WHEN I CALLED Rose Marie Nichols McGee after much more than a decade, it was like we’d just hung up moments before. “Do you still grow Phlomis?” she asked without missing a beat, referring to a mint relative I’d loved early on in my garden’s life, a former Nichols Garden Nursery purchase I’d almost forgotten (since I’d eventually killed it, oops). That’s OK, she said; it got tricky here, too. The nursery, with more than 60 years selling herbs and much more—one of the first places I ever shopped as a gardener—is Rose Marie and her husband, Keane’s, family business (that’s them above), and they’ve seen lots of plants come, and go, and come around again. With a gift-certificate giveaway and an herb-growing Q&A, meet an old friend and some great new and old plants as well–and learn tricks for growing them.
It wasn’t just herbs that first brought me decades ago to order the Oregon-based Nichols catalog (which for reasons of sustainability is now online, not printed). Besides their vast selection of vegetables, herbs and flowers, the catalog always intrigued me for offerings like hops and garlic and other “roots”–as well as cheese- and beer- and wine-making gear and sourdough starters, too. But today’s subject: herbs (mostly). So let’s dig right in.
The Herb Q&A With Rose Marie Nichols McGee
Q. I know what America thinks its must-have vegetables are (tomatoes and cucumbers), and that it can’t live without popular annual flowers like impatiens, but which herbs what do you think should be America’s must-have’s?
A. Every gardener can find a space for the most popular and essential herbs. I do focus on culinary types, though my own gardens runs rampant with curiosities like Mioga ginger [Zingiber mioga, left, hardy to Zone 7] and more. In alphabetical order, you’ll add magic to your food and enjoy the looks of basil, chives, cilantro, dill, lavender (choose an angustifolia type), mint, rosemary, tarragon and thyme. Parsley is so available and I use it by the handful, so I can never grow enough, but having one plant is useful. Reluctantly I give a nod to sage, but rarely cook with it.
Q. If I could only have one variety of each, what would my starter assortment be according to Rose Marie?
Tarragon never grows true from seed and adds such a wonderful fresh flavor to fish, poultry, eggs, salads that I bring a pot indoors in winter to start forcing it. If at a nursery, before buying take the tiniest taste for that anise-like flavor that leaves a little sizzle on the tongue. If it’s the true tarragon, it’s only fair to buy–but if it’s nearly tasteless, inform the nursery. This mistake occurs too often and soon you have the massive rogue Russian tarragon, with no true taste.
Rosemary: For flavor and reliability I’ll always recommend ‘Nichols Select.’ Must be grown from cuttings not seed as it will not come true from a selection, although you may find an outstanding seedling. [More on growing rosemary below.]
Cilantro: ‘Santo‘ is the best we’ve seen for slower bolting, so the gardener’s best choice [more help with Cilantro below]. Grow from seed sown directly or the tiniest transplants, as root disturbance can initiate flowering.
Dill: ‘Fernleaf‘ is full of flavor, compact and slow to set seed. If you want seed heads for pickling, go with ‘Dukat.’ I prefer to sow in place or transplant when small and use great care to not disturb roots. It’s important to get plants off to a start early in the season. Planting in summer heat never does as well.
Lavendula angustifolia is sweet and intense [beds of lavender at Nichols, above]. My favorite lavenders for culinary use are ‘Sharon Roberts‘ and ‘Buena Vista;’ they are both vigorous repeat bloomers. Delicious in shortbreads, ice cream and herb blends.
Among mints, ‘Black Mitcham’ peppermint and Moroccan spearmint are my recommendations, and I find I need both types, especially spearmint. Now that I have the Vietnamese mint I have to have it as well, a bit obsessive. [More on all those below.] Mint selections do not come true from seed; I don’t recommend ever growing from a packet of seed.
With chives, I have no special selection since the pretty ones I’ve made drop their seeds and suddenly your careful planting is a hodgepodge of different flower colors. Grow from seeds, division or clumps.
Thyme: I’m partial to French thyme, I think the flavor has considerable finesse though it’s not as hardy as the English. Also the upright lemon thymes are wonderful for cooking or just to touch as you walk through the garden.
Parsley: I use both curly and flat leaf, and personally think there is some exaggeration about the differences; certainly the curly better lofts up salad ingredients.
Sage: I’m fondest of the golden one for the way it lights up a bed of herbs. The ‘Holt’s Mammoth‘ is a good culinary choice. Is there a kind way to say the oft-recommended ‘Berggarten’ is excessively camphorous? I see chefs recommending it and doubt they’ve cooked with it.
Basil rates a whole separate answer, which is below.
Q. If you could wave a wand to widen that basic palette, what herb species would you see earn a spot in American gardens?
A. I would add lovage, Levisticum officinalis, with its intense celery-like flavor, hardy everywhere and though it’s a large plant, you can whack it back if necessary, and this perennial dies back every winter. The other is a bay tree; in the garden or in a pot it adds wonderful depth of flavor to sauces and soups. My friends know that I always include a few branches in their Christmas bags or boxes. Fresh bay is so much better than dried!
Q. There are so many basils to choose from—I think I counted 20-something basil seeds and plants in your new catalog. Which is your favorite for making pesto, and which is your ornamental favorite?
A. Gardeners are in love with basil. At our nursery the most popular seed variety is green ‘Genovese’ for its punchy flavor and enticing sweetness. ‘Large Green’ is an old favorite of many gardeners and often the first basil they grew. I usually grow both. If you want the maximum flavor from your basil, keep picking, don’t let it go to flower, enjoy it fresh and use it lavishly. Capture the aromatics in pesto, sauces; don’t let them all waft away on hot summer afternoons.
I’d like to add, I’ve become enchanted with Tulsi basil (Ocimum sanctum) in herb teas or blends. Since it’s not grown commercially, we’ll all just have to grow and dry it ourselves.
For summer drinks I love the ‘Mrs. Burns’ lemon and lime basil.
Our strain of Greek columnar basil, called ‘Aussie Sweetie’ (photo at left) grows in a container just outside the door. This variety never blooms or sets seed, has a good true basil aroma and is the perfect plant for anyone growing in a pot. One plant is all you’ll need; in a good warm summer it reaches 3 feet, and with a nasturtium over the side of the pot [Note from Margaret: the Nichols nasturtium selection is fantastic] you have a very attractive planting. While in theory it is perennial, it’s easier to take cuttings than coax it through winter unless you have a heated greenhouse with good air circulation.
Q. Some herbs can be troublemakers—like Perilla (for its prodigious self-sowing tendency), and then of course mint! I spent last season pulling out the two mints I’d given in and planted the year before, after swearing eons ago I’d never grow mint again. What’s Rose Marie’s tactical approach to living peacefully with the genus Mentha?
A. Mint is far too valuable to ban simply because it doesn’t know the boundaries of good behavior. I’ve learned to grow my mints in containers and that’s a good simple solution. After two or three years, roots become crowded. In early spring, before there’s a new flush of growth, break the plant into divisions, replant about half, and lightly fertilize with liquid seaweed. Probably best not to toss any divisions into the compost.
Q. When we spoke recently, you tipped me off to the stories of a couple of “better” mints. Care to tell everyone?
A. So many good plants come with a story and so it is with ‘Black Mitcham’ peppermint. I recently read how ‘Black Mitcham’ was, after 50 years, newly reintroduced to England by Sir Michael Colman of Colman’s Mustard. Colman’s has a slew of new products, teas, chocolates, and room fresheners. ‘Black Mitcham’ was the backbone of peppermint oil production here in Western Oregon until this selection became susceptible to a local strain of verticillium and farmers turned to resistant strains.
However, ‘Black Mitcham’ has always been highly regarded for its exquisite sweet flavor and fragrance. We no longer had a plant and it seemed neither did any other herb grower. I turned to Don Roberts, the former director of the USDA National Clonal Germplasm Repository collection in Corvallis, OR, where the entire U.S. mint collection was housed. Roberts said, “Why, I have plants; would you like a start.” Now we are reintroducing it to retail customers. Incidentally, Don Roberts did the selection of our ‘Sharon Roberts’ and ‘Buena Vista’ lavenders, both repeat bloomers.
Our strain of Vietnamese Mint, Rau hung cay (photo at left), came from friends here in Oregon. She is Vietnamese; he went to Vietnam right out grad school as an agricultural consultant in 1960. Her family lived in Hanoi and when the war started they moved to Saigon taking a start of their favorite mint. Most of the family left Vietnam for France, again taking a start of this mint. So it happened some years later a small sprig made its way from France to Oregon. Tender stems and clean spicy flavor make it ideal for rice-paper rollups, soups and salads. They say it is as vigorous and adaptable as the people of Vietnam in their worldwide diaspora.
Q. The biggest complaint with growing cilantro is how fast it bolts—but I’ve noticed you have some tricks for getting around that by changing up what “cilantro” you grow through the season. Fill us in.
A. Cilantro, or coriander (Coriandrum sativum) is sensitive to day length and is almost impossible to stop from flowering and forming seed when temperatures are in the upper 80’s. Growing from seed is far better than buying transplants. Don’t plant all your seeds at once instead sow every two to three weeks.
The distinct flavor and aroma of cilantro is produced by two other plants. Culantro, Eryngium foetidum, native to Central America it is grown worldwide. This is a good herb to grow in moist semi-shade. It is a frost-sensitive biennial. The other plant is papaloquelite, or Porophyllum ruderale, native to Mexico and requiring full sun and good drainage. We think of it as “summer cilantro” since it stands up to heat and a bit of drought. Start harvesting when young as this annual can grow to 5 feet. In some Mexican restaurants the leafy stems are in a vase, allowing diners to season to their own preference.
Of these three only cilantro, which we so associate with Mexican cuisine, is not native to the Americas.
Q. What’s the easy recipe you’re most asked for (I know you have so many great ones!), the way people always ask me for my refrigerator pickles?
A. I’d say it is a tossup for most-asked-about between our pickle recipe, and a simple recipe I call Basil Preserved in Parmesan. Here is our recipe for refrigerator pickles. And here’s the other:
Basil Preserved in Parmesan
Great picnic food with fresh-sliced tomatoes; we never tire of it. Mix with hot pasta, chopped fresh tomatoes and generously sprinkle with the basil mixture.
2 cups fresh green basil, chopped
1½ cups parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Layer about half an inch of basil in the bottom of a jar, then add the mixed basil and cheese. Keep in refrigerator for one week for fresh use. Freeze for longer storage.
Q. Which other herbs (besides cilantro) need a succession-sowing strategy to insure a season-long supply, beyond the first spring sowing?
A. Besides succession-sowing the cilantro, in July when our soil is truly warm I direct sow a line of basil for my pesto crop. Thin so plants are ten inches apart. These plants are reliably sturdy and productive and I start harvest August into September.
Q. I have to ask: Is there a rosemary I can actually make happy in my cold climate? Any tips on rosemary care and overwintering indoors?
A. I’ve found our ‘Nichols Select’ rosemary (left) to be as hardy as any I’ve grown, probably Zone 6B, and the flavor is terrific. It was planted 25 years ago at our home and survived minus-7 degrees F once. I think this is your best for a long-lived rosemary. Help it along with some lime or bone meal worked into the soil and provide good drainage. In the photo up top, the branches I’m holding are bay, Laurus nobilis and rosemary ‘Blue Gem,’ a Nichols introduction. It is always the first rosemary to bloom, and its sapphire blossoms are welcome in late winter. Plant rosemary in a well-drained position with six hours a day or more of direct or very slightly filtered sunlight.
What is hardest on our woody plants, including rosemary, is wet soil followed by temps that drop way down near zero then warm and drop again with considerable frost heaving. We don’t do a lot of mulching around the trunk and root zone, but do make generous use of garden blankets, throwing one or two layers over plants we’re worried about.
For container-grown plants, whenever temps are going down to the low 20s all rosemary will benefit from protection. If you have a garage or cool porch, pull your plant into this sheltered area until the harsh cold passes (which might be all winter in the colder zones; make sure the garage or porch will stay a safe temp throughout the needed timespan). Move it back to its regular position when temperatures moderate.
Q. We all have heroes and mentors—especially those like you and I, Rose Marie, who have been doing this gardening thing a few years. (Tee hee.) Whose work do you feel really influenced and informed you?
A. I’ve learned from so many great gardeners and experts in horticulture. I have to say my Grandmother from Greece, who introduced our household to all the vibrant flavors of the Mediterranean, may have been most influential. She would bring us jars of Hymettus honey produced by bees who worked vast fields of wild Greek thyme and produce a glorious honey faintly scented of that herb. She used herbs and was precise about her seasoning.
My mother was fascinated by all of this and eagerly incorporated this into our family food. I was growing up in the 50’s and early 60’s when seasoned food was unusual, perhaps almost risqué, during the decades of canned soup and soft white bread. When she visited all her nearby Greek friends would socialize around Greek meals and roast a lamb, make shish kabobs, season chicken with lemon and oregano, again a relatively unknown herb until pizza was popularized
How else can I explain why my favorite childhood food was Spinach and Rice, seasoned with dill? She and her friend Anna taught me to make rose-petal jam. So when our daughter was married here at our home last summer she wanted a Greek dinner, a spit-roasted lamb and a cake with rose-petal jam filling were part of the menu. I am a food gardener at heart and want to always find ways to make these gardens attractive and casually beautiful.
Q. What herb-growing books can’t you live without—you must have a great collection, but which one(s) do each of us really need for the best information and inspiration?
A. Yes, I have books, cases full. For reference (and that’s most important) I value Lesley Bremness’s “The Complete Book of Herbs;” “The Lavender Garden,” by Robert Kourik and Deborah Jones; “The Encyclopedia of Herbs” by Art Tucker and Tom DeBaggio. For visual inspiration you can’t do better than Rosalind Creasy’s “The Edible Herb Garden” or her new book “Edible Landscaping,” which includes a photo of our home herb garden. It was pillaged by local deer three days before she shot the photo…fortunately we have access to extra plant material! [Note: Rose Marie modestly failed to mention her own book, "The Bountiful Container," authored with Maggie Stuckey.]
Q. Are there places we should visit if we get the chance—maybe Rose Marie’s bucket list of top five herb gardens?
A. This is a tough question because gardens are ephemeral don’t stay the same. The U.S National Arboretum “National Herb Garden” has a standout plant collection, excellent design and signage. It’s located just outside Washington D.C. Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco has a good herb collection [Note: a virtual walking tour of their Garden of Fragrance, which contains the herbs, is here]. The Cloisters in New York City has a beautiful replication of an old classic herb garden and if you are up on your plants you can then view the tapestries and identify them. In Washington State, at the University of Washington, is a Medicinal Herb Garden that includes dye plants and fiber plants. Our own herb garden at Nichols has a good collection, and visitors from all over the country stop and enjoy it.
(Note: Portrait at top and garden photos from Helen Hilman Photography.)
How to Win the Nichols Gift Certificates
TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF TWO $20 gift certificates I’ve purchased to share with you and say thank-you to Rose Marie, simply comment below by answering this question:
Which herb do you rely on the most in your garden and kitchen? (I know, it might not be the same two plants! Tell us.)
You know me; even if you just say “Count me in,” I’ll consider your entry official, but I’d love to hear about your herb-growing, too. I’ll draw two random winners after entries close at midnight Sunday, February 19. Good luck to all!
Shopping at Nichols
- Page through or download the virtual online color catalog
- Shop the online store (shopping cart functionality)