An herb a day

“If it’s herbs, it’s here”: This year’s event moves from its usual schedule to the last weekend of April. photo courtesy of the Asheville Herb Festival

The 2011 Spring Herb Festival returns to the WNC Farmers Market April 29 through May 1. Each spring, the festival, now in its 22nd year, attracts more than 25,000 herb lovers seeking information and products from professional growers and retailers. This year, with newly built booths (and new restrooms, too), nearly 60 vendors will fill the lower level of the Farmers Market, making this the largest gathering of its kind in the Southeast.

Expansion is the big news this year: The Market added three new covered bays (equal to six new booth spaces) and new restroom facilities at that end. There are seven more vendors than last year, for a total of 58 individual businesses, and of course Linda Blue’s volunteers from the Master Gardner’s program will be there, too.

Throughout recorded history, herbs have been part of the human diet, used widely in both cooking and healthcare. Every good cook relies on such staples as basil, oregano, dill and parsley, and many keep a variety of herbs in their kitchens. In recent years, conscientious consumers have also discovered the wide range of uses for herbs in medicines, soaps, lotions, salves and essential oils.

Every cook wants herbs at hand, the fresher the better. For many, that means growing their own. And, in today’s economic climate, the savings can be almost as attractive as the convenience of stepping out to harvest fresh herbs from the garden, to say nothing of the pleasure of eating something you’ve grown yourself.

If it’s herbs, it’s here

May is the ideal time to grow most herbs, and for two decades countless visitors have come to the Spring Herb Festival the first weekend of the month to buy their starter plants. The perennial favorite is a six-pack of basil, which will provide enough fragrant leaves for cooks to use throughout the summer for pesto and other favorite recipes.

For the seasoned herb lover, new varieties appear at the festival every year, courtesy of the growers and scientists who crossbreed different species for improved flavor, size, pest resistance, appearance and other important qualities. Health-conscious consumers and naturopathic and alternative healers can find fragrant herbal soaps, lotions and medicinal products. And who can walk past a bouquet of fresh or dried herbal arrangements, perfect for home decoration or gifts?

Landscaping with herbs

Besides being readily available for cooking and medicinal purposes, many herbs provide a variety of colors, fragrances, textures and shapes to a home garden. They mix well with many flowering plants, edible flowers and ground covers; being drought-hardy, most herbs don’t put additional strain on a gardener’s resources.

Many of the common, familiar herbs — such as basil — have Mediterranean origins, so they’ve evolved to thrive in rocky soils, hot sun and even drought conditions. For modern gardeners, that means that the herbs they want to plant are versatile and easy to grow, whether in a professionally designed garden, a spare corner of a yard, a raised bed or containers on a sunny deck.

“A lot of herbs are perennials,” notes festival founder Rick Morgan. “Once they’re established, even after a year, perennials use less water than annuals.” Both for home gardeners and professionals, that makes herbs an attractive addition to any landscape design — especially in the Southeast, where drought is a repeated, familiar, and growing problem.

Many of the festival vendors are at the ready with useful information that they’re glad to share with customers. Additionally, the N.C. Agricultural Extension Service will have a booth staffed with Master Gardeners, so it’s likely that, no matter what your questions, someone there will be able — and eager — to help.

One thing for festival shoppers to remember: even starter plants take up space, and vendors can run out of bags, so bring your own, a big basket or plastic flats to put purchases in (it’s also a good way to reuse and recycle). Of course, many arrive with an old-fashioned Radio Flyer; the little red wagons hold lots of plants and are lightweight, easy to maneuver and fun to use!

The 2011 Spring Herb Festival is open Friday, April 29 and Saturday, April 30 from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Sunday hours are 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There’s no admission or parking fee. Festival parking is available at the exhibit area and throughout the Farmers Market grounds. During peak hours, a free shuttle will transport visitors — and their plants — between parking areas and the festival booths. For more information, visit www.ashevilleherbfestival.com.

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