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IN SEASON / Herbs : Freshness and Flavor in Your Own Back Yard

July 11, 1991|KITTY MORSE | Kitty Morse is a free-lance writer and cookbook author living in Vista.

"Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" may bring a romantic tune to the lips, but for many North County growers, fresh herbs are cause for more practical consideration as they respond to the increasing demand for freshly cut herbs.

Taylor's Herb Gardens in Vista may well be the granddaddy of local herb farms. It was first developed 43 years ago by Kent Taylor, and today is among of the world's largest.

The manicured gardens encompass several microclimates, each with its own peculiarities. In season, walking through the gardens is akin to inhaling a potpourri of sweet scents emanating from rows of blooming lavender, licorice mint or Mexican bush sage. Lemon verbena bushes rustle in the breeze, while a small pond, home to a handful of swans and ducks, completes the bucolic picture.

Among the 130 varieties of live plants, you can purchase esoteric herbs such as Roman or Hungarian chamomile, madder or lion's ear or the more familiar sweet basil, and French or Spanish tarragon. Taylor's offers free guided tours on the first Saturday of every month.

Dennis Sharmahd, a guide for the past eight years at the gardens, is himself a consultant in edible-landscaping design. Sharmahd credits his Persian grandmother with instilling in him a love for fresh herbs.

"Herb gardens are efficient to have, since growing vegetables is really hard, and herbs don't use up that much space," he said. "You can grow all your own herbs very easily."

Another benefit of using herbs in landscaping is their tolerance to drought.

"Many of my clients are switching from sprinklers to drip irrigation, taking out their lawn and planting herbs," Sharmahd says. For that, Sharmahd, who has planned herb gardens for restaurants such as Piret's and Il Fornaio, recommends herbs such as rosemary, sage, thyme and lavender.

Longtime customers of the Herban Garden may remember the nursery's former location in Olivenhain. A year ago, growers Jeanne and Chris Dunn decided to relocate in the hills of Rainbow.

Jeanne Dunn cites a huge surge in interest in fresh herbs as the reason for the business's explosive growth. A former graphic artist, Dunn acquired her expertise on the job while working for a nursery. She was soon hooked on herbs, and, after purchasing $100 worth of stock and plants, she gave up the graphic arts for herb farming. Husband Chris joined her in the enterprise soon after.

These days, Herban Garden supplies brokers and wholesalers throughout San Diego County with herbs and drought-tolerant plants. The nursery specializes in the trailing variety of variegated Golden Rain rosemary, which "grows up walls and fans out," explained Dunn, who is tireless in her efforts to educate her customers in the endless possibilities of landscaping with herbs.

Among the 100 varieties growing on the premises, she recommends Spanish lavender and Cleveland sage, a plant native to California. "Dried sage makes a great potpourri," Dunn said. She germinates seedlings indoors and, when new growth is barely visible, moves them outdoors to small, plastic-covered greenhouses. Herbs grown in this manner, she says, can "withstand extreme heat and extreme cold."

To illustrate her point, she inverts a gallon pot containing French tarragon: The plant shows an intricate, weblike system of roots.

Don't hesitate to nip plants in the bud to get them bushier, she says, picking the dead blooms off bunches of Society garlic and drought-tolerant lemon thyme.

Although Chef's Gardens, a stone's throw from Lake Wohlford in Escondido, specializes in only 25 varieties of culinary herbs, it is one of the nation's major growers and shippers.

"Our soil has been used organically continuously for the past 60 years, so we have an optimal growing situation," manager Virginia Black said. The farm was recently purchased by a Florida corporation, which plans to expand the herb farm to its full 20 acres.

"The public is much more tuned in to using fresh herbs," Black said. "The flavor of fresh herbs is so much better than the dried ones."

Taylor's Herb Gardens, 1535 Lone Oak Road, Vista 92084. 727-3485. Monday-Friday: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday: 8 a.m.-noon. Closed Sundays. Tours the first Saturday of the month at 11 a.m. Herbs also available by mail order; catalogue is $3.

The Herban Garden, 5002 2nd Street, Rainbow 92028. 723-2967. Wholesale and retail. Monday-Friday: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. There will be an open house this weekend, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Chef's Garden, 25895 N. Lake Wohlford Road, Valley Center, 92082. 749-4465. Mainly wholesale. Call for information.

Dennis Sharmahd, consultant in edible-landscape design. 749-0793.

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