Herb Gardens Not Only Useful But Lovely, Perfumed

GREEN PIECE

July 14, 1991|By Mary Gold | Mary Gold,Contributing writer

Gardeners who grow herbs make these plants sound too good to be true.

They say most herb plants thrive in ordinary to good garden soil, require little care, are disease-resistant and pest-free. Their interesting foliage and fragrant leaves and flowers lend themselves to any landscape. Parts of them can be harvested and preserved for home use.

These incredible claims are usually true. And judging from the increased herb plant selection seen in Howard County nurseries, gardensand landscapes, the message is getting across.

Rounding the back corner of Novella Cauley's home in Glenwood to face bed after bed of herbs, fruit trees and bushes, flowers and vegetables is like openinga surprise package. The tidy border of lavender, marjoram, pansies and sweet woodruff around the front door gives little hint of what lies behind the house.

The Cauleys' backyard is an extraordinary example of what can be done with perennial and annual herbs, an artistic eye -- and much hard work.

Although the garden beds are neatly carved from the lawn, weed-free and orderly, there is a comfortable casual feeling that comes with good design.

Tender plants, those that need to be protected or indoors during winter, grace the patio in large, portable containers. Brushing against the potted needlelike rosemary leaves or the leathery scented geraniums, with flavors like orange and nutmeg, releases an aromatic dimension that is typical of everycorner of this property.

The collection of herb varieties in Cauley's yard defies cataloging in a small space.

The many flowers sheadds are those that can be dried, such as strawflowers, ageratum, feverfew, cockscomb and delphinium for use in "everlasting" arrangements and potpourris.

From shining artemesias, purple sage and pastel yarrows to fernlike wormwoods, the textures, colors and scents combine to form a cohesive whole -- any landscaper's goal.

Not surprisingly, the growing of herbs is only a part of what intrigues many gardeners, including Cauley.

The bonus to the grand design described above is that almost all the plants are periodically harvested for their leaves or flowers, or both.

People who raise herbs tend to become creative cooks who experiment with new recipes and culinary herb combinations.

There are herbal vinegars and jellies, herbed breads and spiced drinks.

And there are edible flowers: borage, nasturtiumand calendula -- for salads or candied flowers on cakes and pastries.

Cauley also has become expert at herb and flower preservation and at artistic arrangements.

The basement of her home has been transformed into a complex of drying rooms, storage shelves and work space where she creates beautiful wreathes and bouquets. She blends spicypotpourris and herbal teas.

Her increasing involvement with all things herbal has evolved into a small business called Mrs. C's Herbs.

She sells her dried creations by special order and at area craft shows, and she says she hopes to open a small shop.

Meanwhile, shesells a good selection of herb plants each spring.

Hardy, harvestable perennials that make handsome landscape plants include the following:

* Bee Balm, also called Oswego tea or Bergamot (Monarda didyma): The pink or red flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

* Catnip (Nepeta cataria): Frenzied cats are reacting to the oil released by the plant as an insect repellent.

* Lavender (Lavandula officinalis): Round clumps of silvery-blue foliage topped with soft blue spikes of flowers were outstanding in Cauley's beds.

* Mints (Mentha...): There are orange- and apple-flavored mints, even a chocolate-flavored one. Mints can become rampant invaders in less time than it takes to drink a mint julep and should be contained, literally, inpots, or given plenty of space.

* Sage (Salvia officinalis): Culinary sage, the traditional accent in poultry dishes, is entirely different from the sagebrush of the western United States. There are manyvarieties with attractive leaf patterns and colors.

* Thymes (Thymus vulgaris): They are low-growing and have tiny leaves.

These are among Cauley's favorites.

Our commonly grown herbs have long andfascinating histories as medicines, magic potions and folk legends.

They were medicines, dyes, food preservatives, pesticides and religious and folk symbols, as well as food accompaniments.

Some essentials of the 19th-century American garden were yarrow for cleansing wounds and curing colds, fevers and headaches; tansy to preserve meat;thyme as an antiseptic and tonic; various mints to prevent infections and to sweeten the air; bee balm for tea; hyssop for use as a cleansing agent; lady's mantle to treat rheumatism; and rue to ward off contagious diseases.

Though most medicinal uses of herbs have disappeared, modern pharmacological studies have verified some of these plants' medicinal qualities.

For example, research indicates that chamomile tea (Anthemis nobilis) really does soothe an upset stomach, caraway seeds can relieve gas pains, and thyme leaves will reduce coughing.

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