Fresh, flavorful, fragrant herbs are the not-so-secret ingredients that make summer meals sensational, and they look just as pretty in a vase as they taste in a recipe. Growing your own is half the fun.
There are lots of ways to incorporate herbs into your summer planting scheme. You don't need a big garden to grow them, although, if you have the space, a long row of herbs will produce a prodigious harvest. In small gardens, herbs are easygoing companions for zinnias, marigolds, daylilies and other annual and perennial flowers in flower beds. They're also easy to grow among peppers, tomatoes, beans and greens in a vegetable garden. You can grow herbs in a window box, in a border around the patio, in pots and even in hanging baskets.
Abigail Cooke, greenhouse manager for a private club in the Washington, D.C., area, cultivates herbs of all kinds in large flower beds for the club's kitchen staff. The beds are designed to be as pretty as they are useful -- with edible flowers among the herbs and trellises for flowering vines along the garden's central path.
"We plan things out almost in a potager style," like a formal kitchen garden, Cooke says. The garden's simple four-square design makes the most of the colors and textures of the herbs and flowers, and allows room for exuberant summer growth. "There is zero soil showing during the growing season," she says. "It's just colors, textures and overwhelming lushness."
Oregano, chives, thyme and sage are among the chef's favorites, Cooke says. She also grows parsley, rosemary, mint, several kinds of basil and a few vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes. The club saves thousands of dollars every year by growing its own herbs and edible flowers, instead of buying them, Cooke says, but it's not just a way to control the budget. "The chefs are super-excited to have fresh herbs," she says. Club members also enjoy checking out the garden and appreciate that the herbs, vegetables and flowers they see in the beds also appear on the menu in the clubhouse.
Herbs are not demanding plants, especially if you start with transplants from a garden shop. They thrive in well-drained soil in sunny spots, and most are at their best in summer's heat. When you cut a generous bunch of thyme, break off a long wand of rosemary or snip a handful of parsley, you're encouraging your plants to grow vigorously. Herbs are surprisingly drought tolerant, and they're generally not susceptible to pests or diseases. They simply do not need pampering. Fertilizer is not needed in an herb garden: Herbs grow stronger and have more pronounced flavor and fragrance without it.
An herb garden doesn't have to be large to be beautiful or productive. Eleanor Brown, a gardener in Newport News, Virginia, planted an herb garden just outside her kitchen door so she can pick basil, rosemary and parsley when she's cooking. "I love the look of the garden and all the colors, but I love to cook, and that is the real reason why I have an herb garden," she says. All summer long, she has a bounty of herbs, and plenty to share.
Brown grows herbs with lots of color. She likes green-and-gold variegated sage, purple basil and pineapple mint, which has quilted green leaves, splashed with white. She also grows chocolate mint, thyme and oregano plants. The flowers are pretty, and they attract pollinators to her garden.
Brown also cuts herbs for flower arrangements. A few long sprigs of mint, basil or rosemary are a perfect complement to zinnias, cosmos, celosia and other summer blooms that pop with color but do not have a scent. Some herb gardeners grow a special basil variety, Mrs. Burns, for bouquets because of its branching habit, prolific production, and tangy lemon fragrance. The feathery foliage and handsome flowers of dill and fennel also add texture and fragrance to bouquets.
Brown has tucked creeping orange thyme in at the edges of her herb garden and along paths. She plants purple okra among her herbs for color and height, and grows several herbs in pots, including mint and basil, just because she likes the way they look. Mint, thyme and other herbs are not only on the menu, she uses them to garnish platters, and they find their way into summertime cocktails. "That's the way it should be," Brown says. "There's no substitute for fresh herbs."