Herbs grow in popularity

Old favorites and more exotic varieties taste and look great

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Garden Delights Farm and CSA

15417 N.E. Parkinen Road, Brush Prairie. For more information, visit gardendelightsfarm.com or email info@gardendelightsfarm.com.

When it comes to herbs, we’ve gone from parsley and chives to a new world of flavors.

“People are asking for shiso and ginger root,” said Meg Gray, buyer for Green Acres nursery in Sacramento, Calif. “Stevia is at the top of everyone’s list.”

Herbs spice up our meals and gardens. And as interest in global cuisines grows, so does our appetite for ethnically diverse herbs.

With increased interest in cooking at home, gardeners also are growing more of their own herbs, saving money while adding fresh flavor.

“You can get a whole plant for what it costs for a few sprigs of basil in the supermarket,” Gray said. “And you’ll have fresh herbs all summer — or longer.”

And herbs of late also have spiked sales for nurserymen as novice and experienced gardeners dive into them as an easy entry to edible landscaping.

“It goes hand in hand with interest in vegetable gardening and growing your own food,” said Janet Simkins of Sierra Nursery in Roseville, Calif. “Independent nurseries, such as ours, sell herbs side by side with vegetables. Even if you don’t have room for a vegetable garden, you can put a few herbs in a pot and get some satisfaction, too.”

It’s not just about food.

“We’re seeing increased interest, not just for culinary, but also for drought-tolerant landscaping and hummingbird and butterfly gardening,” said Rose Loveall, owner of the Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville, Calif.

The trend is national. As with vegetable gardening, some experts attribute this to first lady Michelle Obama and the White House garden with its herb-filled borders.

“Interest in herbs has been growing steadily the last few years,” said George Ball, chairman and CEO of Burpee, the mail-order giant. “But this year, herbs are all the rage. Herb orders really took off right after the late-March news reports about the 2011 White House garden.”

Using sales, surveys and other proprietary data, Burpee reports that herb gardens represent the top garden trend for the 2011 season, followed closely by raised-bed gardens and container vegetable gardens.

Herbs also fulfill another trend. Said Ball: “Today’s garden consumers look for plants that perform double duty: Plants delicious to taste and pleasing to look at.”

In general, herbs require little care while offering almost instant rewards.

“Most herbs are exceptionally easy to grow, and fun because they inspire and transform your cooking,” said Chelsey Fields, manager of Burpee’s edible division.

“Herbs are low-maintenance,” she added. “Some bright sun and water will keep the plants producing. The different tastes, flower colors and leaf types create a wonderfully interesting garden.”

Herb gardens also can be kid-pleasers, getting children interested in gardening as well as eating fresh, homegrown food.

“Herbs attract all kinds of beneficial insects that will delight young entomologist-gardeners,” Fields said. “The best thing is that kids help grow what’s for dinner.”

The easiest to grow are best for beginners: Rosemary, oregano, basil, lavender and parsley.

“Try the easy ones first,” said Gray, who grows about a dozen herbs in her own garden. “Thyme and rosemary — they’ll give you confidence to try other things. They’re not intimidating. And they’re evergreen; they last year-round. Your success rate is much greater, and that gives you confidence to try other things.”

Another easy herb: Bay. Simkins, for example, grows a bay laurel bush in a 1-gallon can — just enough for a constant supply of bay leaves.

But herb gardeners can be adventurous, with requests to match.

Loveall grows hundreds of varieties at her Morningsun Herb Farm. She’s been getting many requests for epazote, stevia, lemon grass and holy basil.

Epazote, an annual native to Mexico, is a must for beans and Mexican sauces. A South American native, stevia is much sweeter than sugar — with almost no calories — and has become a popular sugar substitute. Lemon grass is a mainstay in Thai cooking. Holy basil has a distinct flavor that stands out from other basils.

“Lemongrass, which is easy to grow, is very pretty in the garden and has citronella oil in the plant to help ward off mosquitoes,” Loveall said. “Vietnamese coriander, or rau rum (Polygonum odoratum), is a great substitute for cilantro; very hardy in a shady spot in the garden, and you can harvest all summer.”

Which brings Loveall to one popular request that doesn’t grow well in Sacramento summers: Cilantro.

“Cilantro is a cool-season annual, so don’t bother planting it in the summer months,” Loveall said.

“Capers are very popular now,” she added. “They need lots of sun and not too much water. Goji berries are suddenly very popular. Variegated nonblooming basil (Pesto perpetuo), which has a great flavor, is a good choice for busy people who don’t have time to pinch back the flowers.”

Variegated anything is a hit in the herb aisle as gardeners gravitate to oregano, sage and thyme with interesting leaves.

Simkins has her own offbeat favorites. “Lovage has a really strong celery flavor and you can use the seed, too,” she said. “Not too many people know about that one yet. It’s green and upright, but can take up a lot of space.

“Lemon verbena always smells beautiful,” she added. “But it needs regular pruning to keep it compact.”

Sacramento-area nurseries have seen a run on French tarragon, a must for flavored vinegars and sauces. Mexican tarragon, which is actually a member of the marigold family, is easier to grow and has cute yellow flowers.

The variety of herbs available has never been better.

“We have nine different mints, four different oreganos, three different tarragons and a long list of thymes — English, silver, lemon, lime, caraway and so on,” Gray said of Green Acres’ stock. “Each has its own distinct flavor and characteristics — and fans. It’s been wonderful this year with a lot of interest. We keep bringing in more and more.”

In addition to their culinary attributes, herbs also can be just plain pretty as ornamentals. That makes herbs ideal for mixing into flower beds (or containers), as well as the vegetable garden.

“Pineapple sage is a beautiful plant,” Gray said. “So are borage and rue; I like rue because it keeps cats and dogs out of the garden.”

Shiso — a Japanese favorite also known as perilla — may be the hottest of the hot new herbs. A member of the mint family, shiso boasts bright red, green or purple leaves with a wasabi burn.

“They also call it beefsteak plant,” Simkins said. “Believe it or not, that’s what it tastes like.”

Planting herbs together in a container or patch near the kitchen door makes them accessible and easy to use for cooks.

“In one pot, you can put together a salsa herb garden or an Italian herb garden or a teapot garden (with herbs for teas),” Gray said. “Just plant something — and make it something you’ll use and enjoy.”