No substitute for fresh herbs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a constant supply of fresh herbs whenever you need them? Imagine the impression a beautiful culinary herb garden would make on the clientele at your restaurant?

Store bought dried herbs are a poor substitute for the taste and fragrance of fresh herbs in a special meal. Diners mouths will water when they see the chef harvesting fresh herbs. In addition, an herb garden is a wonderful way to add flavor and color into the landscape.

An herb garden is simple to establish and can include containers of herbs, or an actual herb garden. However, location is key for several reasons. Ideally a spot close to the kitchen is most favorable, although any area that is noticeable to customers is perfect when planting herbs at a restaurant or other business.

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Family members or guests can then watch the harvest, touch and smell the different herbs, and if they are so inclined they may even learn a little something. Labeling herbs with attractive markers will only add to the interest, especially since many people have never seen the actual herb plants growing before.

Full sun is best for most herbs, although many will tolerate less. Just make sure that the area receives at least six hours of strong sunlight. The size of an herb garden should be large enough to allow for proper placing of the plant material so that it can grow to its full potential. A small pot from the local nursery may eventually become a tree or a large shrub so it’s best to find out the growth habit of the plants before setting them out.

Many times an awkward space that doesn’t seem to be used for much, but still has to be mowed and kept looking nice, is the perfect spot for an herb garden. Soil for the garden should be incorporated with organic matter and have excellent drainage.

Next, figure out what herbs you are interested in using. Trust me, most people love fresh herbs, there is no substitute. Just remember that lots of herbs grow great in the South, but there are a couple that don’t perform very well in our hot humid summers, like sage and French tarragon. A great substitute for the tarragon is mint marigold, a.k.a. Mexican mint marigold.

Herbs such as rosemary and bay (the one that bay leaves come from) are great for use as &uot;the bones of the garden&uot; since these are evergreen and can grow to a large size. Chives are another perennial herb that make a wonderful border. Onion chives even produce lovely lilac blossoms in the spring that are edible. Garlic chives are more prolific growers and have white blooms in summer.

Bronze fennel is perennial herb with foliage that appears almost fern-like making it quite an attention grabber. Most of the growth is done in the cooler months. In the summer, plants are covered with striking yellow flowers. This cultivar is not only interesting and attractive, but all parts of this anise flavored plant can be used in the kitchen.

Thyme is an low growing, evergreen herb that is attractive as an edging plant. Variegated lemon thyme is the best performer here in the South and during the cool months the leaves turn a brilliant golden color. This is a delicious addition to many great recipes. Oregano and sweet marjoram are also winners in the kitchen and make a nice groundcover type plant.

During the cooler months of the year the herb garden can be filled with curly and Italian parsley, dill and cilantro/coriander (the leaves are cilantro, used in Mexican dishes; the seeds are called coriander and are used in a variety of cuisines). For a little more color, add some edible flowers such as Johnny-jump-ups, pansies, dianthus, calendulas or nasturtium.

No summer herb garden is complete without basil. There are many varieties available so have fun and plant several different ones. The traditional sweet basil is a must, but the addition of a purple leaved basil lemon basil or lettuce leaf is sure to impress folks. And the absolute best thing about basil is that it thrives on as much sunshine and high temperatures as you can give it.

Just thinking of fresh pesto makes my mouth water. Add some more color to the garden by planting other heat lovers such as peppers and periwinkle. Begonias are another choice and the flowers are edible.

Keep in mind that the more herbs are harvested, the more they will grow. If you cannot cut them enough, offer some to your friends and neighbors. Encourage your children to identify and harvest herbs. Soon they will appreciate the fact that the best herbs do not come from a jar. Happy herb growing!

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. She can be reached at 445-5181 or by e-mail at