May 2007 Issue
Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and More
Ohio has become a hotbed for herbs, and throughout the spring, summer and fall you'll find places to learn how to grow them and celebrate their culinary, medicinal and aesthetic benfits.
The woody wisteria vines twist around arbor trellises in the herb garden. Trained to intertwine, the vines resemble the long, thick braid of a young woman. A visitor walking along the red brick paths and under the arbors imagines a heartbroken woman gathering parsley or French tarragon many years ago. Could the woman's unrequited love have caused her sad demise? Is she now forever part of the garden, the braided vines a symbol of her devotion?
Wait a minute. This sounds like an ancient fairy tale. The Geroux Herb Gardens in Gahanna was officially dedicated in 2002. Thankfully, the only tragedy here is if a visitor doesn't have enough time to admire the scented geraniums that can smell of apples or nutmeg.
Jump-starting a vivid imagination is only one of the magical powers of herb gardens. Since antiquity, herbs have been grown and harvested for medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and household uses. Some herbs also have a dark side (think deadly nightshade and unfriendly spells), but that only adds to their intriguing nature.
Ohio may be associated with corn and soybeans, but the Department of Development also declares the state "a hotbed for herbs." Nowhere is that more evident than in Gahanna, declared the Herb Capital of Ohio by the state legislature in 1972. Thousands of tourists and herb lovers are expected to attend the citywide May Herb Day on Saturday, May 19, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sponsored by the Gahanna Historical Society and the Ohio Herb Education Center, the event features live herb plant sales, garden tours, crafts, culinary demonstrations and children's activities. Many retailers also participate. Shoppers at the Honey Grove Botanicals Bath Boutique can create their own herbal tea bath, and local bakeries, wineries and restaurants use herbs in incredible, edible ways. And you've heard of firefighters' chili cook-offs, but how about a Firefighters' Herb Cook-off?
Some historians say Gahanna was known for the "quality and quantity of the herbs" the area produced in the 1800s. Today's civic leaders credit 83-year-old Bunnie Geroux, founder of the Ohio Herb Education Center, for giving Gahanna, a suburb of Columbus, its recent claim to fame.
Geroux was introduced to herbs at her grandmother's farm in Indiana, where intoxicating "smells of herbs and spices came from the summer kitchen." Geroux moved to Ohio more than 60 years ago and continued to experiment with culinary herbs.
"But the gardening part didn't come to me until I was in my early 40s," says Geroux, known to share lavender madelines and white plum tea with visitors. "It amazed me how I could put herbs in the ground and they would grow with little or no problem." (Geroux believes beginning herb gardeners can't miss with chives, thyme and sweet woodruff with its white, star-like flowers.)
The Ohio Herb Education Center, housed in a quaint 1800s brick farmhouse and framed with little beds of basil and bay, offers herbal classes and a library. The gift shop sells herbal soaps, teas and the center's own brand of herbal seasonings, which (according to the labels) are "packaged by elves living in little villages, under trees."
This year the City of Gahanna's Department of Parks and Recreation will assume responsibility for the center, a change that will assure its continuation.
Geroux's heart is also with The Goosefoot Herb Garden, located on the property of the Gahanna Historical Society, along Big Walnut Creek. The traditional shape of the garden resembles the wide footprint of a goose, with several red brick or stone paths separating plant species. The paths made it possible for herbalists of yesterday to gather dew-covered herbs in the morning without getting their long skirts wet.
Gahanna also celebrates Herb Harvest Day on Saturday, October 6. The Ohio Herb Education Center is open all year, Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sundays and major holidays.
After The Herb Society of America outgrew its national headquarters in Boston, it bought and renovated an 1841 "pioneer Greek revival" house in Kirtland in 1988. The oldest stone house in Lake County, it was once owned by nearby Holden Arboretum and embellished in the 1900s by Benjamin Hubbell, Sr., a designer of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The unique building is the perfect home for the society's centuries-old herbals (herb books), its 300-volume special collections library and its extensive online reference services. Librarians Christine Liebson and Helen Tramte field questions from all over the world about what plants to include in a Shakespeare Herb Garden, how to corral mint plants that want to take over, or how to start a small herb farm. The library is open to the public, but most on-site researchers work on scholarly projects.
Although some display herbs are grown at headquarters, herb enthusiasts are encouraged to visit the National Herb Garden, located in the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Dedicated in 1980, it is the largest designed herb garden in the country and was a gift of the Herb Society of America.
Katrinka Morgan, the society's interim executive director, believes America's renewed interest in natural remedies, as well as eating wholesome, fresh food and creative cooking, has helped lead the current herb renaissance. Gardening also remains the favorite hobby of Americans, and herbs are so forgiving, even toward the most neglectful gardener.
"Herbs are not one-dimensional plants. They are just not pretty or ornamental, but have many uses," says Robin A. Siktberg, the society's horticulturist. "If you grow herbs in your garden, you get so much more. Many herbs are easy to grow if you have a well-drained soil and a sunny spot.
"A knot garden is beautiful, but difficult to maintain and it's something most people don't do just by themselves. [Knots are geometric features of herb gardens that originated in 16th century England.] I wouldn't recommend starting on a large scale because it gets overwhelming. Begin by putting a few herbs in an existing garden plot or flower bed. You don't need a separate herb garden. Old-fashioned roses and yarrow make wonderful garden plants. I even grow a few herbs on my deck where it is very sunny."
The Herb Society of America sells The Beginner's Herb Garden, which can be purchased through one of the society's affiliated units or at the headquarters.
Recommendations from the booklet, Siktberg and other herb enthusiasts for growing herbs in Ohio include:
- Start with good soil. The heavy clay soil of northeast and central Ohio should be improved with leaf humus and other organic material to promote root growth. Siktberg says to avoid manure, which can create "too much foliage growth and dilute the essential oils" of herbs. A basic, slow release fertilizer can be used. "Mediterranean herbs" (rosemary, lavender, etc.) appreciate small gravel added to the soil for drainage.
- Choose a site that receives about four to six hours or more of sun a day. But don't despair if yours is primarily a shady yard. Choose mint, chervil, lady's mantle and valerian.
- When transplanting herb plants, set the plant in the bottom of the hole so the soil is the same level as it was in the pot. Be generous when watering newly potted annuals, not so hasty with perennials. Once established, thoroughly water the plants periodically, which is generally a better method than frequent light watering.
- Admit it - some of us do absolutely nothing with our herbs except enjoy their beauty in the garden. For others, harvesting to make fragrances, dyes and dried flower arrangements, or picking them for salads, teas and rubs, is the highlight of the season. Different herbs have different harvesting needs. But generally, for best results, collect on a sunny morning after the dew is gone. Here's where you get to look romantic in the garden - use a pretty basket (or a paper bag, just not plastic bags) to gather herbs.
- Many herbs can be dried (in a dark, dry place with good circulation) and some can be frozen without losing too much flavor. If you like the look of herb plants hanging upside down on hooks to dry, that's fine for decoration. But the plants will get dusty and may attract insects. If you intend to eat hanging plants, some gardeners suggest tying a light cotton bag or pillow case around a bunch first.
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5 Favorite Herbs
| Lemon Balm
The 2007 Herb of the Year, as designated by the International Herb Society, is a member of the mint family. Its lemon-flavored leaves are used as a culinary treat when a hint of lemon is desired. Caution - this is an invasive plant.
Of course we think Thanksgiving stuffing. But the herb is also said to have antiseptic and healing properties. Try it as a tea the next time you have a sore throat.
A culinary annual whose relationship to tomatoes is legendary. Not to mention pesto. Its red varieties sing in herbal vinegars.
Rediscover why our grandmothers loved the fragrance of this perennial herb in perfume and potpourri. The plant becomes woody - not a bad thing - once established.
This perennial with needle-like leaves has one of the world's most fascinating herb histories. Long associated with weddings, funerals and for "remembrance," it is also an insect repellent and seasoning.
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