Open your mind and garden to sweet-tasting herbs

Daily News correspondentAugust 3, 2012 

Note: Derisive laughter will not be permitted while reading this column.

A funny thing happened when Cheryl Shroyer took me on a tour of Mardane's Garden in Oceanview last Sunday. I discovered herbs.

Yes, everyone knows about herbs. Except me.

As a novice gardener choosing plants for my renovated yard, I never considered them. I dismissed them as choices for extreme cooks.

Growing "herbs" leads to leaves that have to be tied into bunches and hung from the ceiling to dry, mooshed into flakes, baggied up -- and then what? I don't cook.

My oven has been broken for three years and I don't miss it. If you can't pick it and toss it into the salad bowl, I'm not interested. Lettuce is my friend.

Herbs are also medicinal. They've been used to treat ailments since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, probably longer.

But I'm happy to buy my drugs at pharmacies and don't drink herb tea.

The truth is, I had a snarky attitude toward herbs as new agey and maybe even pretentious.

Definitely not for me.

Until Shroyer.

Ground was broken for Mardane's Garden in 1998, the night the last episode of "Murphy Brown" aired in Anchorage. Shroyer remembers being upset at missing the show but they only had the tiller for four hours that night and digging up the weedy empty lot was necessary to get the neighborhood garden started.

A prize-winning organic gardener from Pennsylvania, Shroyer lived in the house next to Mardane Connor back then and jumped at the opportunity to turn half of Mardane's weird-shaped lot into a group growing project.

From a couple of 4- by 8-foot raised beds built from recycled wood, the garden is now full of ripening vegetables, herbs and flowers. It has a solar-powered moose fence and a beehive with a sign warning, "Beehive, bee ware." And it has Shroyer, whose enthusiasm probably adds a couple of inches of growth to the plants every year.

As she pointed out, the "oriental stir fry" greens grown because moose don't like them -- narrating with exclamations like, "Leeks are cool," -- we reached a patch of tall lime green Sorrel leaves and some Bergamot (aka Bee Balm, "It's the Earl Grey in Earl Grey tea."), I explained how I didn't cook so had no interest in herbs.

No, no, no, Shroyer said.

There are plenty of herbs you can just pick and use, she said, leading me up one path and down another, handing me leaves and urging, "Taste this."

I felt stupid eating leaves, until I realized they tasted -- well, good.

(This is the part where you're not allowed to laugh).

I think it was the stevia that got my attention. It was really sweet, in a refreshing way.

I wouldn't throw it in a salad, but in tea or maybe just eat it like candy.

Turns out I'm the last person on earth to discover stevia. It has a massive following as a sugar substitute (stevia.com and stevia.net), a complicated political history and can be bought in grocery stores. It grows here and fresh is better, says Shroyer.

I asked Shroyer to name some other herbs we can grow, interesting plants that can just be picked and used. It wouldn't hurt if they looked nice in the garden or smelled good.

This is just part of her list. It's too late to plant most of them unless you can find an advanced start at one of the nurseries that hasn't sold out.

Perennials can be put in the ground until September. But now is the time to make decisions for next summer.

• Spicy Italian oregano. It has a "different," spicier taste than commercial dried oregano. Just toss it fresh in the salad. It's an annual.

• Chives. They're mildly onionish with really pretty round purple flowers that look nice among regular plants. And they generally show up the next year. Just cut the stems into a salad with scissors, or clip them over a piece of grilled fish. Ditto for dill.

• Sorrel. This has interesting leaves that look vaguely like spinach and have a tart lemony taste. Tear one leaf into small pieces and throw it in the salad as an accent flavor.

• Tarragon. It's one of several herbs with a licorice flavor. Toss some in the salad or cook it with spinach. You've never tasted fresh tarragon, says Shroyer, because "you can't even buy it." Other licorice-flavored herbs are chervil and fennel.

If any of this piques your interest in herbs, you'll find there's a whole new world of plants out there, including house plants if that's your scene.

Local gardener and cook book author Laurie Constantino urges gardeners to dig up their Rosemary and Lavender plants at the end of the summer and bring them indoors.

Place them in a sunny window where you'll brush against them occasionally, she says, and let their perfume warm your winter.

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