Grow some herbs for relaxation, healing and flavor

Lemon trees are among the citruses grown at Country Gardens west of Toms Brook. Photo by Sally Voth

Herbs can help us relax, heal, and better enjoy our food. And, you can grow many of them yourself.

Rhonda Stevenson has been growing herbs, as well as shrubs, trees and flowers, at the nursery/garden center located behind her large 100-year-old farmhouse for 35 years. Country Gardens is located at 1043 Country Brook Road, west of Toms Brook.

Most of her inventory is taken for sale in the Washington, D.C., and Richmond areas. She also gets shoppers coming out to the garden center from Charlottesville and the D.C. metropolitan area.

Hens, roosters, turkeys and a one-eared cat roam among the buildings and greenhouses.

Stevenson gives a few lessons on cooking with some of the herbs she grows.

Rhonda Stevenson points out a scented geranium plant in her greenhouse at Country Gardens in Toms Brook. Photo by Sally Voth

Just a few steps inside one of her main greenhouses, sweet bays are growing. It has taken then about nine months to reach their 8-12 inch height, Stevenson said. They will eventually grow into a non-hardy small tree in this region.

“Once you’ve had fresh bay, you don’t want to go back to the dry,” Stevenson said.

Sweet myrtle can be substituted for the bay when cooking, she said.

“It’s a little evergreen shrub,” Stevenson explained.

The sweet myrtle can’t be wintered outside in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

Janet Heishman takes a sniff from one of her herbs at Gabalot Gardens/Cedar Hill Gardens in Strasburg. Photo by Sally Voth

Stevenson said some rosemary and lavender she is growing will be ready for sale in May.

“By the time we’re ready in May, we will have at least 40 varieties [of herbs for sale],” she said.

Country Gardens grows some citrus trees, including lemons and limes. She cleans the leaves with Murphy’s Oil.

“We don’t use any chemicals,” Stevenson said. “We try to [be] organic.”

Gardeners can plant jasmine and then use the leaves in tea.

Gabalot Gardens/Cedar Hill Gardens, outside of Strasburg, sells about 25-30 varieties of herbs, including the aptly-named candy corn vine. Photo by Sally Voth

Stevenson pointed out that scented geranium leaves can be placed in the bottom of the pan before baking a white or yellow cake.

“It will permeate your kitchen with this smell, plus it gives a hint of flavor to the cake,” she said.

Another useful herb is cilantro. Its seeds are coriander, and its leaves the cilantro.

“Everybody loves cilantro,” Stevenson said.

It’s not always the easiest herb to figure out, though. Stevenson said many gardeners tell her they can’t keep it growing.

“The reason you can’t keep your cilantro growing is because it’s a four-planting herb,” she said. “You have to plant it four times a season.

While lavender has a beautiful smell, it’s not Stevenson’s favorite when it comes to cooking.

“It’s a little too bitter for me,” she said. “I’ve tried it in a half a dozen different recipes, and it’s just not my cup of tea.”

Gardeners looking to start a culinary herb garden would do well to include bay, rosemary, French tarragon, oregano, chives, sage, thyme and parsley, Stevenson suggested.

She recommended that only sage, chives and parsley be started from seed. The rest should already have started growing before buying.

Stevenson warned against buying anything marked tarragon at big box stores, as it might not be the French variety.

“There’s a seeded tarragon called Russian, and it’s nasty,” she said. “You never want the seeded variety.”

Rosemary is good  for cooking with chicken, Stevenson said, and French tarragon with carrots.

“Mint is another thing that’s easy to grow,” she said. “You want to watch where you plant it because it’s what I call an aggressive ground cover.”

Two very good varieties of mint are Kentucky Colonel for spearmint – “that’s what everybody asks me for for their mojitos” – and black mint, good for making peppermint patties.

A good addition to lemonade is a few steeped sprigs of rosemary.

“It gives a pretty good bite to your lemonade,” Stevenson said.

She recommended some herbal substitutes.

“A really good lemon substitute is lemon verbena,” Stevenson said. “It just won’t winter here. You either have to bring it in [or cut it back]. Just throw it in the garage. Go out and water it every now and then.”

Lemongrass is good for cooking and for use in lemonade. It has a refined taste, according to Stevenson. Lemon balm mixed with butter and sugar is tasty on tea breads, she said.

To improve your herbs’ chances, she recommends fertilizing them.

Stevenson said she thinks more people are growing their own herbs.

“For one thing, the dried herbs you get in stores, the majority of them are imported,” Stevenson said. “They’re usually a year old before they get to market, and they’re not as clean as the fresh-cut herbs. And the flavor has so much difference.”

At Gabalot Gardens/Cedar Hill Gardens, at 373 Green Acre Drive, south of Strasburg, Janet Heishman grows  flowers, vegetables and dozens of herbs.

“We’re very lucky that we can grow so many different kinds of herbs here,” she said. “Herb gardens should be lean. You can put that lime in, but you don’t want to put [in] a whole bunch of compost. We find that people will start one and they will be doing the same thing they’re doing for a vegetable garden.”

Rosemary and lavender are from the Mediterranean, and prefer a leaner soil, according to Heishman.

“Everything needs a little bit of fertilizer, you don’t want to overdo it,” she said.

Heishman recommended planting herbs in pots or close to the house.

“We find that if people put them [far away] in their gardens, they don’t make an effort to go out there and go get [the herbs]. If you’ve got them up close to the house, you’re more prone to using them,” she said.

Heishman suggested that the herb gardener go out every week, cutting little bunches of all the herbs they’re growing and putting them in a small bit of water in a Mason jar kept on the sink.

“Then you can use them [when cooking],” she said. “They’ll be right there for you.”