Everyone Loves an Italian: Herb Garden

2602-12Bring a taste of Italy to your garden by growing your own Mediterranean herbs. Summer spices like sweet basil, bay laurel, rosemary, and oregano are sure to heat up your landscape and kitchen. Whether you want to grow herbs in containers or incorporate them in the flowerbed, you can add fresh flavor to every meal with any of these Italian favorites.

Sweet basil, or Ocimum basilicum, is one of the most widely used herbs in the world. Although usually associated with Italian cooking, this intensely aromatic herb actually originates from the far eastern countries of India, Pakistan, and Thailand. This tender annual thrives in full sun, boldly withstanding our Louisiana summers, and can reach three to five feet in height if allowed.

Its attractive bright-green foliage offsets its cinnamon-pink flowers, and looks best when integrated among other herbs like purple sage or ‘Red Rubin’ basil. Plant it also amid your vegetable garden for ease of harvesting – fresh basil can be picked simultaneously with some of your tomatoes and peppers. Keep in mind though that you don’t have to have an herb or vegetable garden to grow basil. Because of its remarkable versatility, sweet basil can also be included in combination planters or ornamental flower gardens as well. For best results, mix basil with brilliantly colored flowers like zinnias, marigolds, periwinkle, or ‘Purple Lady’ Iresene.

Take care not to let your sweet basil dry out, and this delectable Italian herb is sure to keep you harvesting fresh leaves all summer long. Simply pinch off the top to achieve a lush, bushy plant and remember that frequent harvesting will prolong the life of your basil (you’re primarily growing it for the foliage, not the flowers). Keep in mind also that basil leaves hold the strongest flavor when harvested just before flowering.

Bay laurel, or Laurus nobilis, can make a sweet addition to any Italian herb garden. Thought to have originated in Asia Minor, the sweet bay was considered holy by the Greek god Apollo, who often donned bay twigs in memory of his unreciprocated love for Daphne. Similarly, later winners of the Greek Olympic (Pythian) games were decorated with laurel wreaths in honor of Apollo in Delphi. As its Latin name suggests, this once respected Mediterranean herb can reach an admirable height of fifteen to twenty feet when given optimum growing conditions.

An exceptionally slow grower, bay laurel usually extends only a foot each year – this makes it ideal for container planting for the first five years. As the sweet bay matures, you can transplant it into your garden to provide it more room for root and plant development. Sweet bays prefer full sun and dry soil, so take care not to over water them. To encourage better branching and greater fullness, selectively prune the bay once or twice during the growing season. Individual leaves can be harvested at any time, but since the plant’s new growth isn’t as resilient as that of sweet basil, make sure not to remove more than you can use.

Another excellent herb to add to your Italian herb garden is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This attractive evergreen shrub can grow up to five feet in height, and prefers well-drained soil in sunny areas. Its trusses of blue flowers splendidly decorate the shrub’s needle-like leaves.

Italian tradition holds that rosemary will grow vigorously for thirty-three years until reaching the height of Christ when he was crucified; at this age, the rosemary is said to perish. Not only a sign of Christ’s death, rosemary is also an Italian symbol of remembrance and friendship; wedding couples often carry sprigs of rosemary to show their love and fidelity.

Plant rosemary in either containers or in your flowerbed, and remember to selectively prune it during the growing season so as to maintain a healthier looking shrub. Consider planting creeping rosemary in combination planters with basil and sage or with ornamental flowers like bronze-leaf begonias or ‘Dreamland’ zinnias; more upright rosemary varieties like ‘Gorizia’ perform best in flowerbeds since the extra space allows them greater room to spread. Rosemary leaves can be harvested at any time, but pick only what you can use fresh – the leaves lose flavor once they have dried.

To go along with your basil, sweet bay, and rosemary, one last herb that every Italian herb garden must have is oregano, or Oreganum vulgare. A native of the Mediterranean region, oregano is a tender perennial that prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Although this creeping herb looks stunning in combination pots with ‘Siam Queen’ basil or tricolor sage, it has the potential to spread up to six feet when planted in the ground.

As with any of the other herbs, some selective pruning will aid in stimulating verdant new growth. To harvest fresh oregano leaves, trim the plant back to one-third of the size; for bolder taste, chop the leaves before cooking.

No herb garden is complete without the Italian essentials. These Mediterranean herbs are not only staples for exquisite home dining, but they are relatively carefree and effortless to grow in your garden as well. This summer, you can bring fresh spice to your table by growing some of these Italian favorites yourself.

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