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The Pleasant Pastime of Growing Herbs

by Barbara Payne(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 126 - August 2006

In days gone by, most houses grew a variety of herbs. These were grown for various reasons, but the majority of herbs grown were known as 'pot herbs' because they finished up in the cooking pot. These days we still grow herbs but not in the quantities we used to and in some ways, I think, it is a pity. Herbs are low maintenance, beautiful and useful. In addition, they give the garden some lovely fragrances. The leaflet of The Herb Society states:

'What Is A Herb?

'A herb is any plant of which the leaves, seeds, flowers or roots can be used for their medicinal properties, flavour or scent. Herbs include annuals and perennials, shrubs and trees, even seaweed and fungi. Traditional herbal medicine is still used by 80% of the world population for primary health care.'

When viewed in this light we see how important herbs are. Many of us certainly are not qualified to seriously prescribe the herbs as medicines for ourselves, although generally many of us have tried simple remedies, such as tisanes, for common things such as tummy upset, (peppermint tea), or headaches, (lemon balm tea). We can be sure of using the more common ones for their flavour in cooking and their scent in making such things as anti-moth bags and flower arrangements.

A few years ago we decided to have a different kind of garden, one that was low maintenance. We changed the lawn for a large central bed of herbs and wide gravel paths. We widened the perimeter borders and planted more herbs there too. This was the bare bones of my aromatherapy fragrance garden. It may seem strange to say you have simplified things by adding more, but herbs are such versatile plants and virtually look after themselves.

I had become interested in herbs through my work in aromatherapy, appreciating that many of the essential oils were harvested from herbal plants. Most plants have to wait for the flowers to blossom before there is any fragrance, but herbs do not because their leaves smell lovely too. Even in mid-winter one is able to catch a powerful aroma from the evergreen or hardy ones, such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) bay (Laurus nobilis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), myrtle (Myrtus communis) and lavender (Lavandular angustifolia). In actual fact, the flowers of some herbs are almost insignificant and for this reason I bought myself a magnifying glass, so as to enjoy these miniature beauties more fully.

When my students of aromatherapy came for botany sessions, they too found the herbs fascinating as they squeezed and sniffed the leaves.

In summer the herbs really show their worth. As the heat of summer causes the essential oil receptacles in the leaves to release the oil, the smell is glorious.

Some herbs are from the Mediterranean area and prefer well-drained soil, so these should be put in pots and removed to the greenhouse, or near to the house wall, for wintertime. My garden usually gets flooded then and can remain a quagmire for weeks, but even so, the perennial herbs such as chives (Allium schoenprasum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), comfrey (Symphytum officinale) fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and all the different species of mint, pop up in spring, year after year.

Now that it is mature, my garden is a place which requires little upholding and one can easily reach all the herbs to look at, smell and pick them. As the years have passed by, the herbs have seeded themselves and have softened the edges of any straight hard lines, leaving the space as a tranquil retreat when stress is a problem.

The benefits of growing herbs are as wide ranging as the herbs themselves. The sheer enjoyment derived from actually planting and caring for them is unsurpassed. This requires very little effort. Inhaling the pleasant aromas of the herbs is in itself good for us because we are taking in the small molecules of the healing essential oils, which eventually enter our bloodstream via the alveoli in the lungs or through the skin. The essential oils straight from the plant are not concentrated, contaminated or mixed with anything else; they are as pure as nature intended.

Cooking with them is fun; thinking up new recipes and ways in which one can incorporate them in unusual ways, such as making jelly with a tisane instead of plain water. The more common uses are rosemary with lamb, sage with pork, mixed herbs in vegetable soup and so on, but I like to eat them in salads cold too. Even the flowers of some can be enjoyed eaten raw in salad, for example petals of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis).

Herbs can be invigorating or sedative and the herb garden smells differently at various times of the day due to the amount of heat needed to set in motion the releasing of the oils.

Herbs can be tall, such as fennel and angelica (Angelica arcangelica), or short, such as the thyme species, individuals can choose.

I have never regretted growing herbs and if you try just a few, your garden too will be enhanced.

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About Barbara Payne

Barbara Payne taught clinical aromatherapy in various hospitals in the North of England, for School of Health, University of Hull, and was principal of an IFA and IFPA accredited college of clinical aromatherapy, for many years. She served as an inspector and examiner and was Chair of Education for the ISPA, (now IFPA). Barbara had regular interviews with BBC radio and appeared on national television occasionally and lectured annually for the RHS. Having contributed to Positive Health over many years, Barbara has now decided to retire from her PH Expert Regular Column after Issue 154 in Jan 2009. She can be reached on Tel: 01482 835358; barbara@payne56.karoo.co.uk

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