Midsummer is a lucrative season in the herb garden. Fragrant flowers including lavender, bee balm, chamomile and borage are in bloom, the basil is lush and at its peak and the dill and fennel are close to reaching their potential. It is also when rambling perennial herbs such as mint, oregano, marjoram and lavender have grown rough and scraggly and are ready for a rejuvenating haircut.
Chopping back unsightly growth and deadheading after the first flush of flowers is over give herbs a last chance to recoup and grow a vigorous, final crop before the frost finishes them off for the season.
But fair warning: Depending on the age and the invasiveness of each plant, you could be coming into a colossal fortune in herb parts. I harvest no less than a sack of mint leaves and flowers around this time every year from my small community garden plot alone.
So what do you do with an herbal glut? You make refreshing summer beverages.
It's no secret that herbs can be used to make aromatic hot and cold teas, flavour alcoholic drinks or liven up a glass of plain water.
But as a gardener, your options are grander than popular picks such as peppermint and chamomile. Growing your own can give you access to unusual herbs such as anise hyssop, lemon verbena, lemon balm, borage and bee balm (along with the flowers and seeds they don't sell in stores).
And there are peculiar varieties of common herbs, too. While supermarkets everywhere stock sweet basil year-round, for example, they don't carry 'Cinnamon' basil, a dead ringer for the spice when infused into a drink.
Nor will you ever find the even weirder, intensely perfumed 'Sacred' variety. Basil has become a popular bar ingredient in recent years and is showing up muddled and infused in mojitos, martinis and more. My favourite in drinks, alcoholic or not, is a variety called 'Mrs. Burns,' the best of the citrus types. Infused in hot liquid or simple syrup, it tastes crisp and lemony with a hint of mint and no trace of basil aftertaste whatsoever.
Another case in point is mint. Spearmint and peppermint are the most known and widely used, but there are more than a dozen mint varieties out there with smells and flavours as off-kilter as banana, pineapple, apple and pear. When it comes to making drinks, I prefer 'Chocolate' (a peppermint patty packed into a plant), 'Orange' (deep and spicy like orange peel) and the warm and lingering 'Mojito' mint (Mentha x villosa), which is not a fancy put-on but the real deal from Cuba. I was skeptical when it first became available for purchase in Canada, but it was worth the premium price I paid back then. If you're into mojitos, regular peppermint does not compare.
Known more for its use in sachets and gift soaps, lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) is gaining momentum as a culinary herb and edible flower.
The young, barely opened buds taste somewhere between piney and floral, which does not sound appealing. But if you are careful not to overdo it, it grows on you to the point of near-addiction. I should know. This summer, I've been steeped in lavender-flavoured everything since the first flowers were cut.
The English types such as 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead' are the best tasting, which is good news for most Canadians since they're hardy to about zone 4 or 5. To keep yours alive through the winter, place it in a protected but sunny spot and plant in a mound or hill of fast-draining, sandy soil. In fact, the same could be said for all three of the plants mentioned: basil, mint and lavender. Most herbs prefer well-draining soil and sun with some small distinctions.
Lavender is the most drought-tolerant of this group, while some mint varieties will tolerate partial shade and slightly wet soil. They generally don't over-winter well in a pot, indoors or out, but both basil and mint will produce enough to dry and brew into warm elixirs well into the new year.
Gayla Trail's new book is Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces.
For more gardening tips, visit www.yougrowgirl.com.
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