Spice Up your Life!
The Sandpiper, May 2006

Do you have a collection of small glass jars filled with dried grey-green herbs that all look and smell alike? Or, perhaps you buy fresh herbs in little plastic bags and pay about $20 per pound for them? If you answered ‘yes' to either of these questions, you're missing the chance to grow your own herbs right in your own back yard.

Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow in Del Mar. Many of them are Mediterranean in origin and as such are perfectly suited to our sunny, dry climate. Most are evergreen and can be part of your permanent plantings. Because of their strong, resinous aromas, garden pests leave herbs alone. The only enemy of herbs is waterlogged soil, and that's not a frequent concern here.

There is an herb for almost every function in your garden. Let's have a look at some of the most common ones and the roles they can play.

Laurus Nobilis ( Bay Laurel) is native to Mediterranean Europe. It is a large, dense evergreen shrub or small tree that grows slowly to about 30 feet. It will grow happily in a large pot. One mature plant could easily supply everyone in Del Mar with a lifetime of bay leaves.

Rosmarinus officinalis ( Rosemary ), another Mediterranean native, comes in many varieties, each with its own form. All Rosemaries have lovely blue flowers and dark green needle-like foliage.‘Tuscan Blue' has an upright growth habit and tops out at about 6'. ‘Collingwood Ingram' and ‘Lockwood de Forest' are shrubby forms. ‘Huntington Blue' and ‘Corsican Prostrate' are shrubby groundcovers that grow about 18” tall.

Salvia officinalis ( Sage ) is a woody perennial. Several varieties are good for seasoning: ‘Berggarten', ‘Icterina', and ‘Purpurescens' are my favorites, both for their ornamental leaves and for their good flavor.

Thymus varieties ( Thyme ) include ‘Citriodora Aureus' and ‘Citriodorus Argentus', both of which are small shrubs that grow to about 12” high and wide. They make beautiful edging plants for a flower border. Thymus praecox arcticus is a flat matted groundcover that is wonderful in full sun between stepping stones. Try rubbing the leaves with your fingers. Now you have thyme on your hands!

Origanum vulgare ( Oregano) and Origanum marjorana ( Marjoram ) are spilling perennial groundcovers with beautiful lavender flowers.

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Lavandula ( Lavender ) is well known as a fragrantly flowering perennial. It also imparts a delicious flavor to delicate dishes such as chicken

Levisticum ( Lovage ), a celery stand-in, and Satureja ( Savory ) are two less well-known evergreen shrubs. Both grow very happily here.

Pelargonium graveolens, p. crispum, and p. tomentosum, are just a few of the Scented Geraniums that can flavor sauces and jellies. All are flowering perennials with beautiful flowers and scented foliage.

Mentha ( Mint ) varieties are not drought-tolerant. If you have a spot in your garden that never quite dries out, this is the place for mint. Although it can be quite invasive, it's very easy to pull out of wet soil and I wouldn't be without it for my summer iced-teas or fresh peas! Mentha requienii, Corsican mint, is not used for culinary purposes but it is hard to beat in a shady area as a ground cover between stepping stones. Stepping on this mint releases its fragrance.

I've saved my favorite perennial herb, Aloysia triphylla ( Lemon Verbena ), for last. You would never know from the somewhat awkward shape of this woody perennial shrub what pleasure the scent of these small bright green leaves can give. Use it to scent lemon-flavored desserts, or just rub it on your hands when you pass by so that you can enjoy the lemony scent all day!

Finally, several favorite herbs are best treated as annuals: Parsley, Cilantro, and Chives are winter annuals (Parsley is actually a biennial); Dill, and Basil are summer annuals. All reseed prolifically, so you may only need to plant them once; their seeds will sprout at exactly the right time of year. All of these are equally happy in the ground or in a pot with other annuals.

These herbs can be seen growing in several of the gardens on the Gardens of Del Mar tour on May 11. Ask the gardeners to point them out to you.