Garden Mastery: Herbs’ versatility a gift in many parts of our lives

Thyme (Thymus spp.) adds pizzazz to many dishes and is also the first remedy Germans turn to when they get an upper respiratory infection.
(Helen Purcell Montag)

Ah, spring has arrived and what a wonderful time to be in the garden, especially if you grow herbs, many of which thrive in our Mediterranean climate. Gardeners grow herbs to add to foods to make them taste better, but they do so much more. The herbs growing in my garden can repel insects, nurture my skin, be used to make lovely wreaths, improve health and more.


Thyme (Thymus spp.) is a drought-tolerant Mediterranean herb that adds flavor to many dishes. In fact, the Germans have a saying, “When in doubt, use thyme.” Thyme is also the first remedy Germans use when they get an upper respiratory infection: It is added to a tea along with ginger, lemon and honey and often works as well as an antibiotic. Furthermore, if you’re looking for a waterwise ground cover, consider charming woolly thyme, which is covered with pink flowers in the spring.


Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) gives chicken, fish and potatoes and even shortbread a lovely flavor, but it does much more: It can boost one’s mood and reduce anxiety and is packed with vitamins A, C and B6. Use rosemary leaves and flowers to make a fragrant wreath or sachet. Our beloved pollinating bees love its blue flowers.

Lemon grass is a kitchen herb used for flavoring food and is used as a medicinal tea.
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Lemon grass

If you make Thai dishes, then lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus) is essential for your garden. It will grow in sun or shade, in a pot or the ground. In Latin America, this herb is used not for cooking but for a medicinal tea to treat digestive issues. The essential oils of lemon grass make an effective insect repellent. To propagate this herb, simply dig up and separate a few bulbs and stick them in the ground. Your friends will be very grateful if you share them.


Bay laurel, grown as a bush or tree, can be part of an aromatic herb bundle used in cooking.
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Bay laurel

Waterwise bay laurels (Laurus nobilis) abound with uses. Grown as a tree or shrub in a pot or the ground, leaves of bay laurel impart flavor to many dishes and are an essential ingredient in French bouquet garni. Get your craftiness going and make a bay laurel wreath to hang in your kitchen. Also, did you know that a fresh leaf or two placed on your pantry shelf will keep pantry moths away?

Santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) looks beautiful next to a walkway or on a slope, and a sprig of it in your closet will help to deter moths.
(Mary Friestedt)


Another beautiful herb that deters moths is santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus). With fragrant gray or green foliage and charming yellow button flowers, a sprig hung in your closet will repel moths, which are attracted to wool. Try using the leaves and flowers in more herbal wreaths.

Aloe vera

Mention aloe vera (Aloe vera) and everyone thinks of its uses for bites and burns. But this herb was also one of Cleopatra’s beauty secrets. She rubbed the gel on her face to achieve flawless beauty. Hummingbirds love the yellow flowers of this drought-tolerant and easy-to-grow herb.

Basil is actually in the mint family and includes sweet basils, Thai basils, holy basil and ornamental basils.
(Getty Images)


Basil (Octimum spp.) is one of the most versatile plants in the mint family. There are sweet basils, Thai basils, holy basil and ornamental basils. We use sweet basil for pestos and other Mediterranean dishes; Thai basils feature prominently in Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese specialties; holy basil, also known as tulsi in India, is used in Ayurvedic medicine and has significant religious associations; ornamental basils are prized fortheir decorative qualities. Some basils are anti-inflammatory and high in antioxidants, so eat more pesto!


Oregano (Oreganum vulgare) is one of the most popular culinary herbs, but its uses go far beyond the edible. Essential oil of oregano has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and antiseptic properties. With its anti-microbial properties, a few drops of the essential oil in water are a good remedy for sore throats. Additionally, ornamental oreganos create interest in a garden with flowers that resemble hop flowers. Add leaves to potpourris, and dried oregano flowers are pretty in wreaths.

Lavender (Lavandula dentata) attracts bees and needs little water; its fragrance will calm you and relieve anxiety.
(Mary Friestedt)


Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is the herb that everyone loves for its fragrance in soaps, shampoos and aromatherapy. Breathe in the scent to achieve calm and relieve anxiety. Use it in foods from ice cream to cookies and cakes. Try lavender oil to soothe headaches and migraines. The smell will repel some insects, but bees love it.


Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a star in the kitchen. Most cooks prefer the flat-leaved Italian type, but the curly variety is also tasty and adds color when used as a garnish. Parsley is a nutritious powerhouse packed with vitamins A and C and several B-complex vitamins. It is a great breath-freshener and has been used to treat urinary tract infections. Parsley requires more water than most herbs and likes rich well-drained soil, as do most herbs.

Our Native Americans know the versatility of herbs. Come to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and discover the many ways that Kumeyaay people use sages, for instance. They can flavor food, be used to heal, repel insects, camouflage odors, enhance religious ceremonies and more. Furthermore, these treasures are drought tolerant. It’s time to enjoy your herbs and think always about their many uses.

Friestedt is a San Diego Master Gardener and a retired teacher who now spends her time as a docent at San Diego Botanic Garden and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. She is also active in the Del Mar Garden Club as head of its beautification teams.

Get free gardening advice on the UCCE Master Gardeners of San Diego County Hotline, (858) 822-6910, or by email at [email protected]. Due to COVID-19, the Master Gardener Hotline staff members are working remotely to ensure that they respond to your questions in a timely manner.