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The Secret Side of Herbs

Looking for fresh tastes or exotic flavors? Unusual varieties can be a snap to grow in the kitchen garden.

September 26, 1998|JULIE BAWDEN DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Do parsley, rosemary and thyme leave you yawning? Have basil and oregano lost their allure? Maybe it's time you tried growing something different in your herb garden.

There are thousands of unusual culinary herbs out there, just waiting for a place in your garden and kitchen.

"People are used to a limited amount of culinary herbs, because they only know the old standards," says V. J. Billings, owner of Mountain Valley Growers Inc. in Squaw Valley, a mail-order company that offers 140 culinary herbs, many of them little known.

"Few people have heard of culantro, but those who find out about it are delighted," says Billings. "This herb has the exact same taste as cilantro, but it is much easier to grow and doesn't bolt, like cilantro tends to do. It also produces edible leaves most of the year, whereas cilantro only tolerates cooler weather."

Another unusual herb found in a variety of Mexican and Asian dishes is lemongrass, which many people don't realize is a snap to grow in the garden, says Malee Hsu, owner of Upland Nursery in Orange. She carries a variety of unusual herbs, many of them in spring, but she always has lemongrass on hand.

"Lemongrass does really well in our climate, and it is very easy to grow and propagate," she says.

Stevia is another little-known herb that thrives in Southern California.

"They call Stevia the sweet herb of Paraguay, because its leaves are 100 times sweeter than sugar yet it is said to have no detrimental effects for diabetics," says Billings. "Everyone is always amazed when they eat a leaf because it tastes just like pure sugar."

Although many unusual herbs aren't well-known, they're beginning to catch on.

"There has been an incredible explosion in herb interest," says Billings. "When we opened our doors at the nursery 15 years ago, we had just seven plants on our list, and we didn't think people would buy them. One of them was Italian parsley."

More people are becoming aware of exotic herbs, agrees Michael Jordan, a professional chef, who is now general manager at Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, a restaurant that uses a lot of fresh herbs in their cooking and places an herbal bouquet--instead of flowers--on every table.

"Supermarket shelves are beginning to fill with uncommon, exotic herbs that you wouldn't have seen 10 years ago," says Jordan, who is also an avid gardener.

"Not only do a variety of herbs give foods a wonderful taste, it is a very healthful way of cooking. We use herbs and fresh vegetables to flavor our meats and fish, which creates light, healthy food with out-of-the-ordinary taste."

Growing Unusual Herbs

Now is a good time to plant culinary herbs. They can set down roots before winter, then take off in spring.

Although many culinary herbs are warm-weather plants, most don't go dormant in winter, and some provide usable, yet more limited foliage in the cold months.

Growing unusual culinary herbs is similar to growing more common herb types. For best results, keep the following growing tips in mind.

* Separate your culinary herbs. "In order to maintain their vigor, culinary herbs should be cut frequently," says Billings. "They won't get pruned enough if they're out in the landscape or mixed in with annual vegetable plants."

Even when you don't use your herbs, make sure to cut them frequently to encourage fresh growth.

* Select a sunny or partially shady spot with excellent drainage. If your soil is hard clay, amend with at least 50% organic matter, such as homemade or bagged compost. Also add organic fertilizer, according to package directions.

* Use containers when space is limited, or if your soil is too hard to work and doesn't provide ample drainage.

"The important thing about container growing is to make sure the potting soil isn't fine," says Billings. "The soil needs a good amount of chunky humus so that the roots have something to wrap themselves around. We suggest using high-quality, coarse potting soil and adding more perlite at a rate of 30%."

Also add a slow-release organic fertilizer to the mix.

* Water herbs daily until they are established and begin to show new growth. Then keep the soil moist but not soggy.

* Plant culinary herbs at the same level as you found them in the original nursery container.

* Only fertilize culinary herbs with a slow-release organic fertilizer when you see a problem with the plant and know the soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.00. This can be tested with a kit from a home supply store or nursery. Soil that does not test in this range should be corrected. Consult with a nursery professional or soil lab on the proper amendments to use.

Unusual Culinary Herbs

There are thousands of little-known culinary herbs. The following represent a small sampling of easy-to-grow plants sure to add interest to your garden and zip to your cooking. You'll find some in specialty nurseries and many are available through mail-order. All are suitable for container growing.:

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