants may be set out in the garden in the fall, either purchased from a grower or brought from a cold frame where seeds were sown in the spring. 

Among these are rue, thyme, Stachys- lanata, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and dainty sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata), which smells like new-mown hay.

Lavender takes a while to become established. But it is then a joy forever. Hyssop has lovely pink, white, and blue flowers.

Elecampane has clusters of daisy-like yellow flowers; old herbalists said it would tighten loose teeth, an odd belief since its root is the base for a candy which does just the opposite! Another old-fashioned candy is made from a horehound’s leaves, stems, and flowers.

Alpine Strawberry

Alpine strawberry plants last well, do not make runners, and are charming edging in front of tall herbs. 

Sweet-scented Artemisia lactiflora is tall-growing; plant it well at the back. Its tiny flowers, like cream-colored gypsophila, are good in arrangements, as are all the artemisias.

Pieces of pungent, narrow-leaved Alpine abrotanum are often put away with winter woolens to repel moths. 

The Alpine leaf of Alpine absinthium is excellent in many drinks. Alpine dracunculus, the inimitable, anise-flavored French tarragon, does not produce seeds.

Plants must be bought, preferably in the spring, as they are difficult to establish in the fall.

However, other perennials are more easily grown from seed, such as balm, sage, and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata).

The latter’s velvety, fernlike leaves have an anise flavor, and long, shiny green pods follow its white flower heads. The fleshy roots go so deep that it is difficult to mow established plants. 

Sow the seed in the shade as soon as possible after it ripens, and it will then show itself as a handsome stand.

Planting Biennials

Seeds of biennials such as caraway and clary sage may be sown in August with their round, silvery-pink flower heads. However, if there is no space available, wait until late October or November when you sow the hardy annuals.

Remember Burnet, borage, the indispensable parsleys, and the more delicate, lacy chervil; don’t forget spicy coriander for potpourri and topping for bread and cookies, oxblood-colored perilla for its tall flower spikes and large,

Ruffled leaves and ambrosia, with its oak-shaped leaves and spikes of tiny, fluffy green flowers, for its contribution of fragrance to potpourri and its use in winter bouquets. Plant these right where you want them.

If the back rows of the herb garden are filled with tall perennials, plant the two biennials mentioned above, and the tall annuals, in rows in the cutting garden. 

French sorrel, which is so good in soups and salads, belongs there, being coarse and tall, the ungainly catnip, which makes such refreshing tea, and our favorite seasoning, dill.

Then comes the last fall duty of the gourmet, and any herb grower must be one. If he has not grown his own, he must now lay in his supply of leeks, expensive to buy at the grocery and sometimes unobtainable just when his heart yearns for cockaleekie.

He can buy a bushel basket of leeks from a wholesale grower, dig a pit big enough to hold them, put them in it, throw them on some earth and then cover it with a pile of straw. 

When the snow begins to fall, he can cover this with a piece of roofing paper so that his leeks are easily obtained and usable when they are needed.

Then the herb gardener can go inside, snip a sprig of rosemary to stick in his lapel, and look forward to a pleasant winter, thanks in good measure to the virtuous herb.

44659 by M Roche