Marianne Binetti

Marianne Binetti: Herbs the talk of the garden right now

The end of May is a good time to add herbs to the landscape. Enjoy the fragrant, tasteful and useful plants as part of a low-water landscape or edible garden.

Many of the most popular herbs — such as lavender, oregano and thyme — are originally from Mediterranean countries with long, hot summers. That makes them great landscaping plants for rocky soil, or for sunny areas you don’t want to water.

One of the best things about growing lavender is that it will look its best if you never water it at all. Rainfall alone is enough to keep lavender producing blooms and fragrant foliage in Western Washington.

Here are the most asked herb-growing questions from readers:

Q. Are there any herbs I can grow in the shade?

A. Yes. Ignore the sun-loving basil, and thyme. If you have partial shade, enjoy parsley, fennel, lemon balm and sweet cicely. In full shade, I can think of only two herbs that will thrive: Many of the mints, including personal favorite chocolate mint; and the woodland groundcover, sweet woodruff.

Q. Can all herbs be dried and used in the winter?

A. You can hang any herb plant upside down and dry the foliage, but some retain their flavor and scent better than others. Quickly use parsley, chives and coriander because those herbs lose their flavor. Many other common herbs — such as basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage and tarragon — are very easy to grow in a sunny spot and simple to dry and enjoy all winter.

Harvest just before the plant begins to bloom for the most flavor. Mid-morning after the dew has dried, but before the sun is hot, is the perfect time to cut the tops off your herb plants and either place them in a food dehydrator or hang them from a line in a dark, dry and warm attic.

Old window screens are great for drying herbs as well. Just lay the cut herbs on top of the window screens in a warm, dry spot and make sure the area has good air circulation. Strip the dried leaves from the plants when they are very dry to the touch and store them in airtight bottles. You’ll be on your way to cooking gourmet.

Q. Can you give me some tips on growing basil? I try not to plant it too early, but even when I wait until June and grow my basil in a hot and sunny spot, the plants seem to stop producing flavorful leaves by mid-summer. I do love fresh basil. Please help. J.H., Tacoma

A. Basil can be a challenge to grow in Western Washington if you don’t meet the very specific needs of this delectable herb. There are many types of basil but they all demand warm soil and warm nights, so don’t leave them outdoors if the night temps will fall below 50 degrees.

Basil also needs good air circulation in our climate to prevent basil wilt disease. One of the most important tips is to pinch off all basil flowers as soon as the buds form. Once a basil plant blooms, it will lose flavor and energy and take the rest of the summer off.

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