Johannesburg - The earliest gardens were herb gardens. Monks grew medicinal herbs to heal the sick, to provide pot herbs for the kitchen, and to flavour wines. Cottagers grew herbs for healing, to supplement and flavour their meagre diet, to strew on their floors and to supply nectar for their beehives.
Today herbs are grown not only for their culinary, cosmetic and medicinal properties, but also for their versatile and often decorative qualities in the landscape.
Herbs attract beneficial insects and discourage pests. Garlic, chives, catmint and basil can be grown as companion plants among flowers and vegetables as they produce strong scents that help confuse pests. Aphids are a common garden pest, causing damage to new growth on vegetables and flowers. Nasturtiums are trap-plants and aphids will abandon other plants to feed off the nasturtiums, collecting on the back of their leaves and flowers.
Designing a herb garden
A herb garden can follow a particular design or theme, or simply be grown among other plants. If there is sufficient space, a formal herb garden, with beds separated by paths, offers a neat and practical way of growing herbs. Beds are usually square or rectangular, dissected by brick or paved paths.
Another option for a herb garden is in the shape of a wheel, with spokes of bricks or wooden sleepers radiating from a central point, such as a bay tree or sundial, and herbs planted between the spokes.
Caring for herbs
Herbs do not require a great deal of attention once they are established. Most need a sunny position and well-drained, composted soil, and most benefit from light, regular cutting back to promote new growth. Feed fortnightly with an organic fertiliser.
Many herbal plants have survived down the ages because of their attractive flowers.
The sky-blue flowers of the perennial borage, grown as early as the 16th century, still add that wonderful touch of blue to our borders. Calendula, known as “pot marigold” in years gone by because it was used to flavour broths, now brightens our early spring gardens with orange and yellow flowers.
Rosemary, with blue flowers and upright growth of silvery-green, needle-like leaves, can be clipped to form a low hedge. Spreading kinds are useful on slopes, and compact varieties for containers.
Grow fragrant lavender in borders, pots and alongside paths. Lavenders become woody with age and are best replaced every two or three years. Scented geraniums (pelargoniums) have nutmeg, rose, lemon, mint, cinnamon, chocolate or balsam scented foliage, perfect near paths and seating areas.
Low-growing chives, catmint, dianthus, dwarf lavender, sage, santolina, viola and lamb’s ear (stachys) suit the front of borders, with taller-growing echinacea, calendula, yarrow, artemisia and chamomile further back.
The most popular herbs in today’s kitchens are basil, an annual grown for its aromatic leaves used to flavour pesto; parsley that is rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements; and thyme with tiny aromatic leaves.
The grey-green leaves of sage (Salvia officinalis) are used to flavour poultry and pork dishes. Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is a perennial shrub with tubular red flowers for flavouring fritters, drinks and fruit salad. Sprigs of lemon balm, also known as heart’s delight, are also used to flavour drinks. It is a good companion plant with cucumbers and tomatoes.
French tarragon is used to flavour vinegars and dressings, shellfish, pork, beef, poultry and salads.
Herbs for pots
Where gardening space is limited, grow herbs in pots, hanging baskets and window boxes. Herbs can turn a dull patio into a colourful and fragrant place, especially when you include colourful, edible flowers.
African herbal plants
Herbs used by traditional healers would make an interesting garden. These include agapanthus, Bulbine frutescens, hypoxis, ivy geranium (Pelargonium peltatum), scented geranium, Cotyledon orbiculata, Leonotis leonurus, plumbago, wormwood (Artemisia afra) and wild garlic (Tulgaghia violacea). - Saturday Star