Do you have a talent for herb gardening, or does your enthusiasm greatly exceed your cultivation skills? Do you talk to your tarragon and commune with your comfrey, or are long, fruitless conversations with unresponsive rosemary cuttings more characteristic of your rapport with herbs?
No matter what degree of success you have had in the past, the following quiz may help define your aptitude for raising and using herbs. Find a pencil and a comfortable place to sit, place your tongue in your cheek, and fill in your answers. Then read Interpreting the results and learn how to improve your relationship with herbs.
1. Which one of the following statements best describes your experience with herbs?
(a) This past summer, I had seven different varieties of thyme, all grown from my own cuttings, eagerly creeping around my herb garden.
(b) I just watched my fourth thyme plant shrivel up and die this summer, still in its little black plastic pot from the nursery because I never found time to plant it. The $2.50 price tag is even more visible on the dead plant now that all the tiny leaves have dropped off the branches.
(c) I read somewhere that there is more than one kind of thyme, but I’m still trying to establish common garden thyme in the patch of dirt between the kids’ sandbox and the driveway.
2. Which one of the following statements best describes your herb garden?
(a) I have four well-established herb gardens, each planned according to theme: a culinary garden, a nocturnal garden, a bee garden, and a medicinal garden. They are arranged around a small, sculptural fountain that I designed and built in my spare time.
(b) I have a daringly experimental collection of herbs that I planted in the spaces between the tulips and the tiger lilies. The borders of my garden expand when I visit my local nursery and contract when my experiments fail.
(c) The mint that I planted by the back door has already eaten the tarragon and parsley. It is currently making a concerted effort to consume the chives.
3. How do you describe your success with growing herbs, such as rosemary, in pots?
(a) I have a greenhouse full of beautifully manicured rosemary topiaries. Every December, I decorate them with miniature lights and ornaments and make tiny, live Christmas trees to give as gifts to all my friends.
(b) My potted rosemary plant looks like a tiny dead Christmas tree in January.
(c) You mean I was supposed to pot my rosemary and take it indoors over the winter?
4. Your biggest concern when the time comes to harvest your herbs is:
(a) what to do with the huge crop of cinnamon, lemon, and opal basils competing for space with the leaf basil in my garden;
(b) whether it is worth the effort of getting out the food processor just to freeze four cubes of pesto;
(c) that my basil will at least sprout before the first frost so that I may see how the real plant compares to the picture on the seed packet.
5. What’s your favorite way to enjoy your summer harvest?
(a) To drink a cup of my own blend of herbal tea, steeped from fresh leaves gathered from my prolific garden.
(b) To drink the one cup of tea I was able to brew out of the minuscule yield from my backyard herb garden, imagining the mint flavor missing from the blend because my mint plants rotted from belated zealous overwatering.
(c) What summer harvest?
6. Which statement most closely describes your philosophy of herb gardening?
(a) Every plant deserves the best chance and the ideal conditions to not only survive but thrive in the garden.
(b) Survival of the fittest: sow or plant far too many varieties and individual plants, then withdraw and watch them battle for supremacy.
(c) I am deeply concerned with the afterlife of my plants because so many of them die.
Interpreting the results
Count the number of (a), (b), and (c) answers you have circled.
If the majority of your answers are (a), you are a “Natural Herb Gardener”. You have the ability to pinpoint and provide the needs of the herbs in your garden. Give yourself a pat on the back, then prepare to offer gracious encouragement and support to all envious (b) and (c) respondents. Consider developing a series of herb seminars to share your gardening secrets with them—and maybe even make some money!
For a gardening project that should challenge even a Natural Herb Gardener, start a bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) from seed, plant it in a pot, and place it in a sunny spot in the garden. Pamper, nurture, spoil, and prune it to noble maturity—and gracefully grow old together.
If you circled mostly (b) answers, you are an “Inspired Herb Gardener”. You have big plans for your garden, although the outcome never seems to live up to your expectations. You are excited when you discover an unfamiliar herb, but as soon as you plant it, you are distracted by an even more interesting plant and you leave your former pet to fend for itself. You can focus this experimental approach to gardening—and increase your crop yield—if you join a club or group of herb enthusiasts. Contribute your ideas and creativity to their cooperative garden and bask in the collective glory of its success.
Plant some German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) in your own garden. You will be excited with the exuberant scent of its flowers, intrigued by its medicinal history, and impressed with its rapid growth and undemanding nature.
If you circled many (c) answers, you are a “Hopeful Herb Gardener”. You maintain your curiosity about herbs despite their tendency to expire in your care. Invite the Natural Herb Gardener and the Inspired Herb Gardener over for herb tea and scones. They won’t mind if the tea is from a package and the scones are made with dried herbs sold in little glass jars. Ask them for advice and encouragement and enjoy their fellowship: herb devotees love to talk shop.
Assign a patch of earth to bergamot (Monarda didyma). This rock-hardy plant will reward you with deep red flowers year after year as well as the raw material for your own herb tea. It may even attract hummingbirds to your garden. And if the foliage should turn white with powdery mildew? Not to worry! Just cut it off. The new growth will be better than ever.
Vivian Tors Grabstas, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is a lifelong Inspired Herb Gardener who never tires of experimenting with herbs in her garden, her home, and her cooking.