Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow, as well as some of the most fragrant. Sadly, they’re also overlooked as essential contributors to mixed plantings and container arrangements, often relegated to the vegetable plot or a pot on a window sill. It’s not a bad fate, but there are other ways to grow, use – and sell – herbs.
One needn’t be a master chef or an expert in the design of traditional herb gardens to incorporate herbs. In fact, these plants are ideal for attracting would-be, neophyte, hesitant-to-try-it gardeners: Millennials, to be specific. Their buzzwords are “artisanal” and “homegrown,” and nothing speaks to those sentiments like herbs. Useful and attractive, the plants can offer that cachet of expertise no matter your level of experience. A lush pot of chocolate or lemon mint is beautiful on its own, but snipping a few of those leaves to add to hot chocolate, iced tea or a salad elicits compliments and encourages young gardeners to try more.
Name: Lavandula, Mentha, Rosmarinus, Salvia
Common name: Lavender, mint, rosemary, sage
Hardiness: Zones 5 to 8; up to 10 (colder with protection)
Mature height: A few inches to 2 to 4 feet
Mature spread: A few inches to 4 feet
Classification: Annuals and perennials
Landscape use: Filler in mixed perennial gardens; container arrangements; dedicated herb plots and kitchen gardens; mix among vegetables
Ornamental characteristics: Lavender and rosemary sport somewhat similar narrow- leaved, gray green foliage; lavender produces tall, slender stalks with light, grayish purple to deep purple inflorescences; mints produce rounded to lance-shaped, medium green leaves that are richly redolent when brushed or pinched; sage leaves range from medium- and gray-green to variegated purple and nearly black
Herbs are mostly of the annual persuasion, but there perennial herbs that continue to give year after year and can anchor a garden in which perennials and annuals are rotated. Lavender, of course, comes to mind, as does rosemary. Both can offer a bit of height and soft color in a smaller garden. Given sufficient sun and relatively dry to medium soil, they’ll perform lavishly; high summer humidity, however, can stress them.
Mint (of all kinds) is the go-to herb for every garden center shopper, whether amateur gardener or seasoned pro. It’s easy to grow alone in pots or as part of a mixed herb container. If grown in the garden, mint should be kept in check; it spreads by rhizomes and can wind its way through companion plants. For that reason, it makes a good groundcover, offering a rich carpet of medium green, mouth-wateringly fragrant leaves.
Mint can tolerate full sun to light shade, and it adapts to a wide range of soils, except for very dry sites. If a large, groundcover planting is desired, the plot can be sheared following the first bloom of its small, lilac-pink to white flowers. This will stimulate new vegetative growth.
Salvia officinalis – culinary sage – offers a broad range of foliage color from gray-green to purple, and its uses run from the kitchen to the cosmetic shelf. Fresh or dried, the aromatic leaves, which often have a rather nubby or fuzzy texture, add soothing fragrance to soups and savory dishes. The plants can serve as fillers and foils for more colorful perennials in a mixed garden, or they can be focal points in pots. Most sage prefer full sun locations, although in very hot regions some protection is welcome. Well-drained, average soil is sufficient.
Don’t forget that some of these easy, age-old plants can breathe new life into a growing program, as well as boost sales in the garden center. They don’t need to sit by themselves, tucked into a corner where only the most loyal – and knowledgeable – customers find them. They can be the starter plants that prove to young gardeners that gardening is a rewarding use of their time.