Not many ornamental garden items can also revitalize home (( cooking, but the ones that can are hardy, fragrant and on occasion beautiful. An herb garden takes a little organizing and laying out to become an eye-catcher, but the double benefit -- good looks and good flavor -- are both hardy perennials.
The proper mixture of a little science and a lot of common sense is the secret to garden success with herbs, says Janet Walker, curator of the National Herb Garden in Washington and a scheduled lecturer today at the fifth annual Baltimore Herb Festival.
"The first thing is to choose the site carefully -- a site with six hours of full sun is really essential for good herb growing," she says. "A well-drained site is also really important; there are a number of herbs, sage and oregano in particular, that don't like damp roots, what we call wet feet.
"I would recommend a professional soil test to establish the Ph for any novice herb grower. You can get test kits at garden centers but a professional test [the University of Maryland has a soil test program] is really a good thing to do.
"A soil test will cost you from $4 to about $20 and what it tells you is the Ph of the soil. This is very important for herbs such as fennel, lavender and winter savory that need a Ph of 6 to 7, a slightly acidic range," the herb specialist reports.
Thorough soil tests will also indicate the kind of nutrients your soil has, the range of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. "If you use your soil tests as a guide, you can eliminate the need for fertilizers by correcting the soil. We add chicken grit (crushed granite) to herb soils to help drainage. Any farm supply store should have it. It can correct both clay and sandy soils. When your soil test comes back it also comes with recommendations on how much lime to add. We usually need to add some limestone to raise the Ph, and the test tells you how much.
Other tips from the herb specialist:
*Add manure to the soil preparation process as an organic enrichment. One to 2 inches of the natural fertilizer mixed at least a spade deep is the proper amount.
*It's impossible to go wrong with bone meal, a high-phosphorus material that encourages root growth. Dried blood is also high in nitrogen and beneficial.
*The healthier a plant, the more resistant it is to diseases and insects. But avoid forcing growth. Lush, soft tissues that have grown fast (particularly sages and lavenders) may be more, not less susceptible to disease.
*Ladybugs, both the adults and the larvae, are good anti-bug controls and both eat aphids. Lacewing larvae are also helpful. You can send away for them; or check with your local garden shop.
L *Combat extreme cold or heat with the same remedy: mulching.
*Locate herbs where they like it, mint on low damp places, sages and oregano in sunny spots on high ground.
Herb flavors, gaining rapidly in U.S. cuisine, will be a feature of today's show and sale. Herb seasoning will be starred in a cooking demon stration to be judged by representatives of Baltimore's International Culinary College. Prizes ($20) will go to the best cook-off entry in five categories: pies, cakes and cookies, breads, beverages and spreads and dips.
The Baltimore Herb Festival, which runs today from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. in Leakin Park on the city's west side, is co-sponsored by the city recreation and park department and the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Proceeds go to the continuing restoration of the Leakin park chapel, heavily damaged by lightning in 1987. Vendor tables strewn throughout the park's entrance area south of Windsor Mill Road will sell thousands of plants. A family attraction will be the park's miniature model railroad.
"People come all the way from Richmond, Philadelphia and New York. We even have visitors from Raleigh [N.C.]," says Mary Lou Wolf, veteran Baltimore herb master and show manager.
From modest beginnings, the one-day herb show and sale has built up into a more complex and even scholarly romp, "the country's largest that centers exclusively on herbs," according to show sponsors.
It's a rain or shine show that simply "proceeds more slowly" in the event of moisture, says Ms. Wolf, with events moved under shelter. But "it is not going to rain," she adds.
Organic gardening is the theme of the show this year, with 13 speakers scheduled to talk on such hot herbalogical themes as medicinal herbs, companion plantings, plant nutrition and pesticides and environmental aspects of herb culture. Crimea, the historic pre-Civil War summer home of the wealthy Winans family, will serve as one of two centers for these lectures by herb specialists. The home's Victorian chapel is the other lecture center in a program that opens at 10:30 a.m. and continues until 4 p.m.
Also included are teaching sessions that demonstrate higher productivity and nutrition of plants raised in organic gardens, and methods of composting, fertilizing and killing pests in organic herb gardens.