Green Thumbs Up: The edible garden

Suzanne Mahler

With the passing of the summer solstice, unsettled, sticky weather and a constant threat of hit-and-miss thunder storms have arrived right on cue, making even the simplest gardening activities a challenge.

Despite the uncomfortable conditions and the many interruptions dodging splash-and-dash showers, there are innumerable tasks to tackle as I continue to play catch-up with planting annuals, vegetables and container gardens.

Every spring, I intend to plant these tender seedlings around Memorial Day, but it is often the Fourth of July before annual and vegetable transplants find their way into soil. Warmth, fertilizer and consistent moisture usually make up for lost time, however — we still manage to harvest bountiful quantities of vegetables, and the annuals put on a great show by late summer.

Herbs are often the last plants to find their way into my decorative containers or gardens. While I enjoy using a variety of basic herbs in cooking and delight in the fragrance of their scented leaves, they often struggle in my heavy, wet soil.

I have resorted to pot culture for many of my culinary herbs, enabling me to harvest their bounty from containers on my deck, where they flourish alongside my pot-grown vegetables. Additional herbs are grown at the base of my deck stairs, their leaves within easy reach to release their pungent aromas as we pass by.

The term “herb” is derived from the Latin “herba,” meaning grass or green crop, and the majority of commonly grown herbs are herbaceous plants whose leaves, flowers, seeds, roots or other parts are used for flavor, fragrance, medicines, cosmetics or dyes.

Most herbs require full sun for at least six hours. Many popular herbs perform best in well-drained, dry, lean soils to which lime has been added. Heavy soils should be lightened with organic matter and sand to improve drainage. Avoid enriching soils with manure or high nitrogen fertilizers, which promote leggy, soft growth.

Popular herbs that prefer dry, sunny environments include lavender, rosemary, oregano, cilantro, dill, thyme and sage. Lemon balm, chives, mints, parsley, basil and angelica will tolerate or even prefer partial shade and rich, moisture-retentive soils.

The wonderful world of herbs includes annual, perennial and even a few biennial members. Mints, lavender, tarragon, oregano, sage, thyme and chives tend to be hardy perennials in our area.

Be wary of members of the mint family, including lemon balm, spearmint and peppermint, as these delightfully aromatic plants tend to be aggressive spreaders and are often best confined to containers or spaces where they cannot wander freely.

Marjoram, fennel and rosemary are considered tender perennials. I adore the fragrance of rosemary and grow it in a container year-round, keeping it in my 3-seasons porch when cold weather arrives and bringing indoors on only the coldest nights. Cool temperatures and good air circulation are essential to minimize mildew on rosemary during the indoor growing period.

Parsley is a biennial but is usually best grown as an annual because its leaves become tough during its second season, when its pretty white flowers appear. Basil, dill and cilantro are annual plants. It should be noted that cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) and coriander are the same plant. When the leaves and stems are eaten fresh, the plant is known as cilantro; its seeds are considered a spice and are referred to as coriander.

While I cultivate a number of herbs for culinary purposes, I value others for their attractive, aromatic foliage. Members of the thyme family offer a diversity of flower and foliage colors, making them candidates for both the kitchen garden and the rock garden.

Creeping thymes with tiny leaves are ideal for tucking among rockery or paving stones, where they release their pungent fragrance when lightly crushed, but these low-growers are not generally used in cooking. Bronze fennel is a personal favorite for its handsome feathery foliage, delicate lemon yellow flowers and strong licorice scent.

While many herbs are grown for culinary purposes or their fragrant foliages, there are many enticing edible flowers that can be cultivated to add color and pizzazz to salads, cold drinks and soups, or steeped to make delicious teas. The flowers of bee balm, calendula, chamomile, chives, daylilies, lavender, lemon and tangerine gem marigolds, nasturtiums, pansies, violets and squash blossoms are just a few that offer tasty and colorful accents to summertime fare.

Daylily and squash blossoms can be sautéed, baked, stir-fried or stuffed. Daylily buds have a flavor that is often compared to a cross between green beans and asparagus; and fresh flower petals, especially on the pale-colored varieties, taste like sweet lettuce; darker colors are often spicy.

Once the stamens and pistils have been extricated, blossoms offer an elegant receptacle for tuna or crabmeat salad, or even sorbet.

Annual chamomile flowers (Matricaria recutita) are well-known for flavoring teas; and the flowers of bee balm, particularly the red varieties, have long been used along with their leaves to produce a strong, spicy, but minty tea.

The colorful blossoms of nasturtiums are decorative, tangy additions to salads. Chive flowers, harvested just after they open, have the flavor of sweet onions and can be sprinkled over salads or used in dips. Pansies, Johnny-jump-ups and violets may be candied, used for decorating desserts, or frozen in ice cubes to create a festive punch bowl.

Whether you grow them in decorative containers, gardens, or on your windowsill, the cultivation of herbs and edible flowers offers innumerable choices to delight the senses.

Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers