Barefoot Gardener: Spicing It Up

December 22, 2019, 10:12 AM HST (Updated September 8, 2020, 10:50 AM)
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This rambling, drought-resistant rosemary hedge is residing happily in the author’s yard. PC: Joey Buck

Growing herbs and spices in your garden is beneficial to more than just your cooking.

Throughout history, herbs and spices have been put to a multitude of uses: cooking, medicine and rituals, for vanity, fragrance, decoration and as insect deterrents. Be it in songs or salads, herbs and spices are a part of life worldwide.

The difference between herbs and spices is a subtle one. Herbs can be grown in a wide variety of latitudes, whereas spices are usually found in the tropic and sub-tropic regions. Additionally, with herbs it is the leaves that are most often utilized, whereas with spice plants the bark, roots and seeds are used. Cinnamon is a spice that comes from the bark of the cinnamon tree and oregano is an herb. You get the picture.

We lucky folks in the tropics can grow most herbs and spices in our gardens. Many of them will grow in a typical garden soil — a well-drained to slightly sandy loam with a neutral or mildly acidic pH. Others love poor soil. One of these is German chamomile, which makes an attractive, hard-to-kill groundcover producing lovely blossoms that can be brewed into tea. Chamomile tea is an age-old remedy for soothing the nerves and settling the stomach. It also attracts bees, one of the gardener’s best friends.

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Many herbs and spices are excellent companion plantings in a vegetable garden, and most of them enjoy full sun, though some will do well in partial shade. Their aromatic properties deter pests whether above or below the soil. Plant root spices with root vegetables, such as horseradish root with potatoes. Other root spices are celery and oregano (yes, they are technically spices, though oregano can also qualify as an herb and celery as a vegetable) coriander, licorice and lovage.

Rosemary is a wonderful standby as an herbal garden hedge. I have found that most pests steer clear from a garden that has rosemary planted around the perimeter. And of course it makes for a versatile and delicious addition to many culinary dishes and is wonderful in a hot bath.

One thing that is important to take into consideration is the purposes you intend for the herbs and spices you are planting. Is it a seasoning you just can’t get enough of and want to have around all the time? Is it for repelling mosquitoes and other insects? Is it for medicinal or religious purposes? (Eh, we’re talking about herbs you don’t need a license to grow, ‘kay?)

That said, take into account whether or not the plant you want is a perennial or annual. For instance, cilantro. If you are a salsa lover, you’ll want it around all the time. However, it springs up, produces a plethora of tasty leaves, then dies — all within about six to nine weeks. I have found the best way to keep cilantro around is to plant a new batch of seeds every two weeks and trim back the previous crop once for a second sprouting of new leaves. The second time around the leaves are smaller and less abundant, however, I like to get as much mileage as I can out of my plants.

If you love to cook, proximity to your kitchen is another factor. If you have a lanai, you may want to consider railing boxes. Railing hangers and planter boxes are available at just about any garden center or hardware store, or you can build them yourself with a minimum of labor and expense. If you go the latter route and are a purist about organic seasonings, be sure to line your boxes with a black garden plastic approved for organic gardening so toxins from exterior wood don’t leach into your soil.

Your best bet is to do your research. Look up the plants online or at your local library. It’s worth the little bit of extra time to know before you grow.

Happy gardening!

J.M. Buck
J.M. Buck has been a Hawai‘i news writer and columnist since 2003. She has extensive writing experience and has served the media industry in a variety of capacities, including news editor, investigative reporter, online publisher, columnist, web content writer, graphic designer and photographer. She has lived in the Hawaiian Islands for most of her life and is a graduate of University of Hawai‘i.

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