At the Root

Story Felder Rushing

How hard is it, really, to grow a few useful kitchen herbs?

Heck, for years now I’ve grown culinary herbs in the back of my pickup truck, proving there are some that can take both summer heat and winter freezes — and tolerate winds up to 80 miles an hour!

I do this to make the point that you don’t need a traditional herb garden to grow herbs — just a few pots and some sunlight. Even kids can do it in old boots or toy wagons. In fact, introducing kids to easy-to-grow, easy-to-use herbs like basil, mint, oregano and rosemary is the easiest way to get them into successful gardening.

For that matter, many perfectly edible flowers, including violas, daylilies, redbud and roses, are grown because they’re pretty, not because you can eat them. And colorful lettuces planted in the fall or late winter are as pretty as anything … and when you get tired of looking at them, you can just eat ’em!

Think about it: Herbs aren’t a special botanical class — they are just individual plants, which happen to have uses other than good looks. You may even already grow some without realizing it. How many of us grow iris, but have never used its dried root as a powdered herbal fixative? Ever use the foliage of yarrow to wrap cuts and scrapes? Few folks wash their hair with soapwort, or clean their teeth with horsetail, even though for centuries that’s what they were used for. Nowadays we grow them as regular landscape plants, not herbs.

Yet to me, a herb isn’t a herb unless you use it as such, any more than a bicycle is transportation if you don’t actually ride it.

By the way, I pronounce the hard “h” in herb, like my English ancestors — not like the French who drop the letter. Either or Eye-ther way is fine (the only way to be incorrect is by correcting someone else).

Over the years, I’ve settled down to growing just a few herbs that are attractive in the garden, easy to grow and that I actually use. My toughest garden herbs, which take both summer and winter conditions in the Deep South, include rosemary (which makes a sizeable bush), bay laurel, oregano, chives, garlic chives, mints, thyme and Mexican tarragon or Mexican mint marigold. Every summer I set out several kinds of basil, and in the fall I plant a few garlic cloves and some cold-hardy parsley.

There are other easy and useful herbs, of course, but these are the ones that are most useful to me and my kitchen.

Warning: How-to ahead — Most herbs grow best in well-drained flower beds, small raised beds or containers, with at least six or seven hours of direct sunlight, a tiny amount of fertilizer and only occasional soakings. When I set out transplants, I always loosen their roots and potting soil, and mulch them after planting.

The main point is this: You don’t have to be a farmer, or even have a dedicated vegetable or herb garden, to enjoy wonderful and edible plants grown as mere garden plants. It’s how you use them that make them so much more special.