Botanists describe herbs as a small seed-bearing plant with fleshy rather than woody parts. Herbs are valued for their fragrance, medical use, culinary use and ornamental beauty. They also have outstanding pesticidal properties and have traditionally been used as dyes. Herbs can be grown in stylized, formal gardens or as a casual part of the backyard landscape. They are an easy plant for beginning gardeners to grow.
Herb growing and culture are as old as recorded history. Traditional Chinese medicine has a 5,000 year history of using herbs for medicine. Romans and Greeks crowned heroes and athletes with laurel and bay leaves. They also used parsley as a stomach tonic. In the Middle Ages, babies were coated with the artemisia plant to prevent colds. Shakespeare referred to the mustard herb as a desirable condiment in several of his plays. Rosemary was thought to be a cure for headache. Herbal medicine today is a respected branch of healing called phytomedicine.
Herbs are culinary, ornamental, aromatic or medicinal. Many herbs cross over these categories. Culinary herbs such as rosemary, basil, chervil, tarragon and chives are grown to use as flavoring in cooking. Valerian, borage and chicory have crimson and blue flowers as ornamental plants. Oils from aromatic herbs such as lavender and geranium are used to scent perfumes, linens, and in essential oils. Medicinal herbs for common ailments such as stomachache and nervous tension are mint, chamomile and lavender.
Herb gardens are traditionally part of the kitchen garden. It is a garden area separated from the main garden, used to grow vegetables and herbs. Herb gardens are casual or formal. Highly formalized herb gardens have been a part of the life of royalty and castles. Perennial medicinal plants such as sage and lemon balm can be grown in a corner of the flower garden.
Herbs can be either annuals or perennials. Annuals grow, bloom and die in one season; perennials last for two or more seasons. The range of herb plants is so wide that there is an herb to fit into any garden. Many gardeners favor herb growing because they are very self-sufficient and require less care than other plants. Herbs such as sage and rosemary are pruned back each fall to encourage new growth in the spring.
The most popular herbs to grow are for culinary use. Chives, basil, oregano, parsley, sage, savory, tarragon, lemon verbena and dill are only a partial list.Many gardeners grow herbs that are their favorite to cook with. These herbs can all be easily obtained as seeds or small starter plants. They are sold at garden centers and by mail order.