“Trefoil, vervain, John’s wort, dill, Hinder witches of their will.” –Sir Walter Scott, Guy Mannering, 1815
My newly established kitchen garden, after having moved from the back to the front yard, is settling in nicely. It’s mostly planted now, with the vegetables in three raised beds and herbs (and more vegetables) here and there, planted directly in the ground. It’s far enough along that I’ve even placed a chair in its midst, because appreciating its simple beauty and daily progress gives me such pleasure.
I still have plans for removing more sod, installing an arbor and generally sprucing the area up, but it’s far enough along that I thoroughly enjoy being in it, free from anxiety about what needs to be done. I have a half-finished wattle fence (more on that, later), which promises to be the perfect solution to edging the garden by the boundary with my neighbor’s driveway. It’s shaping up to be a nice garden, with all the sunshine I’d hoped that the front yard would provide.
Getting to know a new space, inside or out, takes time. This particular space is a corner of the front yard that I have never gardened in before, because of its proximity to the neighbor’s driveway, so it initially felt very strange to me. Spending time working in it has begun to change that feeling, as has the joy of seeing the garden thrive.
The vegetables are familiar to me; I’ve either grown them (or tried to) or eaten them all before. The herbs, however, are less familiar. I’m interested in growing a few culinary herbs along with a few medicinal herbs and have selected a dozen or so for this year. To coax myself beyond the familiar, I’ve been seeking guidance from books, through workshops and online. It’s a slow process, and I’m trying to hang onto the advice of getting to know one plant at a time.
I stumbled upon a beautiful book about herbs that’s organized in just that way, one herb at a time.
75 Exceptional Herbs for Your Garden, by Jack Staub, is a most appealing book. Beginning with its cloth, embossed binding, it’s a pleasure to hold and to read. It’s organized herb by herb and is adorned by simple, yet elegant botanical artwork. Every chapter begins with an enchanting poem or quote, usually from centuries past, about the herb. For each herb, we learn fascinating bits of history and medicinal uses, past and present, and something about its cultivation in the garden. Every chapter finishes with a suggested recipe.
I’ve revealed a few times that I’m a zig zag gardener; the organization of this book by short two- to three-page chapters, each exploring one herb, aligns well with my gardening habits. It is so beautifully written, often funny, that it continues to tempt me to pick it up even though I’ve read it all (in a zig zagging way, of course). After a visit from the garden, noticing how lovely the sage looks in bloom, I picked it up for a quick read about sage.
“Cur morietur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto?” (“How can a man die who grows sage in his garden?” –Motto of the medical school of Salerno, Italy, eighth century A.D.
Nicholas Culpeper, in 1653, proclaimed that “sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsy, and taketh away shakey trembling of the members.”
Today, it is highly regarded for its antioxidant, anti-inflamatory and antiseptic properties. And, studies have, in fact, shown it to be a good memory booster. After making a convincing case for each of two varieties that I don’t currently have in my garden (pineapple and golden), the chapter finishes up with a recipe for sage “frytures,” inspired by John Russell’s Book of Nurture (1460), which sounds both decadent and delicious. I’ll need to make a note of it as a perfect crispy accompaniment for an autumn squash soup. In the meantime, I’ll be sure to nibble a leaf or two as I move through the garden, and toss a couple into my next salad.
This book is not an herbal, nor a comprehensive resource on growing and using herbs. But, it is a most enjoyable book to keep handy for a break from gardening or a few minutes at the end of a day’s work. It’s entertaining to read, in a small bites sort of way, when a more dense reference book would overwhelm. Enjoy it with a glass of sun tea, flavored by your favorite garden herb.
And, the next time you stroll by the peppermint in your garden, rub a little onto your arms and know that you’re following in the steps of the ancient Greeks, who believed that each part of the body should be differently scented with a specific herb.
What’s your favorite, relaxing gardening book?