Growing a Shakespearean Herb Garden

Herbs have been prized through the centuries for their many uses from medicinal to culinary. Tribal peoples and healers learned of their medicinal purposes and passed their secrets on generation to generation. Even today, many modern medicines have a herbal basis. Today, herbs remain popular for use in aromatherapy, natural cosmetics and remedies as well as for cooking. The most popular method of herbs remains in the kitchen, where its value is for their aromatic and flavorful contributions to the dish. A kitchen herb garden is essential for many culinary aficionados. Growing herbs is an ideal project for someone with limited space and time to devote to gardening.

A herb garden based on plants and flowers mentioned in William Shakespeare’s works is an exciting way to experience the aromas and flavours that were a part of Elizabethan England. The plants selected for this garden are a combination of herbs that were popular during his life and provide a mix of medicinal, culinary, and aromatic herbs. Keep in mind that all of the medicinal qualities of the herbs are from historical sources and that you should check with your physician before ingesting any herb as a medical treatment. All of the plants are readily available, and you can successfully grow with average gardener knowledge.

Herbs are excellent in that you can grow them in many different ways. Raised as a container garden on your patio they provide you with lovely colour, texture, and aromas. Planted in the ground, they can form the basis of a traditional kitchen garden. You can even grow them in pots on your windowsill.

Planning Your Herb Garden

Herbs require very well drained, alkaline soil and full to partial sun. If you are unsure of your soil conditions, you can purchase a soil Ph test kit at the garden centre or call your county’s Extension service office for information. If you are growing your herbs in containers, start with an excellent grade potting soil. Good drainage is vital to growing herbs. How can you tell if you have good drainage? Observe your selected garden spot after the next rainfall. Does it absorb the rain at a reasonable rate or do you notice that the water is running off almost immediately? If the rainwater is running off quickly, you have poor drainage, and the roots of the herbs will not take in the water and nutrients they need. If your soil needs amending to alter either the PH or the drainage, then either the garden centre or the Extension Agent will be able to help with your soil preparation.

The Elizabethans created gardens in symmetrical rectangular or square patterns. Formality was the watchword of the era and plants were going to conform too! Walkways or paths were incorporated into the design layouts so that all could enjoy the garden. Strolling in the garden was popular past time, and they design their gardens with this in mind. If your herb garden is going to be near a patio or other socialising area, think about adding some of your strolling paths.

As you plan your garden, you will want to consider the individual herb’s growing habits. Some grow as low, compact plants. Others are two feet tall and bushy. Many herbs are perennials, meaning that they continue to grow year after year. You need to replant the annual herbs each growing season; you will want to locate them in easily accessible portions of the garden. Be sure to allow ample spacing between plants, herbs are slow growing, and you may be tempted to underestimate the amount of room they will need. Proper spacing will allow for adequate air circulation, ensuring that your plants do not become susceptible to mould. The garden may look a bit sparse at first, but it will reward you with healthier, more abundant garden that will produce for years. You’ll be able to enjoy the herbs in your garden the first year, but it will take about three years for it to become a fully mature clipping garden. Planning is essential in herb gardening as once you plant them in garden herbs do not like to be moved around.

Planting the Garden

Although you can start many herbs from seeds, starting your garden with small plants will increase the likelihood of your success. If you start your garden with seeds, be sure to follow the instruction on the seed packet. The seed packet will tell you how to prepare the seed, how deep to plant it and how to best care for the seedling. Plan if you want to grow from seed, as the seedling may need several months growth before it is ready to go into the outdoor garden.

If you decide to use starter plants, then purchase healthy plants from a reputable grower. When your plants grow, you will be able to propagate more plants by either taking cuttings or harvesting seeds at the end of the season. If you start your garden with small starter plants, you’ll be harvesting your herbs much sooner. Tap the plant out of its pot and gently use your fingers to loosen the soil around the roots. You don’t want to damage the root structure, loosen the ground before you plant in the garden. Place the plant in the garden or a previously prepared container; cover the root ball with soil, pressing it firmly into place. You will want to thoroughly water your newly planted garden and not allow the soil to dry out until the plants make its space in the earth. Don’t be alarmed if the plant droops for the next several days. Keep it evenly watered, and it will perk up soon. When the plants grow a little, allow the garden to be relatively dry between watering.

You can encourage fuller growth by pinching out the new leaf and stem growth, just as you would with a houseplant. Slowly start until you are very familiar with each herb’s growth patterns. If you are a new gardener, consider keeping a garden journal to keep track of the growing habits of each plant. As you get to know your herb plants, you will be able to tell when they need attention.

Caring for Your Garden

Herbs have evolved over the centuries into naturally hardy plants that are easy to care. They do well with moderate watering and minimal attention. Whether you grow your herbs in containers or the ground, you will want to mulch around your plants to help hold the moisture in the soil and to ensure clean leaves for harvesting. If your plants are not thriving and you have made sure that the growing conditions are adequate, you may fertilise with compost or other natural fertilisers. You will eventually be eating the herbs, so be sure to pay attention to the toxicity of any fertilising or pest control applications. Pests will probably not be an issue as herbs are natural insect repellants. If you do see a few insects, you can hand pick them off the plant. A more massive insect attack will require treatment, and you should use a nontoxic garden spray. Companion planting, the practice of planting specific types of plants in combination for the benefit of both plants, lends itself well to herb gardening. Calendula or marigolds are a natural insect repellant, along with garlic; consider mixing either into your garden. Many of the Shakespearean herbs are traditional companion plants.

Harvesting and Storing Your Herbs

You can begin to reap the herbs for use as soon as there are several sets of leaves on the plant. For the fullest flavour, the best time to collect is just before the plants begin to bloom when the aromatic oils are most concentrated in the leaves. Pick them in the mid-morning, after the dew has dried but before the full sun of the day has parched the plant. Herb may be used fresh right out of the garden. Unless it is quite woody and stringy, the stems of many herbs are edible as well. Mince or chop them into salads for additional fibre and taste.

You may store herbs for future use by drying or freezing. Herbs leaves can take up to a full week to completely air dry. You can speed this along by using your microwave to dry them! Place the herb leaves between two paper towels and microwave for 2 minutes at 50% power. Remember microwaves vary greatly, so your times may vary. Stored in an airtight, dry, cool place, you can expect your dried herbs to last from 6 months to a year.

Freezing herbs is the way to go if you want to retain the colour of the herb. Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. Arrange the chopped herbs or individual leaves in a single layer on the waxed paper. Place in the freezer for up to 2 hours. Remove from the fridge and quickly package the herbs for long-term storage. Frozen herbs retain their quality for 12 to 18 months. Some herbs, such as mint leaves and lemon balm, can be frozen into ice cubes for a convenient way to use them later.

The Shakespearean Herbs

  • Bay, Laurus nobilis
    Bay is a bushy perennial that has culinary and medicinal uses it is temperature sensitive, so grow this one in a big tub that you can bring indoors if you live in the colder climates. Bay needs full sun. Pick the leaves when they are from 1 ½ to 2 inches long. Dry them for long-term use. The leaves only are used in cooking. Bay leaves are a repellant for fleas, moths, ants and many other bugs. Traditionally, Bay leaf oil was mixed with honey to create acne relieving cream. Other apothecary uses for Bay include treating urinary problems, flatulence, ear pain, bee and wasp stings.
  • Box, Buxus
    The box was widely used as planting for bordering the Shakespearean era garden. We know it today as the evergreen Boxwood shrub. It is a dense bush with small leaves. The box is a perennial and grows best in full sun. It attains a height of about 2 ft. Shakespeare uses the leaves as a strewing herb, one that was scattered around a room to help with controlling odours.
  • Broom, Cytisus scoparius
    Broom, also known as Scotch Broom, is an evergreen perennial that grows best in full sun. It attains a height of 10 feet if you do not trim it regularly. Box thrives in poor soil with little water. The leaves are best harvested just before blooming for their medicinal and aromatic uses. It is another of the strewing herbs. Broom oils have therapeutic value as astringents.
  • Calendula, Calendula officinalis
    Calendula is often referred to as a marigold. It is an annual and prefers full sun. There are many varieties to choose from, and heights range from 6 inches to 2 feet. Dry or freeze for future use. In the garden, it repels several common garden pests. Calendula has both medicinal and culinary purposes. The flowers and leaves may add to salads and soups for a salty taste. You can use teas brewed from Calendula for reducing fevers. You can use ointments or poultices made from its leaves and flowers for removing warts, and to relieve the pain of a bee sting, and to reduce the swelling of a sprained ankle.
  • Chamomile, Anthemis nibilis
    Chamomile was often known as Roman Chamomile in Shakespeare’s day. It is a low growing perennial, averaging about 9 inches in height. The leaves, as well as the flowers, have an overpowering scent. Dry or freeze for future use. Chamomile has many applications, and people say it the “physician’s plant.” Useful as a strewing herb it also has culinary and medicinal purposes. You may brew chamomile flowers into a relaxing tea. The tea is also helpful as a rinse for blonde hair, an insect repellent, nightmare preventative, and gentle diuretic. Its leaves and flowers were used in poultices to reduce inflammations and swellings. As a companion garden plant, Chamomile is known to improve the flavour of onions, cabbages and lettuce.
  • Chives, Allium schoenoprasum
    Chives are a perennial, sun-loving plant. They grow in small clumps that average 6 inches high. Harvest the slender green shoots when they are young. Older shoots become bitter. Chives have a light onion flavour. Dry or freeze for future use. Chives are a companion to carrots.
  • Heartsease, Viola tricolour
    We know Heartsease as Johnny Jump Up, the early spring wild pansy. It is an annual, growing quickly in moderate to full sun. Heartsease is a compact plant, rarely reaching more than 6 inches. Heartsease does well drying or freezing for long-term storage. The leaves and flowers may be added to salads or used for decoration. A tea brewed from the flower was thought to ease various heart conditions. The nectar from a Heartsease flower was considered a magical essence and could allow one to see fairies.
  • Hyssop, Hyssopus officinalis
    Hyssop is another of the “physician’s herbs” as it has many uses. It is a perennial that grows to a height of 10 – 12 inches. Hyssop needs full sun and prefers to be in the somewhat poor soil. Dry or freeze the leaves for future use. The leaves have a strong slightly bitter minty flavour. Pick them when they are young to reduce the bitterness. You may also brew the leaves into a tea which has many historical medicinal uses including loosening the phlegm of a chest cold, curing toothaches, worming, breathing problems, use as a laxative, and to reduce the swelling and discolouration of bruises. Hyssop is a companion to grapes, and cabbage but is toxic to radishes.
  • Lavender, Lavandula vera
    Lavender is a shrubby perennial that will grow happily in poor soil as long as it has full sun. If not trimmed, Lavender will grow 3 – 4 feet tall. People use the leaves and flowers of lavender as aromatic strewing herbs, as culinary additions and medicinally. Lavender does not respond well to freezing, dry it for future use. If you are going to preserve the flowers, you must harvest them before they are fully open. They lose their aromatic properties quickly upon opening. The leaves and flowers are used to flavour oils and vinegar, used in salads and brewed into a tea. The tea has traditionally been used for calming coughs, soothing sore joints and toothaches and as an antiseptic. The scent of lavender is thought to repel mosquitoes, flies and moths. Lavender is best known today for its calming, soothing aroma.
  • Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis
    Lemon Balm is a perennial that averages 3 to 4 feet high if left untrimmed. It may be dried or frozen for future use. Harvest the leaves when they are 1 – 3 inches long. Its light lemony, minty aroma and flavour made it a favoured strewing herb in Shakespeare’s times. Use the leaves in teas, salads and for flavouring wines and vinegar. Medicinally, Lemon Balm’s uses included reducing fevers, curing gout, cleansing dog bites, repelling scorpions, to encourage longevity and to increase a nursing mother’s milk flow.
  • Parsley, Petroselinum crispum
    Parsley is an annual that grows to approximately 12 inches in full sun. It may be dried or frozen for future use. You should harvest the leaves while they are still young to prevent bitterness. Parsley is used in salads and as a garnish. Chewing Parsley is thought to cleanse the breath. Tea made from parsley has been used as a diuretic, to ease the pain of arthritis, and as a stimulant.
  • Peppermint, Mentha piperita
    Peppermint is a hardy perennial that will grow just about anywhere. It has a voracious habit of spreading, so plan to plant it where it has lots of room! You may even want to grow it in its bed to prevent it from crowding out your other herbs. Peppermint will grow from 12 to 24 inches. Drying is most useful for preserving the leaves. Harvest the stalks and leaves when they are young. The most popular uses of peppermint are as a culinary flavour ingredient, but it has many medicinal purposes. Among them were brewing a tea to be used for indigestion, relieving cramps, sore throats, and as a stimulant. Peppermint is a companion to cabbages.
  • Rosemary, Rosemarinus officinalis
    Rosemary is a bushy, hardy perennial that is another of the multiuse “physician’s plants.” Rosemary prefers full sun and grows to a height of 3 feet if not trimmed. Harvest the small leaves on the stem when they are about 1 – 2 inches long. Rosemary is best dried for future use. Rosemary has a pungent aroma, and you can use it as a flavorful culinary ingredient. Use Rosemary directly in salads, herbal blends, to season meat or infused in vinegar and oils. People use Rosemary teas for improving memory, a mouthwash, hair rinse, and to reduce the pain of arthritis.
  • Rue, Ruta graveolens
    Rue is an evergreen perennial with a bitter taste. Rue needs moderate to full sun and grows to a height of about 18 inches. Harvest its leaves before the seed head forms, or it will be too bitter to use. Rue may be frozen or dried for future use. People use its leaves to fresh salads and food ornamentation. Rue has a long history as a strewing herb and a medicinal herb. People use Rue as protection against contagious diseases, insect repellant, relief of sciatica and as a sedative.
  • Salad Burnet, Sanguisorba minor
    Salad Burnet is an evergreen perennial that will grow in moderate to full sun. Average height is 12 – 24 inches. Its leaves have a light cucumber flavour and are an excellent addition to a salad. You may dry leaves for future use. Salad Burnet was a staple in a Shakespearean garden. In addition to its use as a salad green, People use it as a flavouring for wine and cordials. The leaves were steeped in water to produce a tea sweetened with honey that was used to cure gout and rheumatism. People use the paste of honey and salad burnet as an astringent and to ease the pain of body sores.
  • Summer Savory, Satureia hortensis
    Summer Savory is an annual herb, which grows to a height of 1 – 2 feet. It prefers full sun. The leaves have a delicate peppery taste, and you should harvest on the stem. Savory is best preserved by drying. Savory is used for flavoring meats, egg dishes, stews and soups. People often use it in herbal blends that are used to flavour oils and vinegar. Savory was traditionally a companion plant to any flower garden near beehives, as its addition to the pollen mix made for better honey. Savory is a companion to green beans and onion. Shakespeare might have used it as a tea for relieving indigestion and gas. People also believe that Savory could cure earaches.
  • Tansy, Tanacetum vulgre
    We know Tansy today as the garden flower, Bachelor’s Buttons. Tansy is a hardy perennial that will grow to about 24 inches. It prefers full sun. Harvest the leaves at full maturity but before they turn yellow. Preserve Tansy by drying or freezing. At one time, Tansy was one of the most prized culinary herbs. Tansy has a peppery taste and is excellent added to salad dressings or salads. Try infusing it in vinegar or oils and as a flavouring for meats. Tansy also has strongly aromatic leaves that repel flies, fleas and other insects. Tansy tea was beneficial as an astringent, insect repellent, fever reducer and as a tonic for many general digestive disorders. Tansy is a companion to roses and fruits, deterring many beetles and flying insects.
  • Thyme, Thymus vulgaris
    Thyme is a bushy perennial that grows from 12 – 24 inches tall. Its small leaves are best harvested on the stalk and then dried. Harvest the leaves before the flower opens. Thyme is a universal herb and will complement any food. Most people think that the honey is best with Thyme. Thyme was used as a strewing herb in addition to its culinary and medicinal uses. People use Thyme tea as a deodorant, disinfectant, and meat preservative, diuretic and to relieve sore throats. Thyme is a companion to cabbages and repels moths.
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