The Scoop on Soil

The Scoop on Soil

A Beginner's Guide to Soil

Good soil is the foundation of a great garden. Without the right soil, whether in the garden or in containers, plants will wither. Sometimes the right soil is untouched clay loam; sometimes it's not soil at all, but a soilless mix. Tilling soil, adding organic matter, testing and adjusting the pH level—all of these actions give your plants the solid and nurturing earth they need to prosper.

A Simple Test

Reach down and gather up a handful of soil. Then, give it a squeeze. Does the soil hold together, or fall apart? If it does hold together, is it soft and springy or does it feel like a lump of clay?

What colour is it?If you have a nice, dark clump of earth that crumbles easily between your fingers, you're well on your way. Otherwise, your first step should be to improve your soil quality. Loam is the ultimate goal: a perfectly balanced blend of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter.

Soil's Job

Good soil must perform a number of functions. First, it should contain all the nutrients your
plants require. And good soil helps, rather than hinders, root absorption of plant nutrients. It
anchors plant roots firmly, but is loose and porous enough to allow them to grow and branch out.
Good soil retains moisture, but at the same time has adequate drainage to prevent waterlogged roots. Finally, good soil is neither too acidic nor too alkaline. All this is also true of soil in containers.

Amending the Soil

If you're not blessed with perfect soil from the start—and few of us are—you will need to amend the soil. That means adding plenty of organic matter: peat moss, well-rotted manure, or compost. Organic matter can be added to the soil anytime that the soil is warm enough to work, though the most convenient times tend to be in the early spring, before you've planted your gardens, or in the fall, after the growing season is over.

Amending the soil can take a lot of organic matter; generally, you need enough to cover your
beds to a thickness of 5-8 cm, or more if your soil is particularly dense (too much clay). Till in
the organic matter with a rake or rototiller, and you're on your way to a healthier garden!
Note that amending your soil isn't a one-time affair; since your garden uses the soil year after
year, it's only natural that the soil's quality will erode over time. Adding soil amendments once a year is an excellent way to keep your soil fertile.

Sea Soil.jpg

Favourite Herbs: Sorrel


Rumex acetosa

Hardy perennial

Height 30 cm to 1.5 m; spread 25 to 45 cm.

Distinguished by pale-green stems and thick, long-stalked leaves.

Try these!

Rumex acetosa (common sorrel):

Rumex scutatus (true French sorrel):


Seed sorrel directly into the garden as soon as the ground is workable or, to get a jump on the season, set out young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Two or three plants.

When: Around the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun. Prefers moist, well-drained soil. Space plants 60 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Sorrel is very easy to grow! Once established, water during periods of dry weather. Remove flower spikes as soon as they appear to encourage leaf production. Divide and replant sorrel every 3 to 4 years, or when the plants get crowded. Early spring is the best time to do this, just as the plants are emerging. Sorrel requires little fertilizer.


Once sorrel is established, you can harvest leaves right through to autumn: sorrel is quite frost tolerant. To keep the leaves mild and tender, remove any flowers before they open. The leaves get very bitter after the plant has flowered.

For best flavour: Harvest young, tender, juicy leaves: older leaves can have a sharp, sometimes bitter, flavour.

Leaves: Clip leaf stalks where they attach to the main plant; discard any tough stems.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Dried sorrel has little flavour. Use it fresh or freeze it.


  • Pick a few leaves from each plant as soon as they are big enough to use. For one thing, small leaves taste much better than big leaves; for another, removing leaves regularly encourages the plant to produce bushier growth and many more small, tender leaves
  • Sorrel contains oxalic acid, which should be avoided by individuals with gout, rheumatism, and kidney problems.
  • Sorrel requires minimal care and attention beyond watering. I like to give my plants a good shot of 20-20-20 after I cut them back severely. This creates a fresh flush of tender, young leaves.

To Note:

  • Sorrel is high in vitamins A and C.
  • In Lapland, the juice of sorrel is used in place of rennet to curdle milk.
  • The name sorrel comes from an old Teutonic word meaning, "sour."
  • In Scotland, sorrel is known as "Gowkemeat."
  • The sorrel plant is also called “Cuckoo's meate" from the old belief that the bird cleared its voice by eating sorrel.
  • Farmers harvesting their crops on a hot day would often take a few leaves of sorrel to chew to quench their thirst.
  • Sorrel was eaten in Egypt and by the Romans, who liked sorrel because it offset the effects of eating too much rich food.
  • The sorrel plant was held in high repute in the court of Henry VIII—until the introduction of French sorrel.


Urban Buzz

A Place for bees in the city

Why would anyone invite bees into her garden? Birds—oh, yes.
Butterflies—the more the better. But bees? These fuzzy garden visitors don’t have a great
reputation. But bees don’t wait in hiding for the moment to sting us. They are happy
enough to bumble from flower to flower undisturbed, all the while providing a valuable
service—pollination. The majority of flowering plants and a third of our food depend on
pollinators, mostly bees. But with urban sprawl and the common use of pesticides, natural
and safe habitat can be hard to come by, and pollinator numbers are declining the world
over. Thankfully, part of the solution is right in our backyard. The right plants and an
undisturbed patch of garden is all you need to create a pollinators’ paradise.

The Humble Bee
First things first: bees have gotten a bad rap. In fact, even the good things
we hear about bees aren’t always accurate. For instance, did you know that most bees
don’t produce honey, and those that do, produce only enough to feed the hive? Well, it’s
time to dispel some myths. Here’s an introduction to get you started.

Bees’ nesting habits vary from bee to bee. Because of our familiarity with the
European honeybee, it’s easy to assume that most bees live in colonies. However, most
are solitary and build their own nests for laying eggs. This is good news for us because,
without an instinctive need to protect the hive, native bees are happiest when left alone
and will sting only when trapped, squished or stepped on.
The majority of native bees build their nests in the ground. The others use holes in
dead trees, hollowed-out stems and even old walls. Bumblebees, the only other social
bee, make their colonies underground, usually in abandoned mouse burrows. They have
also been known to use undisturbed compost piles!
Native bees are as varied as the plants they feed on. Mason bees, for example, are
slightly smaller than honeybees and often have metallic-blue bodies. Look for them in
orchards where they are increasingly being used for pollinating. The tiny masked bee, a
mere 4 to 9 mm in length, has distinctive yellow or white markings on its face and a
black body. The large long-horned bee has a velvety fur, and the males sport very long

Did You Know?
Contrary to popular belief, honeybees are not native to North America, but were
introduced by Europeans some 400 years ago. The ones we see in the wild have escaped
domestic bee farms to build new colonies.

Bees vs. Wasps 101
One of the reasons bees have a bad reputation is because they’re often
associated with their cousin, the wasp. They can be difficult to distinguish, and but
knowing a few key features will help you tell them apart.

Vegetarian vs. Carnivorous
Bees feed on a cocktail of pollen and nectar, while wasps feed largely on small insects
and supplement their diet with nectar (or a sweet drink left out on the patio). When a
wasp is spotted on a flower, it is usually searching for its next meal.

Fuzzy vs. Sleek
Bees’ hair-covered bodies help them collect pollen to bring back to their nests. This
feature is what causes pollination, as well. Wasps’ bodies are usually more elongated,
sleek and hairless. However, a few bees collect pollen internally, and are virtually
hairless. The cuckoo bee, for example, lays her eggs in the nests of other bees, and
doesn’t collect pollen at all.

Docile vs. Aggressive
Due to their predatory nature, wasps are much more aggressive than bees and can be
easily provoked. Both bees and wasps can sting multiple times in a row, but bees will
sting only when truly threatened. It can be easy to enjoy these little fuzzballs without ever
being stung.

Did You Know?
Only female bees have stingers (which are also used to lay eggs), and only honey bees
die when they sting. Honeybees release part of their abdomen with their stinger, which
keeps pumping venom after detaching, and die shortly thereafter.

Habitat loss is the number one cause of declining native bee populations.
Bees have evolved with the land they live on, and once it has been turned into farmland,
pasture, or urban space, bees can struggle to find a home. Providing a habitat in the city is
the first step to welcoming bees in your garden.

The vast majority of bees build their nests in the ground and look for an undisturbed
patch of soil to make their home. The female bee will excavate a channel and line it with
leaves, petals, mud or her own secretions. She will then collect pollen and nectar and
pack in into a ball at the bottom of the cavity and lay an egg on it. Once she seals this egg
cell, she’ll continue building the next chamber and the next, until she has reached the top
of the channel. Having built several nests this way, the female bee will die, and the eggs
will be left to hatch on their own.

An undisturbed piece of garden is essential for a bee to feel safe in the garden. Bees
won’t burrow through groundcover, so if you prefer to mulch your garden, leave a bare
spot. The soil should be well-drained, even sandy, and in a sunny spot. If you have
humus-rich soil, fill an old oak barrel with sand and soil and get ready to watch bees set
up house.

For bees that nest in hollows, providing a home can be as easy as drilling holes into a
snag or thick log. If it comes with beetle tunnels, all the better. Drill holes 3 mm–10 mm
in diameter, about 10 cm deep, and at a right angle to protect the nest from rain. Make
sure the entrance of each hole is smooth and free of splinters.

Rigid stems from raspberry bushes, sunflowers, and even reeds can also serve as bee
bungalows. Bundle the stems together and hang them horizontally in a sheltered spot,
away from rain and direct sun.

To help bees pass the winter, leave parts of your garden unkempt during fall clean up.
Favorite overwintering sites include wild patches of grasses, weeds, wildflowers, logs,
brush, leaf litter, and bush stems.

Did You Know?
Roughly 20,000 species of bees in the world, and 800 call Canada home.

Mason Bee House 101
While there are ready-made mason bee houses on the market, making one
of your own is very easy. All you need is some untreated scrap lumber (an old fence post
or a 4x4 are good choices), a router bit drill and a 5/16 router bit.
1. First, cut our scrap lumber into a 15 cm length.
2. Being carful not to drill all the way through the blocks, begin drilling holes distanced 2
cm apart until the block is covered with holes.
3. Cap the block with a shingle to protect the holes from rain, and hang your mason bee
house at least one metre above the ground and facing east (bees are cold-blooded and
depend on the sun to get going in the morning). During dry times, create a patch of moist
soil near the nest for mason bees to use for sealing their egg chambers.

Bees start emerging from hibernation in early spring and reduce their
activity by mid September. Because of their close relationship with native plants, each
bee species emerges in time with their favourite flower. Feeding habits also vary from
bee to bee; some are specialists, choosing only one type of plant to feed on, while others
are generalists. When designing your garden to attract the greatest variety of bees, focus
on native plants with various blooming periods. In no time you’ll enjoy watching these
furry and gentle foragers circling the flowers in your garden.

Getting it Right
Choose native plants full of nectar and pollen. Native plants and bees have evolved
together and are well suited to meet each other’s needs. Avoid exotic flowers that have
been bred for showiness; they often have diminished nectar and pollen production in
exchange for layers of petals. Generally, plants of the Asteracea and Lamiaceae family
are full of both nectar and pollen. Ask your local nursery to point you in the right
Plant large patches of each flower. Bees are attracted by colour and scent, and a large
patch of a single flower is especially welcoming. The proximity of multiple flowers also
means that bees can forage in one area for a longer time (they will have to make dozens
of trips each day). A patch that is at least one metre squared is best.
Choose an array of plants that will bloom throughout the season. A garden should
contain at least ten varieties to attract bees all season long. A range of flower shapes and sizes will accommodate the different tongue lengths of bees, and different blooming
times will ensure there is always something to eat.

Nectar & Pollen Plants for Every Season
Spring: Shrubs and trees will provide nectar in early in the season when food is scarce.
Crabapple, cherry, lilac, dogwood, willow, and wild geranium are good choices.
Summer: Meadowsweet, coneflower, meadow blazing star, cosmos, verbena, milkweed,
salvia, basil, and tomatoes.
Late Summer; Fall: joe pye-weed, goldenrod, black-eyed susan, great blue lobelia,
native sunflowers, asters, squash and pumpkin.

Quick Tip
Once your garden is ready to house and feed bees, keep it pesticide-free. Even small
amounts of pesticide will kill small critters like bees. If you have to use pesticide, make
sure it’s organic, apply sparingly and in the evening when bees have finished their

Did You Know?
Bees are red-colourblind, so choose flowers that are blue, yellow and purple.

Favourite Herbs: Lemon Verbena


Lemon Verbena

Aloysia triphylla [aka A. citriodora, Lippia triphylla]

Tender perennial; grown as an annual in most parts of Canada

Height 1 to 2 m; spread 45 cm to 1 m.

Herb with stiff, apple-green, willowy leaves and small, pale-lilac flowers in pyramid-shaped clusters.

Try these!

Only Aloysia triphylla is readily available in North America.


Lemon verbena is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: One to two weeks after the average date of last spring frost in your area.

Where: Full sun, sheltered; a south facing wall is ideal. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space plants at least 30 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Lemon verbena is easy to grow! It loves heat, but don’t let it dry out.


Harvest leaves throughout the growing season. The flowers are also edible and tasty, but verbena rarely blooms in Canada’s short growing season.

For best flavour: Harvest mature plants: the lemon fragrance and flavour grow stronger with age.

Leaves: Strip leaves from the woody stems with your fingers; discard any tough stalks.

Flowers: Harvest as they appear; clip from stem and use whole.

Preserving the Harvest

Lemon verbena leaves will retain their flavour for years. Dry and place immediately in an airtight jar, and keep the jar in a cool, dark place. You can also freeze the chopped leaves and flowers; use the ice-cube method (see page XXX).


  • Give lemon verbena the sunniest location you can. The plants respond well to warmth and light.
  • Lemon verbena usually grows best when it is free of competition. However, I like to plant lemon verbena in a pot with 'Dark Opal' basil: the plant's contrasting leaf colours look fantastic together, they like the same growing conditions, and one never overgrows the other.

To Note:

  • Put lemon verbena leaves in the vacuum cleaner bag to freshen the house while you clean.
  • Infuse sprigs of lemon verbena for use in finger bowls.
  • Lemon verbena's essential oils are used in soft drinks, liqueurs, and perfumes. The dried leaves are good for potpourris.
  • Lemon verbena is native to South America. The Latin Aloysia comes from Maria Louisa, wife of Charles IV of Spain.
  • In the film Gone With the Wind (1939), lemon verbena is one of the favourite fragrances of Scarlet O'Hara's mother.



Favourite Herbs: Thyme



Thymus spp.

Tender perennial; ornamental varieties are hardy.

Height 15 to 50 cm; spread 15 to 30 cm.

Herb with small, dark-green or variegated leaves with hairy undersides and tiny, tubular, lavender, mauve, pink, purple, or white flowers borne in loose whorls.

Try these!

Thymus vulgaris (English thyme, German thyme, Winter thyme, Common thyme): Most common variety; broad-leaf variety; grows vigorously, with a full, strong flavour

Thymus vulgaris (French thyme, Summer thyme): Narrow-leaf variety; greyer and sweeter than English thyme

Thymus x citriodorus (Lemon thyme): Best for tea; less pungent, with a citrus flavour, and thus better used in desserts and custards


Thyme is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: One plant of each type you enjoy.

When: As soon as the ground can be worked; quite frost-tolerant.

Where: Full sun. Grows well in containers. Prefers light, sandy, well-drained soil; will grow in poor soil. Space plants 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Thyme is easy to grow! Trim lightly after flowering to encourage compact, bushy growth. Fertilize only lightly for best leaf flavour. Thyme does not like to dry out, but overwatering and excessive fertilizer make the leaves taste bland. To ensure continued vigour in perennial varieties, divide the plants every 3 to 4 years.


When gathering wild thyme, taste and smell the plants as you pick to find those that are the most aromatic. For maximum leaf production, don’t let the plant flower.

For best flavour: If you’re harvesting leaves, pick them just before the plants bloom; if you’re harvesting flowers, pick them just as they open.

Leaves: Harvest throughout the season, as needed. Thyme leaves are too small to pick individually. Clip upper stems; use whole or strip leaves from tougher stems. Throw stems on the BBQ.

Flowers: Pick flowers as they appear. Flowers grow in clusters; clip cluster from growing stem and gently separate into individual florets.

Preserving the Harvest

In milder climates, thyme is an evergreen, so fresh leaves can be picked year-round. Thyme leaves dry well (see page XXX for methods) and can also be preserved by the ice-cube method (see page XXX). Thyme flowers should be used fresh.


  • Culinary varieties will generally over winter if you are careful about the location. Find a sheltered spot with good snow cover and light sandy soil.
  • Although we have listed only a few common varieties, there are more than 120 varieties of thyme, some from Europe, western Asia, North Africa, and the Canary Islands. Here are some other edible varieties you may want to try.
    • Golden lemon thyme (Thymus x citriodorus 'Aureas') has a bright lemon flavour; its leaves have scattered yellow edges.
    • The unique aroma of caraway thyme (Thymus herba-barona) is a cross between sweet caraway and pine.
    • Orange balsam thyme (Thymus x Orange Balsam)has a wonderful orange fragrance and flavour.
    • Nutmeg thyme (Thymus praecox ssp. articus) is a small-leafed trailing species with the scent and flavour of nutmeg.
    • Oregano thyme (Thymus sp.) bears a hint of oregano in its scent and flavour.
    • Wild thyme (Thymus serpyllum), also known as mother of thyme or broad-leaved thyme, can be used for cooking, but makes a better groundcover. It exudes a lovely scent when stepped on. Woolly mother-of-thyme or woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is another ornamental variety with a superb scent, but is not recommended for cooking. Try growing it around patio stones or in a rock garden.
  • In most areas of Canada, perennial thymes require mulching and protection to survive the winter.

To Note:

  • Thyme's essential oil, thymol, can be used to preserve meat. Thymol is also used as the fungicidal ingredient in mildew control products, and serves as an important component of many mouthwashes, lozenges, cough syrups, colognes, detergents, and toothpaste.
  • Dried thyme flowers are used in sachets to repel moths from clothing.
  • Thyme grown in and around Grasse, in southern France, is used in perfumeries. The thyme also supplies bees with pollen, yielding the thyme-flavoured honey that is sold in district markets.
  • Scottish highlanders drank wild thyme tea to give them strength and courage and to prevent nightmares. Similarly, a sprig of thyme in a bed pillow is said to repel nightmares.
  • One of the most important herbs in human civilization, thyme was cultivated in Sumeria as early as 3000 BC. Indeed, an ancient Sumerian stone tablet mentions thyme in what could be the world's oldest prescription: "After grinding together the seeds of saffron and thyme and putting them in beer, the patient shall drink."
  • The preserving properties of thyme were well known to the Egyptians, who used it for embalming.


Favourite Herbs: French Tarragon

French Tarragon


Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa

Tender perennial

Height 60 to 120 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.

Branching herb with smooth, shiny, dark-green, lobe-shaped leaves.

Try these!

Artemisia dracunculus sativa (French tarragon, True tarragon) is the only variety worth growing: the flavour is distinctive, with a slight hint of anise—wonderful!


Grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre. French tarragon cannot be grown from seed.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Around the date of the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun. Demands light, well-drained soil; cannot tolerate wet or poorly drained soil. Space plants at least 60 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Tarragon requires some care to grow well. Water regularly to keep plant lush and full. Tarragon doesn’t require much fertilizer. Tarragon spreads, like mint, by underground runners, but is not nearly as invasive or hard to control. Tarragon tends to die back or get woody in the centre; it requires regular division and should be renewed every 3 or 4 years. Because tarragon is not completely hardy, it requires mulching in the fall for winter protection.


The leaves can be harvested from early spring until fall.

For best flavour: Choose tender growth; harvest only as much as you need immediately.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the stem. Cut sprigs where they attach to the main growing stem; use whole or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks or use on BBQ.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Tarragon is best used fresh, but can be preserved by freezing. Tarragon is also commonly preserved in white vinegar—tarragon vinegar is a typical gourmet product. Don’t bother drying tarragon: it loses its essential oils when dried.


  • Never buy Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus dracunculoides)! Its flavour is poor—in fact, it’s almost tasteless. If you see tarragon seed for sale, it will definitely be the inferior Russian tarragon, so don’t buy it. The true French variety can only be propagated vegetatively.
  • Tarragon prefers warm but not hot locations in full sun. I like to plant mine in a sunny location that is protected from the hot late-afternoon sun.

To Note:

  • Tarragon contains high amounts of calcium and potassium.
  • Tarragon has been used to reduce swellings, alleviate toothaches, and to freshen breath.
  • Tarragon is related to wormwood, southernwood, and mugwort.
  • Hippocrates used tarragon to draw venom from snakebites.
  • The Okanagan, Shuswap, Kootenay, and Blackfoot peoples all used tarragon as an insect-repelling smudge. Several tribes would bake tarragon leaves between two hot stones and eat the leaves with salt water.
  • The Mongols and the Crusaders introduced tarragon into Europe.
  • Tarragon gets its species name from a strange superstition recorded by Pliny, the famous Roman author and scientist. He wrote that anyone carrying a twig of the plant would be protected against snakes and dragons. The species came to be known as Dracunculus or “little dragon."



Favourite Herbs: Sunflowers



Helianthus annuus


Height 30 cm to 2 m (some varieties can grow to heights of 6 m or more); spread 15 to 45 cm.

Huge flower heads sport bright-yellow petals around a centre of black seeds.

Try these!

Helianthus annuus (sunflower):

Helianthus annuus giganteus (giant sunflower):


Seed sunflowers directly into the garden or, to get a jump on the season, set out young plants purchased from a garden centre. If you use young plants, be sure they come in individually celled containers: sunflowers don’t like to have their roots disturbed.

How much: Two to three plants; more for ornamental use.

When: Seed as soon as the soil can be worked. Set out young plants one week after the average date of last frost in your area.

Where: Full sun. Prefers rich, well-drained soil; will grow in any soil. Space tall varieties 60 cm apart; space short varieties 45 to 50 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Sunflowers are very easy to grow! Rain generally provides all the moisture they require, but if conditions are dry, additional watering will produce larger, lusher plants and bigger flowers. Sunflowers self-sow readily, so don’t be surprised if a few plants keep turning up year after year, either in your own yard or your neighbour's.


The flower buds, ray petals, and dried seeds can be eaten If you’re growing sunflowers for the flower buds, choose a perennial or multi-stemmed annual variety, rather than a single-stem annual variety: they produce lots of flower heads. If you’re growing them for the seeds, choose a single-stem variety and don’t harvest petals from the flower heads.

For best flavour: Pampered sunflowers will produce the best growth.

Leaves: Not harvested.

Flowers: Harvest buds as they appear. Clip buds cleanly from stem. Once the flower opens, use only the petals. Pull individual ray petals from growing flower heads, or cut whole flowers and strip the ray petals. Discard the central disc florets.

Seeds: Cut the mature flower heads of sunflowers when they droop, the back of the head is dry and brown, and the seeds are dark and dry. Brush off any remaining petals with your fingers.

Preserving the Harvest

Use the petals and flower buds fresh—they do not store well. I like to tie the mature sunflower heads to the beams of my garage until I’m ready to use them. It’s cool and dry there, and the heads get lots of air movement, preventing decay.


  • Grow small varieties in containers. Ikarus and Soraya look great in large containers; you can also try Pacino, Big Smile, and Teddy Bear (my favourite, since its flowers looks like those in the Van Gogh painting).
  • Perennial sunflowers tend to deplete the soil where they grow; they should be replanted in a new site every few years, with plenty of well-rotted manure and compost added to the new spot. I prefer to add lots of well-rotted manure and compost each fall so I don’t have to move my plants. Instead, I divide the plant every 3 or 4 years.
  • One year, some people who lived down the road from us planted sunflowers close to their corn. Unfortunately, crows swooped down and devastated both crops. To prevent birds from eating all the seeds before you harvest them, cover the flower heads with brown paper bags as soon as they mature.
  • The best fertilizers for sunflowers contain twice as much potassium as nitrogen, e.g., 15-15-30.
  • Perennial sunflowers tolerate poor soil but they don’t like to dry out.

To Note:

  • Sunflowers are wonderful in backgrounds, borders, and hedges. They’re also a great choice for children's gardens because the seeds are large enough for little fingers to handles and the plants come up quickly and are easily maintained.
  • The name Helianthus is derived from the Greek words helios (sun) and anthos (flower). Sunflowers are heliotropic, meaning that they follow the sun. The flowers and leaves turn to the rising sun in the east and follow it across the sky.
  • Tall Mammoth sunflowers have heads with a width of up to 40 cm, containing 2000 seeds.
  • Each day, a large sunflower uses 17 times as much water as a person does!
  • It is purported that chickens will increase their egg laying if they are fed sunflower seeds.
  • Sunflower pith is one of the least dense substances known, and is used in many scientific experiments and laboratories.
  • In China, sunflowers have been cultivated and used for making delicate silks and cobise ropes.
  • Sunflowers have an incredible ability to absorb water from soil. They have been used in the reclamation of marshland in the Netherlands.
  • Dried sunflower stems are very hard and make an excellent fuel. Scatter the ashes as a potash fertilizer.
  • Boil sunflower petals to make a yellow dye. Sunflower is a good bee plant as it gives the hives large quantities of wax and nectar.
  • Sunflower oil has an incredible variety of uses. The oil cake, when warm pressed, yields a less valuable oil used for soap making, candle making, and the art of wool dressing. This cheaper oil is used as a drying oil for mixing paint and is an excellent lubricant.
  • The common sunflower is a native of Mexico and Peru. It was cultivated by American Indians 3000 years ago. In the Aztec culture, sunflowers were symbolic of the sun and Aztec sun priestesses were crowned with sunflowers. They carried them in their hands and wore gold jewelry decorated with sunflower emblems. Sunflowers were introduced into Europe in the 16th century by returning Spanish explorers.


Favourite Herbs: Savory

savory (1).png


Satureia hortensis (summer savory)

Satureia montana (winter savory)

Summer savory: Annual

Winter savory: Hardy evergreen perennial

Summer savory: Height 30 to 45 cm; spread 30 to 60 cm. Large, widely branched bush with long, lance-shaped leaves and pink or white flowers.

Winter savory: Height 15 to 40 cm; spread 15 to 30 cm. Compact, low-growing bush with lance-shaped leaves and white or pink flowers.

Try these!

Satureia hortensis (summer savory): Easiest to grow; delicate flavour

Satureia montana (winter savory): Strong, pungent flavour

Satureia biflora (lemon savory): Tender perennial with an intense lemon scent and flavour; rare, often difficult to locate


Savory can be started indoors from seed, grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre, or split from a established plant early in the spring.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Two weeks after the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun to light shade. Prefers light, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Savory is easy to grow! Let the soil surface dry before you water, then soak thoroughly. Feed lightly. Winter savory should be divided and replanted every 2 or 3 years. Do this in the early spring by digging up the clump and removing any of the old, tough growth in the centre. Then split the balance of the plant into smaller clumps and replant.


Summer savory tends to get leggy, so don’t hesitate to cut it back hard (by up to a third) to keep it producing. Harvest winter savory regularly to keep it looking bushy and full.

For best flavour: Harvest Summer savory in late spring or early summer, before the plants flower—later than that, the taste gets a bit bitter. Winter savory can be harvested all season, but young leaves taste best.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten; collect in late summer.

Preserving the Harvest

Summer savory is best preserved by drying. Winter savory can be dried or frozen.


  • The leaves should be gathered before the plant flowers. I like to cut my plants back by about two-thirds after flowering and use the new, fresh, sweet shoots.
  • I like to trim my winter savory back in the spring to encourage new growth.
  • I also like to prune my summer savory in the spring, about a month after I set the young plants into the garden. Summer savory grows vigorously and can get quite lanky. Pruning soon after the plants are established encourages, bushy, more compact plants.

To Note:

  • In ancient times, savories were thought to belong to the Satyrs, hence the genus name Satureia.
  • The Romans introduced savory when they invaded England some 2000 years ago. The Romans used savory and other aromatic herbs in vinegar in much the same way we use mint sauce.
  • In Shakespeare's time, savory was a common herb. It is mentioned, along with mint, marjoram, and lavender, in The Winter’s Tale.
  • Summer savory was one of the herbs brought to the New World by the pilgrims. John Josselyn, one of the early American settlers, compiled a list of plants introduced by the English colonists to remind them of their gardens in England. He mentioned both winter and summer savory.


Favourite Herbs: Sage



Salvia officinalis

Hardy perennial

45 to 60 cm; spread to 1 m.

Herb with woolly, pebbled, oval grey-green or variegated leaves and blue, purple, pink or white flowers.

Try these!

Salvia officinalis (garden sage): Most commonly grown; the main culinary variety

Salvia officinalis purpurea (purple sage): Very aromatic purple foliage; excellent in stuffings, omelettes, soups, and stews; requires winter protection to survive

Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’ (tricolour sage): Aromatic foliage; mild flavour; very decorative; tender perennial—requires winter protection to survive

Salvia elegans [aka S. rutilans] (pineapple sage): Tender perennial; very sweet, vibrant red flowers


Sage is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Two weeks after the date of the average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun, sheltered. Will tolerate light shade. Grows well in containers. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Sage requires some care to grow well. Do not overwater. Prune lightly in July, after flowering, to encourage new growth. Sage bushes are short-lived perennials; they get woody, produce less foliage, and begin to die out after 3 or 4 years. I like to replace my plant with new stock after 3 years. In cooler climates, mulch lightly in the fall to protect plants from winter's chill.


Harvest leaves regularly to encourage new growth. The younger leaves have a better flavour.

For best flavour: Harvest leaves before the flowers open.

Leaves: Harvest S. officinalis throughout the season, up to early fall. Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Harvest S. elegans flowers as they open. Clip cleanly from the stem. Remove any green bits before eating.

Preserving the Harvest

Dry sage leaves slowly to preserve their flavour; they take a long time to dry, but once they are thoroughly dry, they will keep for about a year. Use flowers fresh or preserve in vinegar. Pineapple sage flowers are best crystallized—the red flowers are very pretty.


  • Here are some other edible sage varieties you may want to try.
    • Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’: Low-growing plant with extra-large leaves; one of the best-known choice strains
    • Salvia officinalis aurea (golden sage): Very pretty chartreuse yellow leaves; same flavour as standard sage.
    • Salvia officinalis ‘Holt's Mammoth’: Tall plant with extra-large leaves; a well-known choice strain
  • Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), an annual sage grown for its aromatic flowers, which may be blue, purple, mauve, or cream-coloured, has great ornamental value. We sell it as a bedding plant, and although it’s not our most popular annual, there are customers who ask for it year after year to plant in their flower beds.

To Note:

  • Put dried sage leaves in the linen drawer to discourage insects.
  • Sage was first cultivated by the ancient Greeks, who valued it as a medicinal plant. Sage has long been purported to possess great healing properties; a proverb from the Middle Ages goes, "Why should a man die if sage flourishes in his garden?"
  • Sage was so valued by the Chinese in the 17th century that Dutch merchants found the Chinese would trade three chests of China Tea for one chest of sage.
  • The Romans considered sage a sacred herb and gathered it with ceremony. A sacrifice of bread and wine was made, and the gatherer wore a white tunic, feet bared and washed. The sage was never cut with an iron tool—a good idea, since iron salts are not compatible with sage.
  • There is a superstition that sage grows at its best when the wife rules the house! It is also said that the sage plant will thrive if all is well with its owner and will droop when fortunes fall.
  • In medieval times, sage was believe to have magical properties. Here is a typical sage charm: Make three holes in a sage leaf. Thread them with a hair from your head as well as one from the woman you desire. Bury the leaf under her doorstep. The woman of your dreams will love you forever.


Favourite Herbs: Roses



Rosa spp.

Perennial of variable hardiness

Height and spread vary widely, depending on species.

Shrub, featuring fragrant blossoms on graceful green stems with dark-green leaves.

Try these!

Species roses (Rosa rugosa) are best for crops of rosehips, because they produce lots of edible pulp. Old garden roses or antique roses (Rosa alba, Rosa damascena, Rosa gallica) are known for their beautiful, fragrant flowers. Please see Lois Hole’s Rose Favorites for specific variety recommendations.


Plant large, well-rooted, container-grown roses from the garden centre.

How much: One plant of each type you enjoy.

When: Anytime during the growing season—from early spring to just before freeze-up.

Where: Full sun. Demands rich, well-drained soil. Space variable, depending on variety.

Care and Nurture

Roses are easy to grow! Try this basic advice: water once a week, fertilize once a month, prune once a year, and deadhead once in a while. Roses need more water than most plants. As a rule of thumb, give each rose 5 L of water per week for every 30 cm of height. Water only around the plant bases to reduce the incidence of powdery mildew and moisture loss through evaporation. Cut off damaged or diseased branches whenever you spot them. Fertilize once a month with 28-14-14 rose food. Use a fertilizer with chelated iron added to avoid veiny leaves. Ensure that the plants are well watered before freeze-up. For detailed care and nurture instructions, see Lois Hole's Rose Favorites.


For a lovely blend of flavours, pull a few petals from several different types of roses and combine. The darkest petals are said to be most flavourful.

For best flavour: Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Not harvested.

Flowers: Just as the flowers open fully, well before they start to fade. Cut stem ten to twelve centimetres from base of flower; remove stem and greenery when you’re ready to use the petals.

Hips: Pick when they are red and plump, but not soft and overripe. Pull cleanly from the plant.

Preserving the Harvest

Petals should be used fresh. Wash the petals and remove the green or white heel at the base of each one. The petals may be preserved in butter, syrup, vinegar or crystallized. Prepare hips quickly after harvesting by slicing off the stem and blossom ends, cutting the hips in half, and scooping out the fibres and seeds with a spoon. The halves can be eaten fresh or dried on a screen in a shady, well-ventilated room.


  • I like to plant several varieties that bloom at different time of the season, so I have a continuous supply of flower petals.

To Note:

  • There are more than 10,000 varieties of rose. Three types of scents are recognized: old rose, tea rose, and myrrh. The Rosa centifolia varieties of roses have less scent than the Rosa gallica group. The best of all the roses for scent is the old cabbage rose.
  • Fossil records indicate that roses have existed for much longer than man—40,000,000 years! Roses were first cultivated in northern Persia. Cultivation then spread to Greece, and from there to Italy.
  • The word Rosa comes from the Greek word rodon, meaning red.
  • Cultivated roses to be used in perfumes are grown mostly in Bulgaria, Persia, and India.
  • The juice of the burnet rose has been used as a dye to colour muslin and silk a peach colour. When mixed with alum, it gives a violet colour.
  • It was once a custom to hang a rose over the dinner table to signify that all discussions were to remain confidential.
  • The national flower of Britain, the rose is a common insignia used in heraldry and in the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath, and many other Orders.
  • During World War II, soldiers and children alike ate rosehips for their high vitamin C content.
  • Shakespeare and his contemporaries ate rose petals in everything from teas to jellies.
  • The dog rose was probably named dagwood from the many thorns, or daggers, it produces. Another theory holds that the name comes from the plants supposed ability to cure rabies or mad-dog bites.
  • The ancients describe roses as having a deep crimson colour, which may be the origin of the fable that the colour came from the blood of Adonis.
  • Rose oil is very expensive. It is sometimes adulterated with palmarosa, or rose geranium oil. Oil of rose is light. The oil congeals at a temperature between 17 to 21° C.
  • In the late 16th and early 17th century, the oil Attar of Roses was discovered. There are records of Attar of Roses being imported and sold at great cost in 1694. It was an important perfume in those times. Rose cultivation in the Grasse area produces rosewater and French Attar. It takes the distillation of 10,000 pounds of roses to obtain 1 pound of oil.


Favourite Herbs: Rosemary



Rosmarinus officinalis

Tender evergreen perennial; grown as an annual in most areas of Canada

Height 30 to 100 cm, can reach 200 cm; spread 30 to 60 cm.

Looks like a little tree: upright bush growth habit, with hundreds of straight, needle-shaped, succulent green leaves; the branches sometimes twist. Creeping varieties have a prostrate growth habit.

Fragrant blue flowers appear in summer.

Try these!

Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’: Hardier strain, survives outdoors in zone 6 with winter protection

Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus' (creeping rosemary): Produces lots of pale-blue flowers; fine creeping/trailing growing habit

Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Rex’: Very upright variety with large, deep-green leaves; vigorous growth habit.


Rosemary can be difficult to grow from seed. If you enjoy a challenge, start indoors from seed in February or early March; otherwise, grow young plants purchased from a garden centre or propagate from cuttings.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Around the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun; tolerates light shade. Excellent in containers. Prefers light, well-drained, dry soils. Space plants 45 to 60 cm apart in the garden; space one plant per pot in a small container, 3 to 5 plants per pot in a large container.

Care and Nurture

Once established, rosemary is easy to grow! Young plants need lots of water, but once established, rosemary is very drought resistant and can tolerate a dry spell or two. Rosemary loves the heat!


If you bring your rosemary inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window, you can continue to enjoy fresh leaves year-round. Harvest lightly during the winter, however, because the plant is getting less light and producing fewer leaves.

For best flavour: Harvest leaves just before the flowers bloom.

Leaves: Harvest throughout the growing season. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the needles and discard the stem or use on BBQ  for flavour.

Flowers: Harvest as they open. Clip cleanly from the stem. Remove any green bits before eating.

Preserving the Harvest

Rosemary leaves are best preserved by drying (see page XXX). The flowers can be used fresh or preserved in oil.


  • Two other rosemary varieties you might enjoy are Rosmarinus officinalis 'Benenden Blue', which has deep-blue flowers, narrow leaves, and an upright growth habit, and Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Blue Boy’, which produces lots of flowers, has excellent flavour, and has a more compact form. Blue Boy is a good choice for growing indoors in small pots.
  • If rosemary is hardy in your area, remember that it’s a short-lived perennial. After a few years it will become bare, sparse, and woody. I like to replace my plant every 3 years. Never cut it back in the fall: the growth above the ground will help protect and insulate the roots over the winter.
  • It's best to grow rosemary in large pots, since most Canadians will need to bring it indoors for it to survive the winter.
  • Rosemary’s narrow leaves don’t normally display signs of wilt, even when the plants get quite dry, so if your plant is wilting, it hasn’t been watered in a very long time.

To Note:

  • In England, rosemary is a traditional Yuletide green and serves as a Christmas tree when decorated with ornaments. Recently one American herb grower began raising rosemary shrubs large enough to use as Christmas trees. They take 2 years to grow and sell for about $300 US. In a similar vein, we bring in rosemary topiaries in clay pots each winter. People love having a beautiful, scented plant like rosemary around for the holidays.
  • Rosemary can be easily trained to grow in wreath or topiary form.
  • Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean region and is commonly found growing close to the ocean—hence the common name “rose of the sea” (rosa del mare).
  • Rosemary is an ingredient in many soaps, shampoos, and insect repellents. One kilogram of oil is obtained from 200 kilograms of flowering rosemary stems.
  • Branches or sachets of rosemary are often placed in clothes closets to keep moths away.
  • Rosemary flowers are attractive to bees.
  • In ancient times, rosemary was used in place of expensive incense. An old French name for it was "Incensier.”
  • During World War Two, a mixture of rosemary leaves and juniper berries was burned in French hospitals to kill germs. Later research showed that rosemary oil does indeed have some antibacterial effect.
  • Rosemary was carried at religious ceremonies. It was believed that its pungent scent would ward off disease and evil spirits. Brides wore wreaths of rosemary to denote love and loyalty, and branches gilded and tied with ribbons was presented to guests.
  • In medieval times, rosemary was believed to grow only in the gardens of the righteous, and was used as a charm against witchcraft—particularly the Evil Eye.



Favourite Herbs: Parsley



Petroselinum crispum

Biennial or short-lived perennial; generally grown as an annual

Height 30 to 45 cm (Italian varieties up to 1 m); spread to 30 cm (Italian varieties 45 to 60 cm).

Upright, multi-stemmed plant that forms attractive, dark-green mounds.

Try these!

Petroselinum crispum crispum (curled parsley): Strong aroma and flavour

Petroselinum crispum neapolitanum (Italian parsley, flat-leaf parsley, plain-leaf parsley): Lovely, rich, full flavour

Petroselinum crispum tuberosum (Hamburg parsley, root parsley): Both leaves and roots are used; good for soups, stews, and steaming.


Parsley is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre. The seed germinates very slowly and requires very warm temperatures for successful germination; the seedlings also grow very slowly.

How much: Two to six plants.

When: About a week before the date of average last spring frost in your area.

Where: Full sun. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 20 to 25 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Parsley is easy to grow! Garden parsley need little attention other than water during dry spells. Parsley grown in containers needs water every day. Parsley loves cool temperatures but will tolerate heat.


Begin harvesting when parsley produces leaf stems with three segments. Harvest root parsley, in the fall, when the plant is mature; pull up like parsnip.

For best flavour: Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Stalks are edible but discard if too tough.

Flowers: Edible, but not normally eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Use fresh, frozen, or dried. Keep a jar of chopped parsley in your freezer and crumble off whatever amount you need, or use the ice-cube method (see page XXX). Parsley dries very well, too. Crumbled dried leaves and stems and store in plastic containers.


  • Here’s a quick and easy method for drying parsley. Dip sprig in boiling water for 2 minutes. (I use a colander, so it’s easy to get out.) Bake the sprigs on a cookie sheet in a cool oven until crisp. Keep an eye on the parsley to avoid toasting it. As soon as the leaves are cool, crush and store in an air-tight container.
  • Parsley prefers cooler temperatures, although it will tolerate heat. When we grew it commercially, we had little choice of location: we had to grow it in an open field! At home, I like to choose a location that is shaded from the hot late-day sun. The overall plant growth may be less vigorous, but the leaves are much sweeter and tastier.
  • If parsley is left in the ground for a second season, it will flower and set seed. In warmer areas, parsley patches may sustain themselves for a few years. Plain-leafed varieties are hardier than curly-leafed varieties.
  • Because of its high chlorophyll content, parsley is one of the best plants to chew to fight bad breath. I’m an advocate of eating the parsley garnish from my plant at restaurants, and I encourage my family and friends to do so too. Parsley cleanses the palate, freshens the breath, and tastes great, too! Chefs often leave a bowl of parsley sprigs in ice water in their kitchens, for the waiters to chew before serving guests in the dining room.

To Note:

  • Parsley is an excellent source of vitamins A, B, and C. It is very rich in iron, iodine, and magnesium.
  • Parsley is an attractive ornamental, good for filling in empty spaces or edging in flowerbeds.
  • Parsley can irritate sensitive skin on some individuals.
  • Parsley gets its name from the Greek word “Petroselinon,” a combination of the words petros (rock) and selinon (celery).
  • The Greeks fed parsley to their horses to give them strength and courage in battle. The Greeks also wore parsley wreaths during eating and drinking binges, believing that parsley would relieve the effect of intoxication.
  • Powdered parsley seed, placed on the skull several nights each year, was thought to cure baldness.


Favourite Herbs: Pansies, Violas and Violets

Pansies, Violas and Violets


Viola spp.

Hardy annuals; may self-seed

Pansies: Height 15 to 18 cm; spread 15 to 20 cm.

Viola: Height 10 to 18 cm; spread 10 to 15 cm.


Violets: Height 10 to 15 cm; spread 20 to 25 cm.

All characterized by bicoloured and tricoloured flowers, in a wide range of contrasting shades, on dark-green foliage.

Try these!

Viola odorata (sweet violet): Wonderful perfume and sweet flavour

Viola x wittrockiana (pansy): Slight wintergreen taste

Viola tricolor (viola): Slight wintergreen taste


Start viola species from seed indoors or grow from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Six plants; more for ornamental use.

When: As soon as the ground can be worked; very frost tolerant. Plant up to one month before the date of average last spring frost in your area.

Where: Partial shade; bright sun will produce more flowers, but hot sites will scorch plants. Prefers rich, slightly acidic, well-drained soil. Space pansies and violas 15 to 20 cm apart; space violets 10 to 15 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Viola species are easy to grow! Do not let pansies, violas, or violets dry out: they go to seed quickly if stressed or deprived of moisture. If plants become lanky, cut them back to encourage bushiness.


Because of their excellent frost tolerance, these flowers will likely be both the first and the last herbs you harvest each year.

For best flavour: Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Not eaten.

Flowers: Gather flowers as they open. Clip flower stalk where it attaches to the stem, then cut stalk at the base of the flower head; discard stalk. Eat flowers whole: petals, stamens and all.

Preserving the Harvest

Flowers will keep for several days in the fridge, but they are best used fresh. Petals can be preserved in oil, butter, or vinegar, or they can be dried and stored in a warm, dark, dry place.


  • Two perennial violets, common dog violet (Viola riviniana) and wood violet (Viola reichenbachiana), are edible. They have little fragrance but a lovely sweet flavour.
  • If you're taking a summer vacation, cut back the foliage by one-third and harvest flowers before you leave; when you return, you'll find another full set of blooms.
  • Violets love well-rotted manure added to their soil.
  • Yellow and white pansies have a gentle fragrance. That’s why I often recommend using these colours in herb gardens.
  • Pansies are a good choice for children’s garden because the plants are easy to grow, the flowers are reliable and colourful, and kids love the flowers because of the colourful 'faces.'

To Note:

  • These flowers are delightful in borders, mixed beds, rock gardens, cottage gardens, windowboxes, hanging baskets, and other containers.
  • The name "pansy" is derived from the French pensée, or thought.
  • Use violet flowers in potpourri, floral waters, and perfumes.
  • The other common name for pansies—heartsease—came from the practice of giving bouquets of these flowers to people with broken hearts.
  • The Greeks chose sweet violet as their symbol of fertility.
  • Ancient Britons used sweet violet flowers as a cosmetic.
  • An infusion made from violet flowers is often used in continental Europe as a substitute for litmus paper as a test for acids and bases (pH). Before litmus paper, violet syrup was used to measure pH. The syrup turns red when exposed to acids, green when exposed to bases.
  • In ancient Athens, violets were used to moderate anger, bring sleep, and to comfort and strengthen the heart.
  • Violets were once thrown on graves for remembrance.


Favourite Herbs: Oregano and Marjoram

Oregano and Marjoram


Origanum spp.

Perennials; normally grown as annuals in colder climates (except sweet marjoram, which is an annual in all climates)

Height 20 to 40 cm; spread 20 to 40 cm.

Lush green herbs with clusters of very small, tubular, mauve, pink or white flowers; grows as a groundcover.

Try these!

Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram): Annual; strong spicy flavour

Origanum majorana aureum (golden marjoram): Annual; similar to sweet marjoram but milder in flavour

Origanum vulgare hirtum (Greek oregano, true oregano): Hardy perennial; strong, excellent flavour—my favourite!

Origanum vulgare hirtum var. 'Kaliteri': High oil content and wonderful flavour (the variety name means “best” in Greek)


Oregano must be started from with young plants purchased from a garden centre. Marjoram may be started indoors from seed or grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: Two to three plants.

When: About one week after the date of the average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun; sheltered. Golden varieties need a bit of shade in the afternoon to prevent the leaves from scorching. Excellent in containers. Prefers well-drained soil. Space plants 20 to 60 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Origanum species are easy to grow! Pinch back to encourage branching and bushy growth. To prevent root rot, never overwater plants.


You can harvest the leaves or the flowers. The flowers have a strong flavour, so use them sparingly. Be sure to pull each flower from its socket (calyx)—you don't want any of the green bits.

For best flavour: Harvest leaves after the flower buds have formed but before they have opened.

Leaves: Harvest as need throughout the growing season. Cut sprigs 6 to 10 cm from the ground. Use whole or strip the leaves; discard tough stems or use on a BBQ for flavouring.

Flowers: Harvest flowers shortly after they open. Flowers grow in clusters; clip cluster from growing stem and pull gently into individual florets.

Preserving the Harvest

Oregano and marjoram dry well—in fact, unlike many herbs, their flavours actually become more intense after drying. These herbs are also suitable for freezing.


  • Wild or common oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a poor variety, with a bland flavour and aroma. It is, however, the available as seed at garden centres. I don’t recommend that you grow this variety, when there are so many better plants to choose from.
  • Growers have recently developed ornamental Origanum varieties. These plants are gorgeous, with loads of flowers and a compact, mounding growth-habit; they bloom right through the season, and the flowers attract butterflies and bees. Just don’t try to eat them!
  • In areas where winters are more severe, protect perennial species by mulching or building up a heavy snow cover.

To Note:

  • Oregano is the most popular dried herb in the United States.
  • Marjoram and oregano look great in rock gardens. Golden oregano makes a good contrast plant for herb gardens.
  • Marjoram and oregano are very attractive to bees and butterflies.
  • Marjoram and oregano leaves can be rubbed over heavy oak furniture and floors to impart a fresh, fragrant polish.
  • It was once believed that sweet marjoram could keep milk from spoiling, hence the adjective "sweet."
  • The Romans and Greeks used sweet marjoram for making crowns for happy young couples.
  • If the ancient Greeks spotted oregano growing on a grave, it meant that the departed was happy in the afterlife.
  • The ancient Greeks used oregano as a remedy for narcotic poisons, convulsions, and dropsy.
  • Marjoram was used as a charm against witchcraft because people believed that anyone who had sold his soul to the devil could not endure its scent.



Favourite Herbs: Nasturtiums



Tropaeolum majus


Height 20 to 30 cm; spread 20 to 30 cm.

Trailing types may reach 60 cm. Plants have mounding dark-green foliage and medium-sized, slightly fragrant, semi-double and double flowers with crinkled petals. Vegetative and seed-propagated varieties have distinct growth habit.

Try these!

Whirlybird series: Seed-propagated nasturtiums with gorgeous double flowers—very showy; bushy growth habit; blooms more profusely than other seed varieties and produces blossoms on top of the foliage rather than under the leaves

Apricot Twist: Vegetatively propagated; double apricot-orange blooms.

Hermione Grashoff: Vegetatively propagated; bright-reddish orange double flowers.

Forest Flame: My favourite vegetative variety, with bright apricot-orange, red-splashed double flowers and cream-and-green variegated leaves; looks gorgeous in salads


When growing nasturtiums, the most important thing to note is that seed-propagated varieties and vegetatively propagated varieties have very different care requirements. Seed varieties require less care, but with a bit more work, vegetative varieties offer massive numbers of blooms. If you want to grow the more-robust vegetative nasturtiums, you'll need to buy young plants from a garden centre, because these varieties do not produce viable seed.

How much: Two or three plants; more for ornamental use.

When: One week after the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun to light shade. Excellent in containers or hanging baskets. Vegetative nasturtiums like rich soil; seed varieties prefer average or poor soil. Space each plant 20 to 30 cm apart in the garden, 15 cm apart in pots.

Care and Nurture

Nasturtiums are easy to grow! Water thoroughly, but only when soil is dry. Vegetative nasturtiums require heavy feeding, but seed nasturtiums require little, if any, fertilizer. Vegetative nasturtiums should be pinched and deadheaded regularly to promote continuous flowering and bushy growth.


All parts of the nasturtium are edible—the leaves, the flower buds, and the flowers. The buds can be used as a substitute for capers or like a mild peppercorn in salads.

For best flavour: Choose young, tender growth—young leaves and newly opened flowers.

Leaves: Clip the leaf stalk where it attaches to the main growing stem; cut stalk off leaf body and discard.

Flower buds: Harvest while the bud is still tightly closed. Clip cleaning from the stalk.

Flowers: Harvest flowers after they have opened fully. Clip the stalk two or three centimetres from the base of flower head.

Preserving the Harvest

Leaves, flowers, and buds should be used fresh. They cannot be dried or frozen, but may be refrigerated briefly.


  • If the plants get leggy, don’t be afraid to cut the plants back. I cut my plants back quite severely, then water and fertilize well. They grow back with  a vengeance, although they will look ugly for a few days. If you’re planning a week or two of holidays, cut the plants back by up to one-third before you leave. By the time you return, the plants will have reflushed.
  • Nasturtiums are a good choice for children’s gardens because the pea-sized seeds are big enough to be easily handled by small fingers and the plants grow very quickly, with big, bright flowers.
  • Nasturtiums come in a variety of colours, including cherry, gold, mahogany, orange, peach, and scarlet, with new shades making their debut each year.

To Note:

  • Traditional nasturtium varieties attract hummingbirds and bees. But the spurs cause the flowers to face the ground, hiding the them under the foliage. We recommend spurless varieties such as the Whirlybird series, so that the flowers are held well above the foliage, creating a much more colourful display. Nasturtium spurs contain a sweet nectar and are considered a delicacy.
  • Nasturtiums make a lovely short-stemmed cut-flower.
  • The Latin name nasturtium is derived from the words nasus tortus (twisted or convulsed nose), a reference to the plant's pungent scent.
  • In the language of flowers, nasturtiums signify patriotism. Fittingly, Dwight Eisenhower included nasturtiums in his recipe for vegetable soup.


Favourite Herbs: Mint



Mentha spp.

Hardy perennial

Height 15 to 60 cm; spread indefinite.

Vigorous, aggressive plant with dark-green leaves on erect, square stem

Try these!

Mentha spicata (spearmint, English mint): Best cooking mint—my favourite!

Mentha x piperita piperita (peppermint, candy mint): Wonderful peppermint flavour

Mentha suaveolens (apple mint, round-leaf mint): Minty apple-menthol fragrance


Start with young plants purchased from a garden centre, or split a clump from an established plant.

How much: One plant of each type you enjoy.

When: As soon as the soil is warm enough to work.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate light shade. Invasive—should be grown in containers. Prefers rich, moist soil; will grow almost anywhere. Plants are invasive; keep separated by 60 to 90 cm.

Care and Nurture

Mint is easy to grow! Keep the soil moist: mint requires lots of water. In cold regions, mint needs heavy snow cover to survive the winter. Mint needs to be renewed every 3 to 4 years, because the centre gets old, tough, and woody and eventually dies out. Renew mint by thinning the bed, dividing the plant, and giving some away to friends and neighbours. Mint should be replaced with another crop every 4 to 5 years: solid stands of mint—known as "meadow mint"—are vulnerable to rust disease. Remember that any mint roots you leave in the ground will grow into new plants.


Mint grows so vigorously, you can often harvest the whole plant twice in a growing season. Gather stems together in one hand and cut them about 10 cm from the ground.

For best flavour: Harvest just as flowering begins.

Leaves: Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Pick as they appear. Clip the flower stalk where it attaches to the plant stem; discard stalk.

Preserving the Harvest

Mint is best used fresh, but it is easily dried, frozen, or preserved in oil or vinegar. Store fresh mint, stems down, in a glass of water covered with a plastic bag; refrigerate. Change the water every 2 days, and it will keep for a week. Mint flowers should be used the same day they are picked. They will keep in the fridge for a short time, but their flavour fades quickly. Mint flowers can also be preserved in oil, butter, or vinegar, but they do not freeze well. Mint leaves can be crystallized.


  • While peppermint and spearmint are the most important culinary herbs, there are plenty of others; indeed, there are more than 30 species and 600 varieties of mint! The best way to select a plant is by nose rather than by name, but here are a few other varieties you might want to try.
    • Curled spearmint (M. spicata ‘Crispa’) has mild spearmint flavour.
    • Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens 'variegata') is similar to apple mint, but its flavour is fruitier and sweeter.
    • Ginger mint (M. x gracilis 'variegata', AKA Metha x gentillis) has a fruity fragrance with a hint of ginger.
  • Don’t buy mint seeds! Mint varieties grown from commercially available seed strains are greatly inferior to the cultivated varieties propagated by cuttings or division.
  • If you grow mint in containers, you must sink the pots into the ground in the fall to enable the mint to survive the winter. The ground acts as insulation to protect the plant. When spring returns, dig up the pot and pull out the root ball. Cut off the bottom one-third to one-half of the roots, and remove any old, woody core. Replant the root clump with new potting mix.

To Note:

  • 1 kg of mint oil can flavour 100,000 sticks of gum.
  • Corsican mint is a great choice for rock gardens, contributing a fresh, clean scent and an inconspicuous beauty. It is less aggressive than other mints and forms a low-growing carpet. It also attracts bees and butterflies.
  • In the Victorian language of flowers, peppermint signifies warm feelings; spearmint, warmth of sentiment.
  • Rats dislike the smell of peppermint.
  • In Greek mythology, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, wooed the beautiful nymph Minthe, which made Hades' wife, Sephony, extremely jealous. Furious, Sephony turned Minthe into a plant—a plant that we call mint.
  • Mint was used in the 14th century for whitening the teeth—a precursor to modern mint toothpaste.


Favourite Herbs: Marigold



Calendula officinalis (pot marigold, calendula), Tagetes erecta (African marigold), Tagetes patula (French marigold), Tagetes signata (signet marigold)

Annuals; may self-sow

Pot marigold: Height 20 to 50 cm; spread 20 to 30 cm. Flowers closely resemble chrysanthemums.

African marigold: Height 15 to 90 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm. Tall plants with large, round, solidly coloured flowers.

French marigold: Height 15 to 30 cm; spread 15 to 20 cm. Shorter plants; flowers vary in colour, size, and petal type.

Signet marigold: Height to 30 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm. Fragrant plants with lacy, fern-like foliage and masses of tiny, brightly coloured single flowers; mounding growth habit.

Try these!

Calendula officinalis (pot marigold, English marigold): mildly spicy flavour; available in a wide range of colours

Tagetes signata (signet marigold, rock garden marigold): flavour is best of all marigolds, like a spicy tarragon


Marigolds and calendula are best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre. However, both can be started indoors from seed or seeded directly into the garden as soon as the ground is workable.

How much: At least six plants; more for ornamental use.

When: About one week after the date of average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun; will tolerate some light shade. Good in containers and borders. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 15 to 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Marigolds are easy to grow! Deadhead regularly to encourage continuous blooming.


Cut flowers often: the more you cut, the more these plants will bloom. Young calendula leaves can be served boiled or steamed as a green vegetable.

For best flavour: Harvest mid-morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the day gets too hot.

Leaves: Pick smaller, more tender leaves for mildest flavour. Cut leaf stalk and use whole.

Flowers: Harvest as soon as the flowers open. Clip flower head from stalk; pick off the outer petals and discard the bitter centre.

Preserving the Harvest

Use flowers fresh, or dry petals immediately for best flavour. To dry, spread petals on screens and put them in a warm, dark, dust-free area with good ventilation. Store dried petals in an airtight jar.


  • Use French and African marigolds for colourful garnishes and attractive table settings, but don’t bother eating them in large quantities, the flavour is strong and bitter: they’re the least palatable marigolds, although they are safely edible.
  • Pot marigolds can stall (stop blooming due to high temperatures) in the midsummer heat. Make sure to water well when the weather is hot. I plant my calendula in areas that get light shade in the late afternoon and they usually bloom throughout the summer.
  • Signet marigolds are an excellent choice for windy locations such as balconies. Both signet marigolds and calendula are excellent for container-growing.

To Note:

  • In Britain and Holland, flowers are added to butters for colour and to soups for flavour.
  • Calendula flowers are known as the poor man's saffron and are often used as a subtitute.
  • Pot marigolds are attractive in rock gardens and make excellent cut-flowers. They also attract bees.
  • Pot marigold petals are good sources of vitamins A and C.
  • The petals from the marigold mixed with the mordant combination of either alum or cream of tartar makes a pale-yellow dye.
  • The pungent lemony fragrance of tagetes foliage is reputed to repel insects. Brushing the leaves as you walk by releases their fresh, clean scent.
  • Pot marigold has been used as a dye and used as a hair rinse to add golden tints to brown or auburn hair.
  • According to the Victorian language of flowers, signet marigolds signify jealousy.
  • Calendula has long been associated with romance because it has traditionally been thought of as an aphrodisiac.
  • Calendulas are native to the Canary Islands and south-central Europe and Asia. In ancient Rome, peasants couldn't afford saffron, so they used powdered calendula petals as a substitute. Early Indian and Arabic cultures used calendulas to colour fabrics, foods, and cosmetics.
  • Pot marigold leaves were used to treat wounded soldiers during the American Civil War.
  • Pot marigolds were said to bloom on the calends (first day of the month)—hence the Latin name Calendula.


Favourite Herbs: Lemongrass



Cymbopogon citratus

Tender perennial

Height 70 cm to 1.5 m; spread to 1 m.

Clump-forming, grass-like plant with slender, long-bladed leaves.

Try these!

Cymbopogon citratus (West Indian lemongrass):

Cymbopogon flexuosus (East Indian lemongrass):


Start with young plants purchased from a garden centre; seed is not readily available.

How much: At least two plants.

When: After danger of frost has passed.

Where: Full sun. Prefers well-drained, sandy soil. Space plants 60 to 90 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Lemongrass requires some care to grow well. It’s a thirsty plant, so water daily during hot spells. Dry plants won't look wilted, but they need water just the same. Don’t let lemongrass get waterlogged. Good drainage, whether lemongrass is grown indoors or out, is essential to prevent rotting. Plants should be brought indoors for winter; potted lemongrass will keep indoors in a brightly lit area. Propagate by dividing clumps. Lemongrass is susceptible to mites.


Only the bulbous growth of lemongrass is eaten. Cut the stem at the base of plant; discard any roots. Keep only the enlarged base and first 6 to 10 cm of the lower stalk. Discard the leaves and tough outer stalk.

For best flavour: Harvest lemongrass late in the season, when the bulbous bases are large and fleshy.

Leaves: Not eaten.

Flowers: Not eaten.

Preserving the Harvest

Lemongrass is best eaten fresh or preserved by freezing; dried lemongrass gets tough and fibrous. Wrap the peeled, whole base and lower stalk in plastic wrap and freeze in a plastic bag. Wrap well to prevent the strong flavour from infiltrating other foods.


  • The outer sheaths of lemongrass are very tough. Peel the stalk to expose the more tender layers; pulverize it to release the flavour. Toss the tough remains on the barbecue coals to produce lemon-scented smoke.
  • Use the dried leaf-blades in potpourris and sachets.

To Note:

  • Lemongrass is steam-distilled to extract lemongrass oil, which is used in perfumes, soaps, hair oils, herbal baths, and cosmetics.

  • Lemongrass is also called citronella grass. Citronella oil is used in candles to repel mosquitos.



Favourite Herbs: Lavendar



Lavandula angustifolia

Perennial; borderline hardy in most parts of Canada

Height 30 to 90 cm; spread 30 to 45 cm.

Small shrub bears narrow, downy grey leaves and aromatic, dark-pink, purple, or violet flowers on tall spikes.

Try these!

Lavandula angustifolia ’Munstead’: Hardiest of all varieties, will stand mid –30˚Cs with snow cover; lavender flowers

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’: Tender variety with silvery-grey foliage and dark-purple flowers; 45 to 60 cm

Lavandula x intermedia (English lavender): Tender variety with grey-green foliage and light-blue to violet flower.


Lavender is difficult to grow from seed because the seed is slow and erratic—there is a poor germination percentage even under ideal greenhouse conditions. Most Lavender is propagated vegetatively, so start with young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How Much: At least two plants.

When: Early spring; can withstand a light frost.

Where: Full sun. Demands dry, sandy, very well-drained soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Lavender requires some care to grow well. Although commercial plantings of lavender can last up to 30 years, most of us are best off replacing our lavender plants about every 3 years: they tend to get tough and woody. Prune lightly in the spring to shape and remove any winter-killed growth. Never cut into old wood: it sets the plant back. Never prune when frost is imminent: a tender perennial, lavender is easily damaged and needs protection from cold. Heavy foliage in the fall helps to trap the snow for insulation.


Harvest leaves and flowers as needed throughout the season. Lavender leaves and flowers are not only edible, but can also be used in a variety of handcrafts and products for the home.

For best flavour: Harvest leaves just before the last flowers on each stalk have opened fully.

Leaves: Cut sprigs where they attach to the main growing stem; use whole or strip the leaves from the top down. Discard tough stems.

Flowers: Clip individual flowers from stems. Remove all green or brown bits from the flowers before eating.

Preserving the Harvest

Use flowers fresh, dried, or frozen; freeze fresh flowers as soon as you harvest them. Use leaves fresh or dried.


  • Here are some other lavender varieties you may want to try.
    • The hardy L. angustifolia ‘Rosea’ has rose flowers and reaches 40 to 45 cm.
    • Another hardy variety, L. angustifolia ‘Jean Davis’, has pale-pink flowers and reaches 45 to 60 cm.
    • Fringed lavender (L. dentata), a tender variety, has dark-green foliage and dense spikes of slightly fragrant, purple-blue flowers tipped with purple bracts; it is scented like a sweet blend of rosemary and lavender.
    • Tender spike lavender (L. latifolia) has grey-green foliage and fragrant mauve-blue flowers in narrow, branching spikes.
    • French lavender (L. stoechas), another tender variety, has grey-green foliage and fragrant dark-purple flowers; its balsam-like scent suggests a blend of rosemary and lavende.
  •  Lavender grows fairly slowly, so it's best to buy well-established plants, at least two years old.
  • I've grown lavender on the north side of my house for five years and it has done well, although the flowers are smaller than average.

To Note:

  • Flies and mosquitoes do not like the scent of lavender. A sachet made from oil of lavender on a cotton ball tied and hung in a room is said to keep the room free of flies. However, lavender is very attractive to butterflies, moths, and bees, and provides a good source of nectar.
  • The essential oil from lavender has powerful antiseptic qualities that can kill many common bacteria, including typhoid, diphtheria, streptococcus and pneumococcus.
  • Lavender’s essential oil is commonly used in soap making, in high quality perfumes, and in eau de cologne. Lavender is now being grown in Australia as a perfume plant.
  • Lavender's name comes from the Latin lavare (to wash). The ancient Greeks and Romans used lavender in their washing water to add a fresh, clean scent to their clothes, much as we use fabric softeners today.
  • Glove makers in Grasse who used lavender to scent leather showed a resistance to the plague. They encouraged others to carry lavender to ward off the disease.
  • In Tuscany, lavender was thought to protect children from the Evil Eye.


Favourite Herbs: Hops



Humulus lupulus

Hardy perennial

Height 3 to 6 m; spread 1.2 to 1.5 m.

Climbing, twining vine with masses of dark-green, coarsely toothed leaves. Tiny, round male flowers appear in branched clusters, while the larger female flowers hang in cones beneath soft-green bracts.

Try these!

Humulus lupulus (green hops, common hops): Fast-growing, vigorous

Humulus lupulus aurea (golden hops): Slower-growing than green hops


Start with young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Plant anytime during the growing season, up to two or three weeks before the average date of the first fall frost.

Where: Full sun or part shade; needs support (a trellis, fence, or large tree). Thrives in almost any soil. Space plants 1–1.5 m apart—they’ll fill in quickly.

Care and Nurture

Hops is very easy to grow! Water young plants well until established. Hops is drought-tolerant once it’s established, but it won’t grow as quickly in dry conditions. It dies to the ground in the winter and emerges quickly the following spring, so cut back after the first hard frost in the fall. Hops grows very quickly, so be sure to choose a large, sturdy support.


Although hops is best known for the use of its cones in brewing beer, the shoots and male flowers are also edible.

For best flavour: Pick spring shoots: they’re the sweetest. For summer harvesting, pick new shoots emerging from the soil.

Leaves: Shoots and young leaves on tips can be picked at any time during the growing season.

Flowers: Male flowers should be picked just after they open.

Preserving the Harvest

Hops shoots deteriorate quickly and must be used fresh. They can be stored for a few hours in a bowl of ice-water in the refrigerator.


  • Hops is easy to grow and makes a good garden screen. Grow gold and green-leafed varieties of hops together for a terrific display, but remember that the green variety is much more aggressive than the golden.
  • Hops plants can live up to 50 years! Its vigorous, lush growth makes hops a wonderful screen plant. You can cut away the previous year’s growth each spring, but late-fall pruning means you have less mess to clean up when the snow melts!
  • Dried hops are often used for decorations and to make beautiful wreaths. If you are working with dried hops, always use gloves to avoid scratches from the tiny prickles in the cones.

To Note:

  • It takes 200 to 400 hops cones to make one barrel of beer.
  • Dried hops flowers and leaves make attractive additions to dried flower arrangements and wreaths.
  • Add an infusion of hops flowers to baths for a relaxing effect.
  • Hops oil is used to flavour tobacco, candy, gelatins, pudding, and many other items. It's also an ingredient in cosmetic products like shampoos and skin cream.
  • Hops flowers have been used to stuff pillows as a cure for insomnia. The weight of a sleeper's head purportedly releases the volatile oils.
  • The Romans thought the hops plant sucked the life from trees it climbed on. They called it "little wolf," which gives the species its name lupulus.
  • In the Middle Ages it was believed that Hops was stealing substance from the soil giving it its full name, Humulus lupinus: humus (soil) and lupus (wolf).