Perhaps this summer you went to climes where the scent of wild herbs surprised and delighted at every turn. Herbal fragrances capture our joy and imprint our memory with a sense of place. Wild oregano and we are in Greece, wild thyme and lavender and we are in the south of France, wild rosemary and we are in Italy high above the Mediterranean.
Back home in Marin, the scent of native herbaceous treasures like purple sage and Sonoma sage delight. There are also wild mints, including coyote mint with its cheery pink blooms and Yerba Buena, the mint so plentiful its name graced the bayside settlement before it was renamed San Francisco.
This September, watch as our coastal hills explode with small gray-yellow flowers; a fragrant shrub otherwise known as California sagebrush. This native plant, a member of the sunflower family, is an important source of pollen, nectar and seeds for many insects and birds.
In the past, a pot of fresh basil by the kitchen sink defined cultivating herbs. With explosive demand for fresh herbs and reinvigorated interest in their restorative properties, learning to cultivate herbs in our coastal gardens is exciting. Infusing fragrant herbs in our landscapes creates that sense of place, beautifies and enriches our outdoor spaces while providing year-round structure.
Herbs have a long heritage and over centuries have been grown in many settings, including dedicated herb gardens; special purpose herb gardens like pizza and cocktail gardens; ground covers; borders; containers and vegetable gardens. Choosing to cultivate herbs means learning to nurture soil, to consider the life cycle of plants, to identify edible plant parts, to assess requirements for seed germination and plant propagation, and to learn about the pollinators that come to visit our garden ecosystems.
Adding habitat opportunity like mason bee nesting sites and water features further enhance the ambiance of your garden while providing charming focal points that invite human visitors to rest as well.
Quite tolerant of most soils, many herbs are durable, deer-resistant, drought-tolerant, repel pests with their aromatic oils and tolerate shade. Attractive foliage and long-flowering seasons further enhance the value of herbs in our gardens. As climate changes produce fundamental shifts in weather, wild and cultivated plants like herbs benefit pollinators while increasing the biodiversity of our ecosystems.
Gary Paul Nabhan reminds us in “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land” that pollinator habitat-enhancing practices are our best bet for assuring crop pollination in a world at risk for climactic events. Herb gardens are rich in biodiversity and provide a habitat for pollinators. Borage, dill and sages intermingle; the blue blossoms of borage attracting bumblebees, the yellow umbel blooms of dill provide the Western swallowtail butterfly nectar and pollen, and sages like hot lips salvia, with tubular-lipped red and white flowers, are a nectar source for hummingbirds.
Two herb seminars are scheduled in Marin County libraries this fall. Please join me at “Herbs for All Seasons” at the San Rafael Public Library from 2 to 3 p.m. Sept. 12. The seminar focuses on several herbs easily grown in Marin, their historical use as well as herbal recipes from around the world.
UC Marin Master Gardeners will also present “Gifts from the Garden” at the Novato Public Library from 11 a.m. to noon, Nov. 19. At this seminar, herbs grown and harvested by master gardeners will be used in demonstrations to make gifts to share with friends during the holiday season.