KENNEWICK -- The National Garden Bureau has named 2012 as the "Year of the Herbs."
Each year the National Garden Bureau names one vegetable, one flower, and one perennial to be showcased. The honored plants are selected because they're popular, easy-to-grow, and widely adapted to gardens across the country.
I love garden herbs, but what's the technical definition of an herb?
Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, says, "Herbs are defined as plants valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualitites, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide." I consider garden herbs to be annual or perennial plants used for fragrance or in flavoring savory or sweet dishes.
Many of the garden herbs that area gardeners can grow prosper in full sun and a well drained soil that's slightly acid to slightly alkaline.
Some herbs, such as sage, thyme and lavender, thrive under our hot, dry summer conditions. Most herbs don't grow best in soils high in organic matter or nitrogen, but will benefit from some added compost if the soil is very sandy, compacted or infertile. When it comes to soil moisture, certain herbs like sage, thyme, lavender, and oregano prefer dryer soil conditions and others like lovage, parsley, basil and cilantro prefer evenly moist soil.
One of my favorite herbs is garden sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage is a strong seasoning used when cooking poultry, sausage,and stuffing. However, its flavor is not why sage is my "favorite." I hold this herb in high esteem because it does double duty for me as a flowering perennial. It dependably produces pretty purple flower spikes that attract birds, bees, and butterflies. The blue-gray sage foliage provides a pleasing contrast to the bright and dark green leaves of plants.
Another perennial herb that I like to grow is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Also a savory herb, rosemary is easy to grow. Some cultivars grow into woody shrubs that are trained into large decorative topiary. Unfortunately, most cultivars of rosemary aren't hardy in our zone. An exception is a variety named 'Arp,' which is quite hardy. Arp grows from 3 to 5 feet tall and has tiny light blue flowers.
My other favorite herb is common sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum). The flavor and fragrance of basil is heavenly. Because it is an annual, I like to grow basil in a large pot on my patio. One thing I don't like about basil is its propensity to go to flower or "bolt." Once it starts to flower, the production of useful leaves declines along with its flavor. You can keep pinching out the flowers, but it's usually a losing battle. Your best bet is to select a cultivar that's slow to "bolt." Many gardeners favor the Genovese cultivar because of its flavor and it's slow to bolt.
For the past two years, I also have planted 'Pesto Perpetuo,' a decorative basil that doesn't flower, so no pinching is required. 'Pesto Perpetuo' grows into a dense, columnar plant reaching a height of 2 to 3 feet and a width of only 1 foot. The bright green variegated leaves contrast well with the darker stems. It has typical sweet basil flavor with a hint of lemon.
This coming season, I plan to use it in the center of my large flower planters for height.
So now that you know this is "the Year of the Herbs," honor these flavorful plants by planting your favorites this year.
* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension.