"A few years ago people were only interested in parsley, fresh sage, rosemary and thyme," says Gerry Channer, "but now there's a much greater interest -- valerian, epazote, echinacea, St. John's wort."
More and more, people are planting herbs for aromatherapy, alternative-health and culinary uses, as well as for their beauty. This burgeoning enthusiasm for herbs is shown by the thousands of visitors yearly to the 0.8-hectare Herb Garden, part of the farm that Gerry and his wife, Sharon, own near Ottawa. People come to buy plants, attend workshops and the annual Herbfest or just to inspect, sniff and taste about 250 organically grown varieties.
For the Channers it all started in 1993 when they created a large formal herb garden in one corner of an old hay field. Next came a series of long, parallel beds, each devoted to several varieties of a single herb. "Research plots," laughs Gerry, an agronomist. "I like straight edges."
Then, says Sharon, a home economist, "We decided we really had to loosen up a bit." They loosened up with the circular Solar Flair bed full of yellow blooming herbs, the crescent-shaped Moonlight Sonata bed of silver-leafed herbs and a candy-cane-shaped bed planted with mint.
But their formal garden remains the most impressive. It is large (6.7 square metres) and, in the historical manner, symmetrical and divided into quadrants. Separating the quadrants, 1.2-metre-wide paths converge at a central birdbath. Low hedges border each quadrant. In milder climates, boxwood or santolina hedges are used, but the Channers use hedge hyssop (Gratiola officinalis, which is highly toxic), Hyssopus officinalis and chives (Allium schoenoprasum), all winter hardy, at their Zone 4B site (with winter temperatures as low as -35C). In the even harsher Zone 2 herb garden in the Devonian Botanic Garden near Edmonton, pygmy caragana is used.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn how to plant a formal herb garden on page 2
Creating a formal herb garden
It's easy to design a formal herb garden to suit almost any outdoor space. In a scaled-down city yard, a row of bricks will make a slender path for a small bed. A geometric planting of herbs in a half barrel can fit onto an apartment balcony. Most herbs need at least six hours of sun daily and weed-free, well-drained soil.
Mark the perimeter of your planned bed(s) by tying twine between stakes at each corner; to mark the centre, tie twine to diagonally opposite outside corners. Using a half-moon edger or straight spade, cut edges. Deeply dig soil, removing existing plants and roots, and amend with compost.
Leave lawn paths or pave walkways with stones, bricks or bark chips, or plant with noninvasive ground cover(s). Add a central feature such as a birdbath, large urn, ornamental shrub or sculpture. Set hedge plants 30.5 cm (12 in) apart and 15 cm (6 in) in from edge.
Beginning 15 cm inside hedge, plant herbs in formal or random patterns. Popular choices include bay, dill, French tarragon, lavender, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, summer savory and thyme. Enthusiastic cooks will want to experiment with coriander (for Mexican or Thai dishes), basil (for pesto) and lemongrass (for Thai). Remember, the best herbs to grow are the ones you enjoy.
Tip: 1 tsp (5 mL) of dried herbs is equivalent to 2 to 3 tsp (10 to 15 mL) of fresh.
In each section you may want to place hardy perennials around a central urn containing an annual or tender perennial, such as rosemary or bay laurel, which can overwinter indoors.
Page 2 of 3 -- Find tips for caring for your herb garden on page 3
Obtaining the herbs
It's most economical to start your own seedlings inside in early spring with the help of containers, seedling mix and a sunny windowsill or fluorescent lights. Buying plants, rooting cuttings or planting divisions from other gardeners is a faster way to get started and is sometimes a necessity (a few herbs, such as French tarragon and some mints, cannot be grown from seed).
Water newly bedded herbs until they are thriving, then water only in dry weather (weekly at most). Gerry recommends edging beds at least twice each season to keep them neat. Weed as required, especially in spring and early summer. Trim the hedges in spring; repeat as necessary. Gerry says, "Put the effort in early in the season and in the long run it's less work." After the first hard frost in fall, mulch with a 30.5 cm layer of straw or leaves.
Fresh herbs for tea time
Harvest herbs when the morning dew has just dried. To make fresh herb tea, snip off leafy stem and steep in hot water for about 5 minutes. To dry and store herbs, pick off leaves; spread single layer over baking sheet and dry in 120F (50C) oven, checking at 10-minute intervals, until dry enough to crumble between thumb and finger. Let cool completely on rack. Store in airtight, labelled glass jars.
Some herbs to try: mint, chamomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, bee balm and anise hyssop.
Online seed sources
Whether they are everyday or exotic varieties, herbs are easy to order online. Here are some Canadian sources you can try.
William Dam Seeds
Dominion Seed House
Halifax Seed Co. Inc.
The Herbal Touch
Ontario Seed Co. Ltd.
Stokes Seeds Ltd.
And, to find a comprehensive listing of sources for heirloom, rare or
endangered varieties, visit Seeds of Diversity, Canada's Heritage Seed
Program, at www.seeds.ca.
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