Down To Earth: A Garden Tour with a Hands-On Approach

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Sometimes the visitors look past me at the beds of plants and I can practically hear them thinking, “Surely all of those plants aren’t edible?”
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The edible herb garden provides adventure for the palate as well as the eye.

Every autumn, when my garden tours switch focus from summery herbs to those of winter, I bring out my special soup-pourri (a potpourri of soup herbs) packets for my visitors. The packets begin as empty bags, with my special instructions attached; by the end of the tour, visitors have an herb blend perfect for making soup. During the tour of my garden, I hand visitors herbs to smell and taste; I learned long ago that they need something to do with the herbs after the tour.

“Should I just throw this on the ground?” is a refrain I used to hear, before I implemented the soup-pourri bags. Sometimes once the person had sniffed and tasted the featured herb, they didn’t know where to put it. Lots of herb novices, whose only exposure to herbs may have been opening a spice jar and dusting a bit over a dish of food, didn’t know that you actually can eat a whole, fresh basil leaf. Or that a lemon verbena leaf is as delicious plain as it is in tea and baked goods.

Observing this reluctance to eat herb leaves, I devised the soup-pourri packets to give folks something to do with the herb once they had nibbled the edges. I pass out paper sandwich bags, which allow the moisture of the herb leaves to wick away (plastic won’t work for this). I’ve printed instructions on the bags, explaining that the leaves I hand out, after they’ve been tasted and smelled, are to go into the bag; and that every plant I hand them is free of pesticides and is completely edible. Sometimes the visitors look past me at the beds of plants and I can practically hear them thinking, “Surely all of those plants aren’t edible?”

The bag has a label attached which has directions for what to do once the bag is filled. There’s also room on the reverse side of the bag for writing notes, as I’ve found people often want to remember some of the suggestions I make.

I begin my tour on the Herb Shop porch and pick leaves of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin), one of the few shade-loving culinary herbs. I encourage the group to smell the leaves and I describe how this herb is perfect in soups and stews, as well as in venison and chicken dishes.

Next are the basils. I grow 10 to 12 varieties, including Thai, sweet, lemon, lime, spicy globe and green pepper. I pass around leaves of several, and even avid gardeners can be surprised at the difference in flavors. When we get to rosemary, each garden tourist receives a little sprig for their bag. I explain that, when cooking with any herb, add it during the last five or 10 minutes of cooking for best flavor. “Put it in at the beginning of a soup or casserole,” I say, “and you lose a lot of the flavor. Some herbs even turn a bit bitter if cooked too long.”

Garlic chives, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) and winter onions are the next stops on the tour. I describe how the winter onion is actually a variety of shallot and how the little bulbils at the top of the leaves are excellent additions to a soup blend. We move on to the sage beds and everyone gets to compare the standard garden sage to the larger-leafed, more robustly flavored ‘Berggarten’ sage.

By the time we arrive at lavender, many people express surprise that this delicious-smelling plant is also used as a seasoning herb. But the French–masters of lavender–are adept at combining lavender flowers with savory, thyme and other herbs for delightful seasonings for poultry dishes. I pick some creeping thyme, which grows along the edges of the lavender bed, and explain how this herb is not only a primary ingredient in poultry seasoning, but also the main ingredient in Listerine mouthwash.

We stop at the fennel bed and pick a leaf for everyone, talk about how it’s a host plant for the yellow-, black- and white-striped caterpillar of the black swallowtail butterfly. At the mint bed, invariably someone in the group will ask, “Surely you don’t want us to put the mint into the ‘pourri’ bag, do you? It’s just a tea herb, right?”

I encourage everyone to add the mint leaf to their mixture and explain that a small amount of mint, added to the other flavors, helps the flavors blend together nicely. “It is a relative of lavender, lemon balm and sage, after all,” I say, “and helps accent those other flavors.”

At the end of the tour, I remind my visitors to fold the paper sandwich bag closed and put it on the dash of their car (where the herbs will dry nicely) as they go home.  Because the bag is paper, the herbs will continue to dry once they are at home. I remind them that everything that’s gone into the bag is edible, and if they will simmer a couple of chicken breasts, or even leftover chicken or turkey bones from their holiday meals, along with some onion, celery and carrot, cooking those until done, then add the entire contents of the soup-pourri bag and continue to simmer for another five minutes, they will have not only a surprisingly delicious soup, but a fragrant memory of their visit to my garden.

Many people are afraid to try fresh herbs without specific instructions for what to do with them. People who have visited often voice surprise at the ease of using their soup-pourri packets of herbs and are emboldened to try more combinations. Like I always say to novices, “Don’t try to use herbs, just do it.”

Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, located in the Ozarks Mountains. He welcomes questions and comments. To contact him, e-mail him

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