Grow your own April 10 2002

Usefulness aside, herbs add aesthetic variety to garden

Herbs have a long and colorful history. Their medicinal use was recorded by Greek surgeons dating as far back in history as the first century, and today, they're a multi-billion dollar industry.

But the benefits and characteristics that herbs bring to a garden make their medicinal and culinary uses a bonus. An herb is defined as a plant with a use, but in addition to being useful, garden herbs add a wealth of textures, colors, sizes, shapes and even flowers to a garden. For gardeners, herbs add form, line and color to a garden. And when planted near where one sits or walks, their aroma can be enjoyed when they're touched.

Before entering the planting stage, it's a good idea to seek inspiration at the Atlanta Botanical Garden or Callaway Gardens, an hour south of Atlanta in Pine Mountain, Ga., which both boast fine herb gardens. The Atlanta Botanical Garden has a formal knot garden, its three borders divided by the different uses of herbs — medicinal, culinary and beverage.

Jeri Laufer, a horticulturist with the Atlanta Botanical Gardens and founding chairman of the Atlanta chapter of the Herb Society of Atlanta, recommends three things for growing herbs in the Atlanta climate: sun, lime and good drainage. Herbs like sun, but our soil tends to be too acidic, so lime needs to be added. And be sure to thoroughly till the soil; herbs thrive when well drained.

If you try just one herb, mint is a great choice because it is practically foolproof to grow. In fact, mint is best contained in one area of the garden by a brick border or grown in a container, because once established, it will run amok. Laufer suggests novices try "Kentucky Colonel" mint.

Growing herbs in the Georgia climate also requires making accommodations for the humidity. Herbs prefer arid and temperate climates with dry summers that don't get very hot. Space the herbs when planting to allow the air to circulate around them and prevent stagnation. V.J. Billings, owner of Mountain Valley Growers of California, says to put herbs in an area or plot by themselves to make it easier to keep them pruned to prevent flowering. Otherwise, they will go to seed.

If you're the governor of Georgia, you don't have to plant your own herbs. An herb garden just happens to be one of the perks of life in the Governor's Mansion. The governor's current chef cooks with Russian tarragon, purple and green basil, curly parsley, oregano and thyme plucked from the mansion's garden. Andy Padgett, horticulturist for the grounds of the Governor's Mansion, recommends raised beds for herbs and suggests trying lavender, a traditional English herb, which does well here because it can take the heat and full sun.

A final bit of advice: Plant your herbs early in the season. Nurseries order herbs in the spring, and once the selection is gone, they usually do not reappear. There is, however, a great variety to be had if you don't mind mail order.??

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