An Herb Garden

lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)Certain plants are like friends with whom you are close for a period of years only to lose track of them — for no good reason — with the passage of time.
You remember the fine times you spent together before you drifted apart and now, when you think of them, you wonder, “What if we were to meet again?”
Herb plants that once graced your garden, but have somehow disappeared over the years, are bound to pop up in your memory every now and then because of their fragrance, taste, culinary value or medicinal use.
While perusing Jekka McVicar’s “The Complete Herb Book” (Firefly Books, 2008), I was reminded of several of these old botanical friends. Many of them are native to the Mediterranean, the climate of which closely resembles our own.
Let’s start with red valerian (Centranthus ruber), a plant from the western Mediterranean region. This long-blooming perennial will spread throughout your garden with the greatest of ease. Its mildly fragrant flowers show off from June until October as long as faded blooms are removed from the plant.
This is one of the toughest perennials you can grow because it thrives in rocky and infertile soil, as long as drainage is decent. It will not object to lots of water but can manage on very little. I think it looks best in red, but pink and white versions also are seen.
Red valerian self-sows with alacrity and, given a few years, will richly cover garden beds, neglected side yards or sunny slopes. Its root is used by herbalists to make a sedative. If you are a cat lover, you will want red valerian in your garden because felines are magnetically drawn to it and enjoy lying down in its ample foliage.
Cut and placed in a vase, red valerian flowers will last for a week. Not typically grown in containers in the nursery trade, red valerian is easily propagated from seeds, packets of which should be available for a few dollars.
McVicar describes more than 30 species and hybrids of thyme (Thymus), another perennial herb that is indigenous to the Mediterranean.
“Thymes need to be grown in poor soil, in a well-drained bed, to give their best flavor,” she writes.
“It is essential to trim all thymes after flowering,” she continues. “This not only promotes new growth, but also stops the plant from becoming woody.”
Caring for thyme in this way will allow you to harvest fresh sprigs throughout the year. All thymes are fragrant and make excellent ground covers as long as they are not overwatered.
You may not have heard that bay leaves are harvested from another Mediterranean native that is easily grown in any Valley garden.
In our area, sweet bay (Laurus nobilis) requires protection from hot sun and grows best in north- or east-facing exposures. Left unpruned, sweet bay grows into a 20-foot tree, but it can also be trained as a symmetrical shrub or used in a formal hedge. That crown of foliage you see on the sculptures of Roman emperors, heroes and poets — now you know why we call them “poet laureates” — was invariably made of shoots of bay leaves.
Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is a tropical plant that appreciates bright ambient light, but prefers staying out of direct sun. It is really not very attractive as an ornamental, but makes up for lack of looks with an abashed lemony fragrance and flavor that is widely used in Southeast Asian and Caribbean cuisine.
Lemon grass is easily propagated by division of its clumps this time of year. Grown in containers or in the ground, it should be regularly fertilized. McVicar tells us that its leaves can be used for a tea which “is also a good antidepressant and helps lift the spirits if you are in a bad mood.”
Other garden-worthy herbs highlighted by McVicar: yarrow (Achillea species), called “the plant doctor of the garden, its roots’ secretions activating the disease resistance of nearby plants,” she writes, and whose umbel inflorescences in yellow, white or pink are inviting to beneficial insects; cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum), a shade plant I have been growing in my garden for many years, nonflowering in our climate but possessed of uniquely spicy, tutti-frutti scented foliage; lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), a spreading mint relative that grows in any soil but needs more moisture than herbs typically require and whose tea “is said to relieve headaches and tension and restore the memory”; borage (Borago officinalis), easy to grow from seed and developing into a whimsical plant with rough leaves, hairy flowering stems and clusters of nodding blue, star-shaped flowers.
Tip of the week
Herbs are classic plants for balcony or patio gardening since they are most enjoyed with the sort of frequent contact that plants grown in containers or hanging baskets require.
To reduce watering frequency, plant several different herbs in large flower pots or whiskey barrels. The larger the container, the longer the interval you may allow between waterings.

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