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GARDENING : Abundance of Herbs Displays Diversity of Cuisines, Cultures

June 03, 1989|ROBERT KNIGHT | Times Staff Writer

Orange County's growing ethnic diversity is obvious in many ways, and it extends to what people are growing in their back-yard herb gardens.

Many Vietnamese have patches of onion and mint as well as other herbs. Some grow lemon grass, the long, flat-leaved scallion-appearing grass that imparts a lemon flavor to fish and soups. Others have dill, which is used in a variety of foods, especially catfish.

For Italian cooks, this is herb paradise. Mediterranean herbs like thyme, rosemary and lavender grow here as if Orange County were somewhere just south of Naples. So does basil, which may have originated in India but has become a Mediterranean staple.

It is no trick here to grow several varieties of basil and oregano, onion, garlic, shallots and chives. Lemon basil is especially good with chicken and fish, Spicy Globe and Dark Opal basil make attractive container plants, and Italian sweet basil is the most prized for cooking and is the base for pesto sauce.

Coriander, favored in Mexican cooking for its leaves (cilantro) and in Indian curries for its seeds, also grows effortlessly here and can take over your garden if not pruned. The same goes for mint, which has a wandering root system.

To get an idea of what grows here and how big it gets, a stroll through the herb garden at Fullerton Arboretum at Cal State Fullerton is instructive.

Situated behind the historic house built by Dr. George C. Clark, Fullerton's first physician, the herb garden consists of four plots with edible or medicinal herbs and ornamental flowers.

Here you can find well-marked samples of Genoa, Napoletano and Greek miniature basils as well as fennel, borage, lemon verbena, sweet bay leaves, French Tarragon, ginger, garlic, chives, sweet marjoram, creeping rosemary, orange bergamot, savory, sage, and chamomile, to mention a few.

All can be grown easily in small spaces, except for the bay tree, which can achieve considerable height and breadth.

One popular method is to fill a terra cotta container with several different varieties, creating an herb bowl that can be moved around the garden or patio, or brought into a bright kitchen window or atrium.

Most herbs take very little care, says Joyce Smith, the arboretum's Heritage Garden coordinator. In fact, you can plant herbs and just "let them grow, unless you know it is going to throw a lot of seeds out," such as the coriander or fennel. Many herbs are ornamental as well as edible, and pruning can help keep them full by facilitating new growth. Smith says she trims back large, bush-like herbs such as rosemary to keep them from getting "woody" with too much stem and not enough greenery.

Most herbs need substantial sunlight and good drainage, and can thrive in sandy, semi-arid conditions. Smith says she doesn't use insecticides, since many of the herbs are fragrant enough to repel pests.

There is no set schedule for watering, and it depends on how dry the weather has been. Touching the soil every few days is Smith's recommended method. When she does water, she sprays it overhead instead of irrigating because "it keeps the plants cleaner and keeps the insects off."

As for fertilizing, she suggests that less is better. Smith uses mulch, but no fertilizer.

"You can over-fertilize, and if you do, they kind of lose their flavor," she explains.

Once every few weeks is probably sufficient for most herbs, and many can grow without any help at all, thanks to their wild heritage.

"They were weeds to begin with in the forests and fields and were brought into the garden," Smith says, noting that "any wild thing" can pretty much take care of itself.

Herbs grow in Orange County year-round, and some bloom periodically with small flowers.

The cinnamon basil flowers have deep purple petals, while the lemon basil sports tiny white blossoms. Fennel is an annual or biannual with yellow flowers, and borage has blue-violet flowers and leaves with a cucumber-like taste that can be used in salads or candied and put on cakes as edible ornaments.

Lemon verbena, a deciduous plant that is dormant in the winter, can grow as a shrub or tree and has long slender leaves and tiny white flowers. The leaves have (what else?) a lemony taste. Smith says you can get more leaves of verbena as well as basil and marjoram by cutting off the blossoms, pretty as they are. It all depends on whether you prize the plant more for cooking or decoration.

When cooking with fresh herbs, a good rule is to add twice as much as a recipe calls for of the dried version. An exception is rosemary, for which one-third as much fresh as is called for dry will do nicely, since it is "pretty strong," Smith says.

The alliums--onions, garlic and shallots--can be pulled from the ground when the bulb begins to protrude, but Smith warns gardeners to wait until the tops are dried before cutting them off. If you cut the stalks before they are completely dry, mold will ruin the bulbs. Once dry, however, they will keep for weeks in a cool, dry, well ventilated place

Next to the arboretum's herb garden is a small plot with several varieties of chili peppers. A pepper garden is a natural complement to an herb garden, especially for Oriental and Latin cuisines. The peppers take up little space and can be dried and crushed for use in sauces, soups or to sprinkle on a piece of meat in Cajun fashion.

The garden has cayenne, serrano and poblano/ancho peppers. The latter is mild and can be used for chili relleno, the Mexican recipe for chili peppers stuffed with jack cheese.

The others should be used with care, however. "The smaller the pepper, the hotter it is," Smith says, pointing out a tiny chili fit for asbestos palates.

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