The St. Louis Herb Society partners with the Missouri Botanical Garden at Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House garden.

Laila Wessel

The first warm days of the season inspire us to dig our fingers deep into the warming soil. For a farmer there is no better smell than that of a freshly plowed field. The early summer farm season continues to produce aromas that satisfy even the most jaded of souls. But there is no place where more foliage fragrance emerges than in the home herb garden.

For the Beginner

    Visit a garden store or nursery and talk to someone who really knows their herbs. For the rank beginner, go with the basics. Basil thrives in our summer heat and grows like a weed. There is always a surplus to make into pesto for the freezer. Julie recommends ‘Greek Columnar,’ a lovely, small-leaved, upright basil that is great for hedging and edging; its sister, ‘Pesto Perpetuo,’ a variegated form; or ‘Cinnamon’ with wonderful cinnamon fragrance from purple stems and flowers.

    To pair with the basil, there must be parsley. This easy-to-grow biennial will be best the first year. The second year, all it wants to do is produce seed. Plant some every year to assure a continual supply. Whatever you do, do not crush the yellow, green and black caterpillars that you may find devouring your first parsley crop. These special creatures turn into lovely swallowtail butterflies!

    Dill and fennel are the filmy, ferny giants in the back border of the herb garden. Plant dill where you can let it re-seed and come up on its own. When it blooms itself out and starts looking pretty rough, just cut it down and let the next generation of sprouts take over.

    The sages are a wonderful group, though not all botanically related. The culinary sages include many cultivars and variegations: Salvia ‘Berggarten’ with voluptuously large leaves, ‘Aurea’ golden sage, ‘Tricolor’ and ‘Purpurea’ (purple sage) are all cultivars of S. officinalis. The colorful leaves add definition to the classic herb bed, and can be used in many ways, from dressing turkey to defining gnocchi. Pineapple sage, Salvia elegans, is not winter-hardy, but the wonderful scarlet tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds are worth the annual replanting.

    Sorrel, Rumex acetosa, is one of my most favorite early spring greens. Think spinach with a strong lemon tang. Julie says it can be harvested all season if kept deadheaded and outer leaves removed on a regular basis. We planted a crescent of it around the curved end of the vegetable garden when we rebuilt it a few years back. It is perennial and easy to establish. My new garden boasts a row of sorrel, and this year is my first harvest. We love it as sorrel soup or sorrel sauce for broiled fish or chicken. Look for it in the greens section at the local farmers markets.

    You may create some framework for your garden by edging with boxwood in the traditional manner. To learn more, visit the Boxwood Collection next to the formal Boxwood Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

    Shopping for potted herbs for your garden is great sport. Since they are almost all small plants, they are not that expensive to buy. Think of them as garden accessories—no one can have too many! Ellen at Bowood Farms recommends ‘Dilly Dilly,’ ‘Kew Red’ and ‘Blueberry Ruffles’ lavenders, ‘Santo’ coriander, mints ‘Habek’ and ‘Macho,’ and both ‘Christmas’ and ‘Marseille’ basils.

What to Do With Fresh Herbs

    Recently, I was asked to speak at the Webster Groves Herb Society (WGHS) 40th anniversary luncheon. With wonderful living herb centerpieces, a delicious meal lovingly laced with herb-filled dishes and a celebration cake imaginatively decorated as an herb garden path, it reminded me how much we all enjoy the brilliance and depth that fresh herbs and spices give to our cuisine. The new WGHS cookbook, released to celebrate this anniversary, is filled with great recipes, both traditional and contemporary. For more information, visit If you would like to see club members’ handiwork, stop by the herb garden at the Historic Hawken House in Webster Groves.

    Another fabulous local herb cookbook, Herbal Cookery from the Kitchens and Gardens of the Saint Louis Herb Society, is available at the SLHS website, Society members volunteer every Tuesday morning from spring to October at the Herb Garden behind Henry Shaw’s Tower Grove House at the Garden and just love to answer questions if you drop by between 8 and 10 a.m.

Horseradish Celebration

    The Herb Society of America is promoting 2011 as The Year of the Horseradish. This plant is very prominent in the local gardening scene, with nearby Collinsville, Ill., as the self-declared horseradish capital of the world. This year’s festival is June 4 to 5 in Woodland Park. You can start horseradish from fresh roots bought at the grocery store, pass-around divisions from a friend or by buying the plants. Typically it is grown clonally, so sink an old wastebasket or large pot in the ground to contain it before planting, as it is very hard to get rid of if it escapes.  LN

Some great cultivars for a new herb garden include:

• Oregano ‘Kent Beauty,’ a spicy scent coupled with beautiful lavender bracts all along the stems. Great in pots.

• Rosemary ‘Arp,’ most reliable for this area and can be winter-hardy with a little protection.

• Rosemary ‘Foxtail,’ great for baskets—don’t overwater!

• English lavenders ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ are both reliable favorites.

• French lavender, L. stoechas, very pretty mauve flowers with long petals that flutter in the breeze.

• Lavender ‘Goodwin Creek’ (L. dentata), a silver-leaved form that does well in our heat and humidity.

• ‘Golden Lemon’ Thyme has just enough yellow to make it catch your eye, and it is fairly winter-hardy here.

    You may ask, What is the difference between an herb and a spice? Herbs are typically the fresh foliage of locally grown annuals or perennials. They may be dried for future use, but most of them are leafy products, though some flowers and seeds are used. Spices may be any very aromatic plant part – root, shoot, bark, bud, flower and seed. Typically these are dried for shipping and are brought to our door from many foreign places. Call them what you will, but enjoy fresh herbs in your garden and on your dinner table. Life would be really dull without them!

Dr. Patricia Raven has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist and manager at the Missouri Botanical Garden.