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The well-seasoned garden
By LENNIE BENNETT
Herbs are the Meryl Streeps of the plant world, solid performers capable of glamorous turns, polyglots comfortable in almost any setting.
So why do we treat them with such banality? We stick the fab five -- parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and basil -- in pots and call them an herb garden.
Consider planting a real herb garden.
You can create a small, in-ground one in a day or two. In return, you'll have a thing of beauty that's also full of practical uses.
A good place to start for inspiration is the herb garden at the University of South Florida's Botanical Gardens in Tampa.
Brenda Hanson, who helped plant it 12 years ago, is its volunteer curator.
"Herbs are easy to grow in pots," she said. "An in-ground herb garden is more work. But it is also very rewarding."
Hanson cites three basic considerations in planting an in-ground herb garden: design, location and soil.
"Herb gardens can have either a formal or informal design," she said. "You have to chose what kind of garden fits in with your home style. The formal garden is geometric and ordered, with symmetrical beds; the informal, or cottage style, is free-flowing and takes its structure from the repetition of plants."
A formal garden will likely be more work to lay out. At the USF garden, a plot measuring about 10 square feet is classically designed with four small beds at each corner and a rectangular bed in the center, all connected by pavers. Any formal bed should be staked and measured for equal proportions. An informal bed can be designed simply by using your garden hose to create either a straight or serpentine design. No bed should be deeper than 4 feet so you'll have access to all areas, Hanson said.
Some herbs can take full sun, but she said in Florida, ideal conditions are five to six hours of morning sun only. The garden at USF benefits from "high shade," a canopy of tall, older trees that admits morning's angled light and filters the harsher afternoon sun.
The last important thing to do is amend your soil for nutrition and drainage.
"That's the only way to have a successful herb garden," Hanson said.
She suggests creating a raised bed, which allows for good drainage and for creating the right soil balance. Define it with bricks, stone or wood beams. She cautions against treated wood; its toxins can leech into the soil. Leeching, on the other hand, works in the garden's favor if you use Florida limestone because herbs like lime. Line the bed with newspaper to inhibit weeds, fill it with top soil and mix in sand, peat moss and compost or a manure such as Black Cow. Many garden shops have soil-testing kits; if yours does not have a pH level of 6.5 to 7, you should add a dose of lime. You'll also want to apply a granular fertilizer, Hanson said.
That done, the hard part is over and you can get creative.
"An herb garden, rather than herbs in pots, lets you chose themes," said Hanson, "and they're a lot of fun."
Theme gardens are based on an herb's use -- culinary, medicinal or fragrance -- or on a historical, literary or artistic reference.
The most common herb gardens are culinary ones, but within that broad category, you can go quirkily specific. In a round bed, for example, plant a pizza garden with marjoram, oregano, Italian parsley and several kinds of basil.
The USF garden has a "tea bed" with camomile, lemon balm, lemon verbena, Moujean Tea, bee balm (the plant colonial Americans used for their brew after dumping the real thing into Boston Harbor) and catnip, which, at USF, is usually pre-empted by Rafters, the garden's adopted cat, so named because she was found hiding in the rafters of the lathe house after she was abandoned a year ago.
One bed is devoted to mint, and the USF gardeners solved the usual problem of its invasiveness by planting them inside sunken plastic containers whose bottoms have been cut out, which keeps them from spreading unchecked.
Like mint and basil, thyme is available in many varieties, both as upright plants and creepers, in colors ranging from silver to bright green, which makes for a lovely single-plant bed or one with other plants. At USF, gardeners plant it in the center bed of the formal garden, around a sundial, an obvious but charming play on words.
A nearby fragrance garden contains lavender, rosemary, scented geraniums and artemesia, all easily grown in the ground.
USF's informal herb garden contains mostly those classified as medicinal, arranged in a long bed about 3 feet deep, sited against a wall. Goldenrod anchors the back, and in front are cone flowers, yarrow, St. John's wort, hyssop, feverfew, wormwood, aloe and lots of other herbs purported to help everything from migraines to insomnia.
Hanson ticked off other ideas: an herb garden with plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays; or the Bible, one of American Indian herbs, of edible flowers (pansies, nasturtiums, borage, marigolds, flowering herbs such as chives), a moonlight garden with silvery herbs and those with white blooms.
"There are so many possibilities, it's tempting to go overboard," she said. "Start small with herbs you know. Don't get in over your head."
Nurseries and garden centers usually stock basic herbs; plant sales by local gardens such as USF, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg, the Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota often offer more unusual varieties. And mail-order is a good source for hard-to-find herbs.
Herb gardens need frequent watering, preferably in the morning, monthly fertilizing and weeding. Herbs are generally pest-resistant, Hanson said. Put out organic bait for snails and slugs if they start chewing on leaves.
A wonderful bonus, she said, is that many herbs are larval food plants. If you see caterpillars on your dill, fennel or parsley, you will probably have a batch of Eastern black swallowtail butterflies flitting through your garden shortly thereafter.
Some herbs in Florida are true perennials, but most have to be treated as annuals that don't survive our summers. But plant now, said Hanson, and you will have a glorious herb garden through June.
"When you get into herbs," she said, "you get into culture, into history and folklore, making your own pesto or potpourri. There's something for everyone in herbs."
At the gardens
The Botanical Gardens at University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave., are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Admission is free. The gardens contain a variety of specialized areas within its seven acres including ones devoted to herbs, butterfly attractors, shade plants, carnivorous bog plants, bromeliads, grasses, bonsai and native plants. For information, call (813) 974-2329
Herb garden resources
Herbs and Spices for Florida Gardens by Monica Moran Brandiesand Betty Mackey. The Herb Society of America Encyclopedia of Herbs by Demi Brown
Southern Herb Growing by Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay published by Shearer.
A mail-order source she recommends is Sandy Mush Herb Nursery in North Carolina, (828)-683-2014 or www.brwm.org/sandymushherbs/.
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From the wire