The Dirt: It’s thyme to plant herbs

Oregano was the second thing I ever tried to grow on my own. Cacti came first, back when I was a teen and wanted a windowsill plant that wasn’t particular about water and other niceties. Initially, I tried my not-so-green thumb on a Christmas cactus. Because my grandmother could coax a puny, store-bought specimen into a giant creature whose arching limbs drooped with a profusion of blooms each year, I reasoned, I had a genetic advantage in trying to grow the tropical specimen.

“If it’s herbs, it’s here!” So say organizers of the 20th annual Asheville Herb Festival. Photo by Moe White

Nonetheless, I turned out to be a Christmas-cactus killer. Only the most stubborn and prickly cacti actually survived my teenage efforts, such as Cephalocereus senilis (known as “the old man” or cabeza de viejo, a hairy, columnar variety that proved able to withstand the broiling heat of my Alabama windowsill).

During my college and early adult years, I put all growing aside. It wasn’t until grad school that I tried herbs. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I’d rented my first house, and the tiny place had an old flower bed in front that cried out for a garden.

Flowers just weren’t my thing, so I planted oregano. I don’t know whether it was a Mexican or Greek variety, but the bushy little plant outdid the monkey grass, which was quite a feat. So did the thyme. And when I wasn’t immersed in Walt Whitman or grading freshman papers, I could pinch off a few leaves of either herb, chop them up and sprinkle them on my spaghetti or pizza (I had yet to expand my culinary repertoire in those years).

After finishing school, I grew a whiskey barrel’s worth of basil, fertilized with a bag of Black Kow I’d dumped in the bottom. I’d moved in with the parents for a spell, and my dad was a bit bemused by the long clothesline of basil I hung up in the basement in the wake of a surprisingly large harvest. But once the herb had dried and I’d crumbled it into jars, my mom appreciated being able to cook with a dash of summer in the midst of winter. She also enjoyed the lemon balm I planted in her flower garden: Long after I’d moved out, it spread and bloomed each year, attracting buzzing bees and filling what had been a huge blank spot in the garden.

And now, many gardens and windowsills later, the oregano I planted in the rock garden last summer is green and lively, despite its close encounter with a surprise April snow. The sage that grew into a small bush last year is also awakening from its slumber. So it seems that I’ve finally found plants I can’t kill, and I’m looking for additions to the kitchen garden.

Happily, it’s time for the 2009 Asheville Herb Festival (Friday, May 1 through Sunday, May 3). For two decades, the annual event has graced the back lot at the Western North Carolina Farmers Market, and having missed it last year, I’m determined to number among the 25,000 or so herb lovers who’ll explore the many booths—rosemary, parsley and thyme in all its varieties (silver, creeping, lemon and garden, to name only a few). There’ll be seedlings, plants and herb baskets ready for hanging near the kitchen door. Oh, and basil, too, ranging from tiny-leaved bush varieties to spicy cinnamon to holy basil and the big Genovese.

There’ll also be all kinds of herbal products: teas, soaps and lotions, as well as medicinal herbs. Some vendors offer books on herbs, too, and there’s always at least one food booth with something herby and yummy to keep your strength up while you meander. You can even snag a rain barrel from Mountain Rainwater Systems. Perhaps best of all, master gardeners from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension will be on hand to answer questions and dispense advice.

Herbs belong in your garden, whether it’s a small flower bed, a sunny window or a hanging basket. But though we’ve had some rain this winter and spring, beware the dry summer that’s predicted. Fortunately, several of our common herbs are Mediterranean in origin, and thus drought-tolerant.

They’re also a whole lot tastier than cactus.

For more information about the festival, go to www.ashevilleherbfestival.com or call 301-8968.

Send your garden news and ideas to Margaret Williams at mvwilliams@mountainx.com, or call 251-1333, ext. 152

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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