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29 June, 2011

Garden 5: Urban Herbin'

Beeing busy, it's nice to have some things going on in the garden that don't require so much attention right now. Fruit trees and berry bushes, pruned and carrying on by sheer momentum as I dig, plant, thin and weed. Perennials pushing skyward as I fuss over their seed-dependent neighbors. And herbs.

The first bed to go in as I staked my claim to this property--pretty much as soon as the farmers market opened for the Spring--was home to herbs. Oregano, thyme, some other thyme, some other oregano, and thyme again. Chives. Some other thing that looked cool but tasted like crap, which manages to sprout anew each year (but each year a bit weaker, less able to resist the onslaught of my weed-ripping assaults). Lavender and lavendar. This bed, atop a west-facing slope, perched on the gravelly edge of the road, is just the kind of hotspot herbs appreciate. They bask in sun all day, save the few minutes that the power line pole's shadow passes by, a long hand marking time.

The core herb garden has satellites elsewhere through the property. Dill volunteering where it pleases, preparing to flavor pickles. Culinary bay in a clay pot, migrating indoors in winter; Oregon wild bay, rooting quickly and leafing slowly. Sages and tarragon in the meadow, enriching the wild(ish) with the flavorful. Motherwort, valerian, skullcap, and more, growing farmaceuticals. 

What grows most are the flavors I crave, but the herbs pull multiple duty, as most plants must here in the urban garden. Flowers draw beneficial insects. Hardy species adapted to poor soil and drought help me colonize the roadside. The perennials hold down soil and fill spots from year to year so I can focus labor elsewhere. 

And mint. Oh the mint. I'm used to this being a plant that goes hog-wild wherever there is water, but never have I witnessed the profusion that exists here in Cascadian lowlands. The company that produces the most mint oil in the country is around here for a reason. Several varieties (Scotch, Mojito, and a couple whose tastes are more memorable than their names) are forming carpets as we speak. Mint takes more effort than many herbs, but the work involves keeping it in check, not making it grow. 

Now that the sun is shining (well, not this minute, but more in June than in May, and hopefully more in July than now), harvests are possible. Paying attention to the plants is important (like, you want to catch oregano before is starts to flower, because the plants really go downhill after that exertion, reaching for a cigarette and laying back), but I also go by weather. Ideally, picking is toward the end of a hot day on a clear week, oils abundant and not washed away, potent and ready. 

Thymes, some kinds at least, flower quickly and abundantly, and so often as not I miss the pure foliage period and end up harvesting flowers. I've read that this just isn't done, but the texture and taste is the same. If I ever have a large enough garden, I'd grow thyme commercially, harvesting it all at flower time, marketing it as a premium product. Not because I like money that much, but just to be the contrarian agrarian, growing good stuff that the garden books will not abide. 

The roster of herbs in my urban garden grows each year, and the plants themselves grow larger and more productive. This year's new varieties include stevia and licorice. I got some white sage for smudging, and several native species of sage, wild onions, and mystery plants have made their entry into the meadow. Some of the thyme, oregano, and lavendar have reached respectable size. These herbs anchor the garden, provide constancy while the annuals dance from place to place.

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