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Herbs in a garden

Herbs are great in a garden, greenhouse or in containers.

Grown them for culinary or medicinal reasons, or simply for their fragrant aroma or beauty.

Your heart is set in herb gardening; however, the big question is still nagging you - which herbs to grow?

Culinary herbs are definitely tempting. We feel attracted to bold flavors, strong aromas wake up our appetite, and there is the benefit of making a good dish great by just adding a few selected herbs.

Medicinal herbs sound interesting. Unhappily, there are so many questionable studies that it is difficult to tell true medicinal value apart from miraculous snake oil.

Aromatic herbs appeal our senses. Why not try growing herbs just for their wonderful aroma?

Ornamental herbs are grown just for their beauty and to provide a pleasant view. Is there a point in growing them? One could say they are relaxing and this leads to better mood and health.

Culinary Herbs

Herbs have been used as cooking additives for thousands of years. They may be spicy or salty or tangy or just plain delicious, but whatever your recipe there's an herb to suit.

Who hasn't used a bit of parsley in a fish dish? This versatile herb is good for chicken, lamb and cheese dishes. There's no need to limit it to just a sprig on the side for appearance's sake. It makes for a nice addition in soups and salads, as well.

Thyme, made from the leaves of a small woody-stemmed plant, is one of the most common ingredients in recipes. It works perfectly in a tuna casserole, in a sauce spread on top of beef or in a fine stew. Grilled chicken, cheeses... just about everything benefits from a little thyme.

Basil is possibly the most common addition to Italian dishes, and for good reason - it adds just the right touch. Whether it's pasta or pizza, or even a soup, this herb has a hundred uses. Sprinkle some on when preparing that tomato-paste and you're on your way to a fine dish.

Want something a little more spicy?

Try some aniseed. The oil of anise has a licorice-like flavor -which is why it's used to make artificial licorice- that will make a nice twist on a traditional dish. A related herb is Tarragon. The narrow leaves have a spicy flavor that is a great complement for fish, or to spice up some mayonnaise.

Coriander seeds, from the plant that forms the base of cilantro, is another favorite. With their pungent, citrusy flavor they are great on pork or in a curry. Their mild and sweet zing makes for great chutney, too.

Dill is another herb that has a bit of a tang, making it the perfect herb for pickling, or just on a salad. Often used in chutney, it's also a fine addition to olive oil.

All sorts of herbs that are members of the mint family are used in cooking. Sage is one of the most common, and rosemary is another. Peppermint, of course, makes for a wonderful addition to a variety of dishes where it gives a zestful odor and taste. Mint complements veal or potatoes equally well, and it's used in soups and even in making jelly.

Saffron is less common, but should be tried by anyone feeling adventurous. Its honey-like flavor, but with a distinctive pungency, provides a slightly different result from the usual ingredients. The Turks use it in a traditional rice pudding, but it also makes for a wonderful addition to chicken or fish dishes.

Whatever your style of cooking, you'll find a wide range of herbs that will add just that right touch. They can turn a bland dish into a chef's work of art.

Medicinal herbs

Few places house more junk science than in the advertisements of herbal medicines. Near miraculous claims are made that haven't been tested or substantiated. Nevertheless, some herbs have, in fact, been used for thousands of years to help treat a number of conditions. Here are a few herbs that have been examined by leading research firms, along with possible benefits and side effects.


Chamomile is an herb made from the dried flower of the same name. It's often used to make a tea that is both tasty and safe. It has a soothing effect and can be used as a mild sedative.

It's been claimed that chamomile can reduce inflammation and fever though this hasn't been proved. Some studies suggest that compounds in chamomile can inhibit certain bacteria linked to stomach ulcers. But the results are inconclusive.

Some individuals may be allergic to the pollen of this daisy-like flower, but for most the herb is safe even if not quite the miracle cure it is sometimes said to be.


Echinacea is a perrennial containing a number of substances that have been well studied. It has been used to treat upper respiratory problems produced by colds. It's sometimes thought to help the immune system. None of the claims made for it have been completely validated, however.

Some studies have suggested that it can help reduce the duration of colds and ease symptoms. Others have shown that it can reduce the frequency of catching colds. These claims are hard to prove, since there are so many factors that are operative whenever someone gets a cold, but at least the herb is generally thought to be safe. If nothing else, it might be a good placebo.

Individuals with diabetes are cautioned to seek the advice of a physician before taking Echinacea, however.


A bushy perrennial, feverfew contains active ingredients parthenolide and glycosides that it's believed may help in the treatment of inflammation and migraines. There is some support for the notions, since feverfew does tend to reduce clotting effectiveness.

But, there are some potential side effects, such as skin inflammation and mouth ulcers. Heart rate can be raised and it can interact with drugs taken for migraine. It may reduce the absorption of iron.

The jury is still out on this one.

Aromatic herbs

Herbs are often used for seasoning in dishes or for medicinal purposes. But they are just as delightful creating wonderful aromas in the garden or a potpourri bowl. Many of those useful for cooking are so because of the oils contained in the leaves. That same oil gives them a scent that can be a pleasure just to smell. But even when you wouldn't think of eating them, aromatic herbs are a treat for the nose.

Lavender is one that will spring to anyone's mind. This Mediterranean native is lovely to look at, with its small purple flowers. But it is equally delicious to sniff. Excellent for perfumed sachets, it is terrific just sitting around the border of a garden where it can also attract Black Swallowtail butterflies.

Sage has long been planted for its wonderful aroma, which it derives from being a member of the mint family. Originally from Asia Minor, it is now grown all over the world. It will delight the nose of anyone who rubs the leaves between thumb and forefinger and takes a whiff.

Caraway-Scented Thyme is another great addition to the garden. It makes for a lovely small bush, attracts butterflies and bees, and has a spicy scent that is a favorite of herbalists. Another member of the mint family, it will produce pink blossoms in the early summer.

Yet another member of the mint family is Sweet Majoram, an herb that has been around for centuries. It's often used in perfumed soaps, but the spicy scent is wonderful just ground up as part of a potpourri bowl. Be sure not to confuse it with its wild cousin Origanum Vulgare, otherwise known as Oregano.

Keeping them preserved is an easy task. You can keep fresh stems in a jar of cold water in the refrigerator where they'll last for about a week. Or, you can store them in oil. Wash and dry for an hour, then put them in the jar and pour in preserving oil, where they'll stay fresh for two or three months.

For longer term storage you can freeze them. Wash and dry, then put them into a plastic freezer bag, or chop them up and put the pieces into an ice cube tray. If not exposed to air, they'll keep for four months or more. But for the longest storage you can wash and dry, then put them into a jar of vinegar, where they will stay fresh for up to a year.

For use in potpourri, they're best dried. You can hang them up in a cool, shady place. But keep in mind that the oils are what provide the scent. Left exposed to air for long periods the oil of some will evaporate, taking the scent with it.

That's exactly what you want in a potpourri jar or sachet bag, but if you want to keep them a little longer you'll have to use some preservation methods. Airtight bags are an excellent way to keep those oils inside the plant until you want to use the herbs.

Sage, mint, thyme and majoram retain their scent especially well when dried. Done properly, they'll give a nice odor for weeks.