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Martha's Herb Garden Basics

Martha Stewart Living, May 2010

When the staff at the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), in the Bronx, decided to redesign its herb garden, they turned to Martha. The goal: to create a comprehensive teaching and demonstration plot showcasing culinary herbs. It would be the centerpiece of a summer-long celebration of growing food called the Edible Garden (launched in 2009 and reopening this year on June 19).

Tour Martha's Culinary Herb Garden

Martha embraced the project, assembling a team of talented gardeners from her television and magazine staffs to help revamp the historic site. The herb garden was conceived in the 1940s by the Herb Society of America and was updated in the 1990s by plant expert Penelope Hobhouse. Martha and her crew worked within the existing structure of the boxwood parterre edged with brick and framed with deep plant borders. They began with a list of Martha's favorite herbs and then added lots of others to their plan, including herbs used in cuisines around the world: epazote for Mexican-style black beans, cilantro for Indian chutneys, lemongrass for Thai curries.

The gardeners planted the herbs in the deep borders, repeating groupings to create rhythmic and cohesive designs. For drama, the team filled the center of the garden with a graphic blend of three foliages. The most striking belongs to cut-leafed cardoons, cousins of the artichoke, whose arching leaves ripple through a sea of low-growing golden sage. The dark-green boxwood 'Justin Brouwers' surrounds the cardoons and the sage.

To contrast with the short, leafy herbs, there are tall, hand-forged metal tuteurs twined with flowering vines that put on a colorful show among their culinary companions. You can see it all for yourself by visiting the NYBG's Edible Garden this summer -- or just use the ideas in your own backyard.

Try This at Home

Culinary herbs add interest to gardens and fresh flavor to food, and cultivating them yourself costs less than buying them at the supermarket. These NYBG ideas will work in any garden, big or small.

3 Rules to Plant By

Consider Growing Needs
Many herbs like full sun, quick-draining soil, and regular watering. A few, such as parsley and dill, prefer more shade. Mints will overrun neighbors unless you give them plenty of space.

Mix Textures and Scales
The large, almost-fuzzy foliage of 'Berggarten' sage, left, stands out against the fluffy carpet of 'Yellow Transparent' thyme and grasslike garlic chives. 

Play with Colors 
'Red Rubin' basil introduces depth, while the yellow-green 'Genovese' basil and yellow thyme add bright notes to the bed.

Potted Plenty
Herbs adapt well to containers, whether grouped together or paired with ornamentals that have similar light and moisture needs. But containers dry out faster than beds, so water them more often. Prostrate rosemary and 'Kent Beauty' oregano, below left, swirl around a scented geranium in a custom pot by Ben Wolff.

Raising the Stakes

Add a sense of structure with tall elements, such as the geometric tuteurs wound with passion vines and scarlet runner beans, above center, designed and made by New York artist James DeMartis.

Good to Know
The more you pick herbs, the more they grow. Snip or pinch stems often. You will head off flowering (which can make herbs bitter) and end up with lusher, fuller plants.

Garden to Plate
Herbs can go way beyond garnish. They can star in a dish, such as this simple salad, above right. For four people, combine four cups of soft, leafy herbs. (We used flat- and curly-leaf parsley, dill, chervil, and basil.) Toss them with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Serve with crostini spread with goat cheese and drizzled with olive oil.

Martha's Top Picks

These varieties make it into any herb garden Martha plants -- and, not coincidentally, into many of her recipes. Here are some of her favorite ways to use them.

Basil 'Genovese'
The traditional choice for pesto is bright green with large, fragrant leaves.

Basil 'Red Rubin'
It has a gorgeous dark-purple color and a slightly spicy flavor. Martha uses it in her purple mojitos.

Basil 'Pesto Perpetuo'
A new favorite. The leaves' white variegated edge makes them a striking addition to a caprese salad (tomato and mozzarella). Cuttings root quickly, and the plants can be overwintered in a greenhouse and used year-round.

Pick this delicate, lacy herb, which has a subtle anise flavor, right before tossing it into a salad. Chervil also pairs well with eggs and seafood.

The classic for pickles. Martha puts a full seed head into every jar.

Dill 'Fernleaf'
A compact dwarf variety that produces dense foliage, making it excellent for gravlax or a big batch of potato salad.

Parsley 'Italian Flat Leaf'
The basis for chimichurri sauce, which Martha serves with grilled steak and fish during summer.

This perennial gets tucked under the skin of turkey before roasting.

Often thought of as a leafy green, sorrel has a bright lemon flavor that adds tang to spring soups and sauces.

Spearmint 'Kentucky'
Martha uses this mint in iced tea, lemonade, and -- what else? -- juleps.

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