Lancaster is called the “Garden Spot of America” and as a gardener I can attest to the accuracy of that title.
Since I was a small child, gardening has been my passion. To plant seeds in early Spring and watch them pop up through the dirt a few weeks later is still so exciting to me. When people ask me, “What’s new Katy?”; I might say, “My onions are up! or My zinnias are starting to bloom!”. To me that’s big news. Over the years I’ve worked in several different gardens, some being my own and some were helping with my parents’ gardens both vegetable and flower. What I’ve learned is plants have a mind of their own and they’re rather fussy. Some like sun with lots of water. Others want a dry loose dirt. Some love a good pruning and others absolutely hate it. They remind me of people with their pet peeves. For example: I’ve planted Echinacea or Cone Flower which in most Lancaster gardens is like a weed. It spreads and flourishes but in mine it would last a year and disappear. Then 3 years ago I found it’s spot. It loves my sunniest side of the house which tends to bake during the heat of the day. The dirt is hard and dry clay compared to the moist rich soil that pervades most of the rest of my plot. Trial and error and lots and lots and lots of patience are the key to learning what each plant likes.
As the years have gone by, I’ve become attracted to plants that do double duty. For instance: Zinnias (annual) grow beautifully in Lancaster, but my favorite thing is they are great picking flowers. They last 7-10 days in a vase with fresh water and they look fabulous. I also plant Nasturtiums seeds (annual) which are a horrible picking flower (they wilt instantly) but they are edible and are fantastic in salads both visually (bright yellows, oranges and reds) and for their peppery taste. This duality when thinking of plants has become something of an obsession with me and I will hesitate to put a plant in my garden unless it has at least 2 uses.
No group of plants shares these dual character traits better than herbs. Most often they have stunning blooms and of course most herbs are edible and have medicinal properties. The following list is my top five herbs that I must have in my garden.
NUMBER ONE– Comfrey. Comfrey is a wonderful plant, it grows anywhere in my garden and I mean anywhere. Good or bad soil, shade or sun and it is self weeding. I planted it on my grassy hillside without getting rid of the grass. In one season it flourished and took over the entire area where no weeds or grass grows through it. I keep spreading it along this very hard to mow area and I do nothing to it except to rake out the dead leaves from the year before. I add these dead leaves to my vegetable garden specifically around the tomato plants. They are high in
potassium and the tomatoes love it. It’s also wonderful to add to a compost pile. It’s originally why I planted it in the first place. That is just a small list of it’s benefits in the garden. It’s highly medicinal and I use it like aloe if I have a burn or a scratch. You just squeeze the juice out of the stem and put that slimy liquid right on the wound. My Amish friend wrapped an entire leaf around a her finger which had a small cut that wasn’t healing. It kept cracking and it was starting to get infected. She wrapped that finger in the leaf and tied a string around it. In one day the infection was gone and the healing had begun. There are many other uses like comfrey tea and you can make poultices and other healing salves.
NUMBER TWO– Mint. I love it for its flavor and aroma. I make a wonderful mint sun tea in the summer. Just put a large handful of freshly picked mint into a large glass jug of water and let it sit in the sun. Add a teaspoon of local honey or sliced lemon and you have a wonderful drink and natural detox. I have found though that growing it in a contained area is best since it spreads and is almost impossible to get rid of if you want to do something different in that space. I now put it in lovely large blue containers. Comes back every year, looks great, taste great and I love walking by and passing my hands through it. It comes in many flavors: spearmint, peppermint, lemon mint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint. Believe it or not there are more flavors than I just listed.
NUMBER THREE– Basil. You can’t beat basil for any Italian dish. Essential really. I make as much pesto as I can throughout the summer and freeze it. There is nothing like fresh basil pesto over tortellini, especially in the winter then I get to taste a little summer.
NUMBER FOUR– Garlic. My Amish friend gave me a clump of garlic 9 years ago and now I have a garlic patch that’s 6’ x 6’. I have the tastiest garlic all year since it freezes easily. Simply put it in a Ziplock bag and put it in the freezer. When you pull it out to use, just run it under hot water and the skin falls right off. Easy! Easy! Easy! The taste is so fresh tasting that bought garlic just isn’t the same. You have to try it to get it. You can also use the garlic seeds that bloom from the orchid looking flower. I’ve seen the seeds canned and sold. They are a milder garlic flavor but so yummy. And let’s face it, it’s just cool to say, “I made this dish with garlic flowers.”
NUMBER FIVE– Sage. I like all sage for it’s aroma. It’s easy to dry an burn as an incense. It’s also wonderful with butternut squash and other savory dishes. I love how it smells in my garden and it draws bees to its purple blooms. Also they are a deer deterrent.
There are so many more herbs than I’ve listed and they all have fantastic character traits. If you are only interested in using them visually, put different kinds in a large pot and add some marigolds for color. Spectacular! Grow large quantities for freezing or for making infused oils and vinegars. Dry them for your spice rack. Grow them for your compost pile or for medicinal purposes. Simply have fun gardening with herbs!