Dependable plants for long-lasting color and a legacy of seedlings
Annuals—those plants that give their all in one season—are every bit as valuable in the herb garden as in other kinds of gardens. Although annuals such as dill and coriander are among the most useful of culinary herbs, others often make their most important contribution in the landscape, where they swagger through a long season of bloom, pouring forth their flowers with no thought for the future. Annuals can provide a continuity of color that ties the garden together, filling in the gaps after other, often less showy perennial herbs have finished flowering, or they can be massed by themselves for vivid splashes of color. Once they begin to bloom, annuals usually continue to do so throughout the summer, and abundant flowers seduce every passing pollinizer. Bees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds as well as humans are drawn to them.
Most annual herbs have fine root systems and perform best in a fertile, well-drained soil in full sun, although they will tolerate other conditions. They’re simple to grow, whether you sow seeds indoors in late winter or early spring for later transplanting into the garden, buy starts at a garden center, or sow seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost is past. Aside from ordinary weeding and watering, the only trick to growing annual herbs is deciding whether to remove faded blossoms to encourage further flowers and prevent self-seeding or to save the seeds and the sometimes decorative seedpods.
In my own herb garden, I let the annuals come and go. I preserve the seeds of those that I cherish and and ignore those that I’ve wearied of. I enjoy watching the plant combinations that result as my annuals freely seed themselves around. Join me on a tour of some of the annual herbs that have sauntered through my gardens over the years.
I was still in high school when I first saw Amaranthus caudatus, a 4-foot-tall, coarse-leaved bush covered with great, long, blood red rattails arching out to a length of 3 to 4 feet and spilling onto the ground. I was intrigued not only by the plant but also by its common name: love-lies-bleeding. A green form, A. c. ‘Viridis’, has the same growth habit but long, yellowish green rattails; it’s called kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate. What romantic and memorable names these seemed to an impressionable young man!
I promptly planted an amaranthus in my beginner’s garden. It thrived in the poor, sandy soil and tolerated heat and drought. It became so bushy and large that it threatened to smother its perennial companions, so I learned to give it lots of space. The long ropes of flowers dry well with a texture like that of heavy chenille.
Another annual that inspires my affection is love-in-a-mist. One of my favorite parts of last year’s herb garden was where love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena ‘Persian Jewels’) filled in the bare spaces between the perennials Jupiter’s distaff (Salvia glutinosa) and silver horehound (Marrubium incanum) to form a tapestry of pinks, mauves, and blues above its bright green fine-textured, almost wispy foliage. The mix of flower colors makes the scene look alive and moving. The spent flowers float away to reveal curious papery, egg-shaped pods with slender “horns” and broad maroon stripes. I dry them before the stripes have faded for use in dried flower arrangements and wreaths, and I like the distinctive flavor of the small, jet black seeds in breads.
Just across the path is N. hispanica, a Spanish relative whose pronounced blue flowers are accentuated by five maroon stamens. It’s a little taller and more robust than N. damascena, and its seedpod is even more decorative: the tips of its five carpels look like the points of a jester’s hat. This species has only recently become available commercially.
As a young gardener, I also grew borage (Borago officinalis), once called the herb of gladness because of its reputation for driving out melancholy. Indeed, its sky blue, star-shaped flowers were the main ingredient, along with wine, of the stirrup cups served to Crusaders to give them courage before they set off to fight the Holy Wars. If you pluck out the cone of black anthers in the center of the flower, the corolla easily separates from the inedible calyx; then you can nibble it or toss it in a salad for a hint of cucumber taste. The flower clusters always hang down, and I’ve learned to check for bees before I harvest them.
I grew borage for many years before I discovered a white-flowered form (B. o. ‘Alba’) in an English garden. I was taken with the beauty of its pure white flowers, which never wither or discolor but just drop off when spent. When I started growing it, the white form was quite rare here, so I stopped growing the blue-flowered form to avoid cross-pollination and keep the white one coming true from seed. Although I usually let my white borage self-sow, I also collect some seed for insurance. Now, white borage has finally become available commercially in the United States.
Borage—blue or white—grows to 2 to 3 feet tall and as wide. Both the large, oblong leaves and the hollow stems are covered by stiff hairs, attractive when the plant is backlit by the sun and an effective barrier to pests, even our voracious slugs. It self-seeds everywhere and thrives in cool weather: it blooms as late as December here in Oregon. After blooming, the plants begin to decline. The coal black seeds, which usually come in pairs, remain viable for years. Borage has a fleshy taproot that resents transplanting, but sown in place or transplanted young, it makes an excellent companion, especially for fruits and vegetables, because it ensures plenty of bees for pollination.
When I decided to try dyeing wool, the first dye plant I grew was dyer’s coreopsis or tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria), a colorful prairie wildflower of the daisy family (Compositae). The plant’s upright stems grow to 1 foot tall and bear bright yellow, burgundy, or bicolor daisies all summer long. Either fresh or dried flowers will dye wool in shades of gold, orange, or rust, depending on the mordant used.
When my interests turned to organic pest control in the greenhouse, I discovered Nicotiana alata, a member of the nightshade family that’s closely related to tobacco. Its foot-long leaves, like those of tobacco, contain nicotine and are death to any insect that attempts to feed on them. I placed 4-inch pots of this species around the greenhouse, where they attract aphids and fungus gnats and kill any that feed on its leaves. Of the nicotiana species that we’ve tried in the greenhouse, N. alata was the best for insect control. I also planted some of the seedlings in the garden, where they became 3- to 5-foot bushes covered with 3- to 4-inch-long pure white trumpets that unfurled in late afternoon, unleashing a strong, sweet, heavenly fragrance. Tucked into the middle or back of a semishaded border, nicotiana blooms faithfully until frost. Planted in full sun, the leaves tend to droop on hot afternoons.
All of the annual herbs that I’ve mentioned so far look well as single specimens or in small groupings. For dramatic mass plantings or border edgings, I like signet marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) and the annual sage Salvia viridis. (These species are sometimes offered as T. signata and S. horminum, respectively.) Both species give good definition to a garden design or edge. Signet marigolds make perfect 1-foot mounds of finely cut foliage (tenuifolia means “slender leaf”) covered with 1-inch yellow or orange single marigold flowers. The foliage has an almost bitter lemon fragrance. They are among the easiest annuals to grow and are very heat tolerant. No deadheading is needed to encourage a profusion of flowers all season. Popular cultivars include the soft yellow Lemon Gem; Orange Gem and Tangerine Gem, both a rich burnt orange; Golden Gem, a deeper butter yellow; and Paprika, a bright reddish orange. Seeds may be sown indoors for later transplanting or in the garden where they are to grow. Although young plants are certain prey for slugs, those in bloom seem less attractive to them. I have used the flowers for color and scent in potpourris, but I have never tried them as a flavoring in desserts, as I’ve seen recommended.
Although S. viridis is sometimes called annual clary sage or annual tricolor sage, it should not be confused with the perennial clary (S. sclarea) and Tricolor sage (S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’). This species has large, colorful, veined bracts of white, blue violet, or pink borne atop the foliage, which dry well as everlastings. The flowers, situated lower down the stem, are insignificant. The plants grow 18 to 24 inches tall. I buy the seeds in separate color lots for greater effect in the garden, and I avoid white, which fades to a dirty white.
Does everyone grow opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) in the herb garden? They are terrific planted in masses. Sowing the minute seeds in the ground in fall works best for me and yields stronger and earlier-blooming plants than spring-sown seeds; because of their taproots, poppies don’t transplant well. As soon as the seedlings begin to unfold their smooth, bluish green foliage, they seem to skyrocket upward; 3- to 4-foot-tall stalks bear several large flowers with delicate, paperlike petals. At first, I had only single-petaled flowers with black centers, but now I grow a mix of single, semidouble, and fully double (peony-flowered) forms. Poppies are trouble-free to raise, although a strong rain or wind can rip away their flowers.
If you don’t cut off the spent flowers, the robust, globular pods when dried will furnish copious quantities of blue or brown seeds for cakes, breads, and pastries. The dried pods themselves can be used in wreaths and other dried arrangements.
Nothing adds piquancy and vivid color to a summer salad like a peppery nasturtium flower. I particularly like Tropaeolum majus ‘Empress of India’, whose bright vermilion flowers contrast well with its dark blue-green foliage. Planted in light shade, plants form rather tight mounds about a foot tall and will continue to bloom until the first hard frost. I prefer this cultivar to other nasturtiums for its profusion of flowers and its smaller and darker leaves. Hummingbirds seem particularly attracted to the flowers.
Although I was slow to appreciate the variegated Alaska Hybrids, I was impressed by their appearance in shady areas around trees and in some mass plantings at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Their leaves, conspicuously marbled and striped with cream against a light green background, seem to lighten up shaded areas, and their gold, orange, salmon, and mahogany spurred single flowers sit well above the foliage.
My favorite “nasturtium” is canary creeper (T. peregrinum). I planted this fast-growing climber on the east side of an old barn to make a beautiful, bright green screen dotted with bright, canary yellow flowers that look like the open wings of tiny wild birds. An attack of aphids didn’t affect the plant’s exuberant growth. When it threatened to strangle a nearby clematis vine, my wife pruned it mercilessly, but the plant recovered in a few weeks and was as bold as ever. One or two strands meandered through knotholes and were blooming inside the barn late into December, well after hard frosts had blackened the foliage outside.
Honeywort (Cerinthe major var. purpurascens) is the plant that visitors to my garden comment on most often. Also known as wax flower, this member of the borage family sports smooth, spotted, bluish green foliage and curved flowering stems clothed in pretty, bluish purple bracts and tipped with hanging tubular flowers that are half bright purple, half cream or yellow. It begins blooming in May and continues well into fall. Placing it near a silvery artemisia makes its blue seem to vibrate. I used to collect the seed until I found that I have much better germination and better plants if I just let it self-sow. While this plant is getting headline status in at least one catalog these days, Gertrude Foster mentioned it back in the mid-sixties in her book Herbs for Every Garden. But that’s the way with annuals: they come and go, in gardens and in time.
Some annuals are worth growing not for the beauty of their flowers, but for the color of their foliage. These include both green and purple cultivars of perilla (Perilla frutescens). Although the leaves have long been used in sushi, pickling, soups, and tempura, there’s increasing evidence from scientific research that they may be toxic, so now I hesitate to recommend using them in cooking, at least in large quantities. The smooth-leaved P. f. ‘Atropurpurea’ is particularly decorative. Its purple leaves, on 3- to 4-foot stalks, have a metallic blue undertone and smell like cinnamon. It is a stunning middle-of-the-border companion to plants with silver or golden foliage, bright yellow or orange flowers, or other pinks and purples.
If grown in rich, well-drained but moisture-retentive soil in full sun, perilla grows quickly and vigorously. When it begins blooming (the flowers are insignificant), the leaves fade to a greenish purple, but as the weather cools, the dark purple returns.
I let my perillas self-sow; they germinate readily in late spring. Seeds sown in the spring should first be placed in a plastic bag with a little moist sand and refrigerated for three days or longer. Because they require light to germinate, sprinkle the chilled seeds with their sand on the soil surface and just tamp them down lightly.
Orach (Atriplex hortensis) is grown for both its culinary and its ornamental attributes. Every herb garden that I visited in England had some of these tall plants. A row of the red variety A. h. var. rubra makes a wonderful seasonal hedge. Red orach has the truest red foliage of any annual herb that I grow; other varieties are available with green or gold leaves.
For best results, sow orach outside when soil temperatures have warmed, in May where I live. Expect it to reach a height of 4 to 5 feet; in rich soil and with plenty of water, it may well grow taller. Pinch out the flowers to encourage leaf production. The young, arrowhead-shaped leaves and young shoots are mild in flavor and a colorful addition to salads. The older leaves may be cooked like spinach or used in soups. I’ve even used the foliage in floral arrangements.
Some of the familiar kitchen standbys also have their ornamental aspect. I let dill self-sow in the vegetable garden not just for its incomparable flavor, but to enjoy the beauty of its fine-textured blue-green foliage when backlit by the sun. I grow different basils together in containers so they’ll be handy to the kitchen, but also to experience the contrasts in foliage and fragrance.
Compared to long-lived perennial herbs like sages and artemisias, the presence of annual herbs seems as fleeting as the visits of bees and butterflies to their flowers. With the first heavy frosts, they die, their life cycle completed, leaving only their seeds to mark their passing. Whether I let them self-sow or harvest and replant their seeds, annuals start all over every spring, just as the gardener does.
• The Flowery Branch, PO Box 1330, GA 30542. Catalog $3.
• Goodwin Creek Gardens, PO Box 83, Williams, OR 97544. Catalog $1.
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Foss Hill Rd., Albion, ME 04910. Catalog free.
• Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260. Catalog free.
• Select Seeds Antique Flowers, 180 Stickney Rd., Union, CT 06076-4617. Catalog $3.
• Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, 30 Irene St., Torrington, CT 06790. Catalog free.
• Thompson and Morgan Inc., PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527-0308. Catalog free.
Andy Van Hevelingen and his family have an herb nursery and gardens in Newberg, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to The Herb Companion.
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