Herb Garden

I love classic perennial borders and great splashes of annual flowers, but over the years I’ve reluctantly abandoned the idea of having them part of my gardens.  I give the time and space I have for gardening to a kitchen garden, vegetables and fruit.  Vegetables do have lovely blossoms, of course.  Peas and runner beans, potatoes and squash all bloom, but only briefly on their way to becoming food and not with the continual bloom of real flower gardens.

If like me you yearn for a patch of flowers but don’t want to take time away from vegetables, consider perennial herbs. Years ago, I planted an herb garden along the path that leads to our front door.  Each spring it’s filled with blooms for long enough to satisfy that part of me that still dreams of growing ornamental gardens.

Over the fifteen years that I’ve grown herbs in this garden, I’ve narrowed the selection to those that thrive: thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, hyssop, catmint and lavender. All bloom intensely in shades of blue, pink and purple for most of May and June.  The rest of the year, after I sheer back the spent blooms, the plants offer shades of green and gray, and spiky, soft and lacey textures, all beautiful and even better all available to flavor the vegetables that claim most of my time.

Another plus of perennial herbs is that they grow well in areas where vegetables would struggle.  The 24 by 40 foot site of my herb garden lost what topsoil it had during house construction.  The clayey subsoil that was left gives way to bedrock in places.  After a couple of seasons of cover crops and the installation of curtain drains under gravel paths to draw away winter rains, I was left with a planting site that was OK, not good enough for vegetables but fine for herbs.

If you want to give perennial herbs a try, most are easy to start from seed or cuttings. Seeds of sage, thyme, catmint, hyssop and chives germinate easily.  Even lavender was surprisingly easy because I used the variety Lavender Lady, an AAS winner in 1994 that blooms the first year from seed.  And rosemary branches from a friend rooted in water and grew well. Space plants twelve to eighteen inches apart and in a season or two they’ll fill in the spaces between and spill over the paths.  I irrigate my herb garden several times a summer because Northwest summers are so dry but herbs do tolerate drought.

Nichols Garden Nursery catalog of “herbs and fine seeds for the gardener cook” offers a great selection, as do the herb sections of most seed catalogs.  Two herb garden design books that inspired me are Ethne Clarke’s Herb Garden Design and Jim Wilson’s Landscaping with Herbs but the greatest inspiration was a short row of blooming edible herbs I planted as an experiment and discovered could stand in for a flower garden.

Spring Turnips

I love the sweet, earthy flavor of winter roots like turnips and rutabaga, but until recently I didn’t realize I could get this flavor from spring grown turnips too.  Reading the Fedco catalog turnip listings, I saw the description of Oasis turnip a few entries above my favorite winter turnip, Gilfeather: “delicate sweet fruity flavor and crisp tender texture so suitable for salads and light cooking.”

Clearly I’d been missing out by limiting my turnip eating to winter.

Winter turnips are softball size or bigger, gnarly and thick-skinned on the outside and topped with coarse though still tasty greens.  Spring turnips are tiny in comparison, golf ball size and smooth, round and white, thin-skinned with tender green tops.  I plant winter turnips in mid-July and they mature by early October.  In our marine climate, they hold in the ground all winter, getting sweeter with each frost.  Spring turnips, I found, can be planted just as the winter turnip harvest is ending.  I planted the first crop in early March this year and another in late April.  The March planting was ready to harvest by early May and the April planting was ready even sooner, early June.

To minimize root maggot and flea beetle damage, I covered the just planted seeds with Reemay and kept the germinated seedlings and then maturing plants covered until they were nearly ready to harvest.  I planted the seeds about an inch apart and began thinning and harvesting turnips when they were an inch across.  Those that stayed in the ground grew quickly to two inches across.

Encouraged by Alice Water’s recipe for roasting spring turnips in her Chez Panisse Vegetables, I roasted the first harvest of spring turnips.  After cutting off the greens but leaving two inches of stem, I cut the turnips in half, lightly brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled on a little salt and roasted them at 425 for about fifteen minutes. As one of my friends said after a mouthful, “these melt in your mouth!”  Another added, “These are my new favorite vegetable!”  Mine too!

The flavor is light and delicate but still carries the earthiness that makes winter turnips so appealing.   And then there are the greens.  I understand now why people grow turnips just for the greens.  Sautee them in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes.  They wilt down and finish cooking very quickly, releasing the expected mustardy fragrance but also the surprising fragrance of corn.  They are delicious on their own or as a bed for the roasted turnips.

So next year, I’m planting more varieties of spring turnips and looking forward to more kitchen discoveries.  Suggestions?  Favorites?  Let me know.