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Diggin' Florida Dirt

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Spice up your landscape with herbs

Bill Carr's paver path is edged with a lush, green border that does double duty in pots of marinara sauce.

Imagine how deliciously smug he feels when the need for fresh herbs arises.

"I'll just harvest some ground cover, Honey!"

Edible landscaping has been a hot topic for at least a decade, with more people seeking out ornamentals as pretty as they are tasty: Swiss chard "Bright Lights" instead of crotons; New Zealand spinach instead of arboricola.

When it comes to herbs, this isn't at all new to Floridians.

Back in the 1960s and '70s, Milly Gustafson grew mint in her Miami yard. It wasn't so much to flavor her iced tea as it was to cover the bare patches in her lawn.

As Milly discovered, mint grows well, maybe too well, in our almost-tropical clime.

"She planted a few pots along the back steps and, typical of her style, she just let it grow and ramble along of its own accord," recalls daughter Laura Sippel, of Largo.

"My dad would come in with the mower, and he doesn't cotton to edging or weeding. If it got in the way of the mower, out it went.

"The smell of mint would just fill the air. It sure does bring back memories."

Aromatic reminiscences for Laura; maybe not so much for Milly, who's 82 now and lives in Stuart with husband, Jack. As Laura recalls, whenever Dad mowed the mint, Mom had a fit. Which Laura suspects was just what Dad wanted.

"She'd go yelling at him, 'Jack! For God's sake!' "

Jack, 87, swears he wasn't trying to rile up his wife just for laughs.

Herbs: They spice up our lives in such unpredictable ways.

If you're ready to brave marital discord, mint's a good place to start. It's so easy to grow, a University of Florida website warns it can become a weed.

Spearmint, peppermint, orange mint — they all like soil that holds moisture, so those of us with sandy yards should add organic material, like compost or cow manure, before planting. Most mints will do well in shade or sun, according to the UF site, tinyurl.com/3fhklfs.

Bill Carr of Plant City has more of a heart for rosemary.

"Every time we cook turkey or chicken, it's off to the rosemary bush," he says. "My wife (Elisa) is a big fan."

And pretty. One year he lined up more than a dozen pots of rosemary, just for dramatic effect. It was beautiful, he says.

Rosemary shrubs are great for creating topiaries, adds Sylvia Gordon, a Miami horticulturist specializing in unusual plants at Landscapes by Sylvia Gordon.

To make sure your rosemary lives life to its fullest, plant it in soil that drains well — it doesn't like to sit in water — with the crown slightly higher than the surrounding soil, Sylvia says.

Fungal diseases won't be a problem if you put it in a spot with good air circulation, so the leaves dry quickly after a rain.

She and Bill are also big fans of landscaping with oregano. There are so many varieties, Sylvia says, you can have several different-looking plants, each with its own distinct flavor.

Bill found his oregano path border on clearance at a home improvement store last spring.

"It does not freeze; that's a big thing for me," he says.

And it held up well through the summer.

"It crawls all over the place," he says. "It makes a nice ground cover, it's good to eat, and it looks good."

He's not sure what variety he has; the store tags didn't say. Shop for creeping, low-growing oreganos and take a bite. If you like the taste, you've got a winner.

For something entirely different, something the neighbors probably don't have, one of Sylvia's favorites is African blue basil.

"It has beautiful flowers," she says. "A great color."

And you can enjoy those striking purple flower spikes because they don't need to be pinched off. This basil is a perennial, so it won't go to seed and die.

The flavor is stronger than the sweet and Italian basils many of us grow as annuals, Sylvia says. The shrubs are good sized, about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide, with leaves that have a lavender-pink underside and green top.

It was a Florida Garden Select winner in 2006, which means the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association thinks it's a great, hardy choice for gardeners here. (Rosemary is a 2012 Garden Select winner, by the way.)

I plan to be on the hunt for African blue basil; I like being the first on my block with something cool and different.

And Laura Sippel? She's going back to her roots.

"I bought some mint," she says, "and I've decided to let it run wild. Am I crazy?"

I don't think I'm qualified to answer that, Laura.

To inquire about plants or arrange a visit to Sylvia Gordon's nursery when you're in Miami, e-mail info@lsgsg.com.

Join Penny for some garden chat at facebook.com/digginfladirt. You can contact her at pcarnathan@sptimes.com.

Diggin' Florida Dirt: Spice up your landscape with herbs 10/13/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 13, 2011 5:30am]

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