1 of 3
Larry Sagers, Larry Sagers
The herb garden is a popular feature at Red Butte Garden.

The National Garden Bureau want you to know more about growing herbs so they have designated 2012 as The Year of the Herbs. The name is used freely but when pressed for a definition, many are unsure how to define what plants really are herbs.

Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, has coined this definition of what is really an herb.

"Herbs are defined as plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide," Shimizu said.

Defining plants this way categorizes herbs by how they are used, rather than separating them by their appearance or botanical classification. This definition includes trees (such as witch hazel), bulbs (such as garlic) and shrubs (such as boxwood).

If the only way you know herbs is by a few dried leaves in a bottle, think again. Growing herbs is a great way to add a fresher, more pungent flavor to whatever dishes you might be preparing.

Many gardeners are reluctant to get into grow herbs because they do not think they have the time, space or expertise to grow them. If you feel that way and do not think you grow herbs think again. They don't take a lot of space and can mix in with the vegetables, flowers or in containers or window boxes.

While many of us think of herbs for cooking, they are very useful for ornamental displays, crafts, and even have many medicinal uses. They provide fragrance, flavor, spice and beauty through their interesting shapes, textures and colors.

No one knows exactly when people started using herbs. We know that the Egyptians were using medicinal herbs as early as 3500 B.C. Legend says that the Chinese emperor Shen-Nong (ca.2737 B.C.-ca. 2698 B.C.) tasted hundreds of herbs, even poisonous ones.

The Greek and Roman civilizations made extensive use of herbs. Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), a Greek physician, classified herbs according to their usefulness for treating infirmities. Pliny the Elder (ca. 29 A.D-70 A.D.), a Roman author and naturalist, devoted several volumes of his works on natural history to how to use medicinal plants.

During the Middle Ages, some herb use was relegated to superstitions instead of factual information. Fortunately, there were many who understood how to grow and use them. They were very valuable for those who could not afford expensive, imported spices to season and make their food more palatable.

The Renaissance brought renewed interest in these plants including publication of many beautiful herbals that documented different plant collections and herb uses. In 1652, Nicholas Culpeper authored "Complete Herbal," which documented medicinal remedies used in Europe.

As Columbus and many other explorers set out on their quests throughout the world, they discovered many new plants that were unknown to the European world. Many of these were collected and used by Native Americans. Others were discovered in China, India, the Far East and Africa where they were used for landscaping, cooking, medicine and cosmetic uses.

As you select herbs, remember that there are annuals and perennials. Perennials will survive our winters outdoors while annuals must come inside to spend the winter. They make a nice windowsill garden if you have room, and that way you have some fresh herbs to clip out of season.

Most herbs need a minimum of four to eight hours of sunlight per day. Although herbs survive in poor soil, you get better quality and production with quality soil with adequate organic matter. Avoid excessive fertilization because soft succulent herb growth is not good quality.

Harvesting depends on how you intend to use them, which herb you are growing and the growing season. Harvest herbs in the morning after the dew dries or in the evening because the foliage is cooler and the essential oils are most concentrated.

Most herbs continue to grow and produce for the season, so do not remove more of the plant than necessary. Harvest them when they reach the right stage of growth and do not let them get too mature because their oil content drops. They then lose fragrance and taste.

After cutting the herbs, put them in a paper bag or put the stems in water. Herbs are preserved in many ways including drying, freezing, refrigeration, microwaving or making vinegars and oils.

In a future article we will cover some of the plants that will grow well in Utah. Enjoy these plants for their many uses to enhance your life in many different ways.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.

Garden Tips

For more information on growing herbs contact The Herb Society of America at www.herbsociety.org

Garden Classes at Thanksgiving Point:

Comment on this story

Flower Bed Design, May 8, 15 and 22 from 2-4:30 p.m. and 6-8:30 pm (3-week course). Wonderful flower gardens don't just happen. They are created by careful gardeners. Learn how to plan and plant flowerbeds similar to those at Thanksgiving Point and Temple Square that are aesthetically pleasing and that will bloom from spring through autumn. Cost is $43.

Best Plants for Utah Landscapes, May 8, 15, and 22 from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. (3-week course). Utah soil and growing conditions are unique. It is important to understand them so your landscape will survive our climate, soil and water conditions. Avoid mistakes by selecting plants that will thrive in your landscape. This class addresses these issues and answers questions about the best trees, shrubs and flowers for the Wasatch Front. Cost is $43.