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A Sense of Herbs

April 22, 2002|BY Dorry Baird Norris

"The seed, selected wisely, plump and smooth,

And glossy, he commits to pots of size

Diminutive, well fill'd with well-prepar'd

And fruitful soil......

Then rise the tender germs, upstarting quick,

And spreading wide their spongy lobes......"

William Cowper "The Garden"

Seeds are the product of all our yesterdays and the hope of all our tomorrows. We are never closer to the beginning of time than when we open a packet of seeds or collect them from our own plants. Seeds are tiny miracles waiting to happen. As small as a mote of dust or as large as your head, each contains the marvelous power of creation. The seed is composed of the essential plant embryo, often with a food store, housed in a protective coat.

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Once I was an overeager gardener who tried starting seedlings in the house to get a jump-start on the season. Succeeding with those house seedlings was a tricky business. Window sills were crowded with trays of seedlings vying for attention. Sown too early they grew into weak and spindly things or else collapsed and died of "damping off." Then there were the white flies that mysteriously appeared and then - deprived of their diet of tender seedlings - infested my winter-weakened house plants. It took me far too long to realize that many seeds would thrive when planted outside as soon as the soil could be worked.

Meg Shelton of Shelton's Herb Farm in Leland, N.C., gave this notion credence at a recent meeting of the Virginia Herb Association. She listed sixteen herbs that could germinate and prosper when directly seeded as soon as the soil could be worked in the spring well before that - always sneaky - last frost.

The annuals - meaning plants that will last one season - on Meg's list included:

Cilantro (Coriander sativum) also called coriander, beloved of Mexican and Indian cooks - but tasting like soap to its detractors - is short lived. Planting seeds over a period of several weeks will assure a longer harvest and as a bonus when the plant goes to seed you will have a fine crop of very tasty coriander seed. Collect them for kitchen use but save a few of them to sow in late summer for another lush crop.

Dill (Anethum graveloens) is good for pickles and a fine ornamental. Again, sow seed every week or so.

Bachelor Button (Centaurea cyanus) is, in herbal medicine, considered to be an astringent. The flowers can be used in salads or dried to add color to potpourri.

Borage (Borago officinalis) produces leaves and flowers with a slight cucumber taste. The heavenly blue flowers make a lovely garnish for cucumber salad.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis), called Mary's gold in the old herbals, is a self-seeding wonder. The flowers are edible and very ornamental.

Chervil (Anthriscus cerfolium), a favorite of French cooks, is little grown in the United States. The wispy, fernlike leaves have a slight anise taste. Try it, minced, with with a piece of poached salmon or in cream cheese dip.

German chamomile (Matricaria recuitia) has daisy-like flowers that are used in tea by herbalists, but should be avoided by those subject to hay fever. It is sweetly scented and makes a good self-seeding ground cover, in the sun, provided it has enough moisture.

Nigella (Nigella damascena) is another self-seeder. It produces oval green and pink striped pods that are invaluable in dried arrangements.

Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) is useful for dried wreaths or arrangements. But I mention it hesitantly since many people experience asthma when exposed to it.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is an often underappreciated but nutritous herb. It is a biennial. Plant it to use this season. It will come up next year but will quickly become too bitter to use and go to seed. Parsley is a slow starter - old herbals declare it must go seven times to the devil before it will sprout. Some herb gardeners help the hellish process along by pouring boiling water over the seed when it is planted.

Caraway (Carum carvi) is also a biennial. All parts of the plant are edible but it is one herb I don't usually waste time growing, preferring to get my seeds at the store.

Perennials on Meg's list started from seed will take longer than annuals to achieve good growth. But it is my experience that the plants, seeded where they are to grow, do better than "imported" seedlings.

French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) once established pops up in earliest spring and makes a lovely, slightly sour, green soup.

Geranium Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), once highly esteemed as an astringent, is grown in our garden as an ornamental that thrives in dry sun or shade.

Lovage (Levisticum officinale) adds a hearty celery flavor to soups and stews and brings welcome height to the herb garden.

Salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) produces lovely oval grayish leaves that are notched around the edges. When minced fine it imparts a light cucumber taste to salads.

Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica or canadensis ) is an aromatic celery flavored herb used in Japanese cooking. It enjoys, rich moist soil and grows well in the shade.

To create your seed bed, dig with a fork and rake carefully. Work a handful or two of vermiculite into the top inch of the soil. This makes a good seed bed and marks the location of the seeds. Plant at the depth suggested on the seed packet, cover with more vermiculite and press gently to anchor the seeds to the soil. Label each plot of seeds. Water gently and try to keep the seeds from drying out.

Note: chamomile, dill and chervil shouldn't be covered as they need light to germinate.

To keep any of the seeds from drying out I often cover the seeded spot with the bottom of a clear plastic fruit or vegetable box with slits; anchor it with stones. Remove covers when the seedlings have developed their second set of leaves.

Now, go sow! It's time to make magic.

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