It's the middle of winter, so naturally my mind turns to... the garden! Of course, here in SoCal we can pretty much garden year-round and I've got pots sprouting with peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, and turnips. At this time of year I find myself irresistibly drawn to seed catalogs and gardening books, where I pore over the pictures and descriptions and dream of what I'd like my garden to be.
One beautiful gardening book I've been enjoying lately is The New American Herbal
by Stephen Orr. This is a hefty book at nearly 400 pages that is comparable to Sunset's Western Garden Book
for content but loaded with beautiful pictures and focused just on herbs. I've never grown many herbs myself, but I've got a monster rosemary and a struggling thyme, and I plan to add catmint and valerian to the garden this year. (The catmint is just because I like mint and the valerian is because it's one of those plants I remember from my dad's garden that we called 'garden heliotrope' and always smelled so wonderful – he says it's died out now.) But the thing that strikes you in going through the encyclopedia-like entries is the huge variety in herbal plants and the many uses. Sure, plenty of them smell great – like lavender or that rosemary – but there are so many ways they can be used in cooking. Orr gives ideas on what goes best with what kinds of dishes and even includes a few recipes here and there. I've been putting off reviewing this book because I wanted to try the caraway-orange biscuits – unfortunately I just haven't had the time lately and didn't want to put it off any longer. Many herbs also have medicinal properties from simple relaxing teas (I'm thinking of that catmint) to the folkloric insomnia cures (maybe that valerian will come in handy sometime...?), although he offers reasoned cautions (such as warnings about other uses for aloe than just sunburns). But mostly I find so many of them beautiful to grow in the garden – and another I'd like to add this year is bee balm: both pretty and useful.
I compared it to another book on my shelf, Herb Gardening For Dummies®. Overall, the information is comparable. Both talk about the history of the various herbs along with the uses and tips on growing. Orr even sometimes shows a sense of humor that is often prevalent in the 'Dummies' books. But Orr's book is ten times more pleasing to look at, and let's face it: with gardening books, sometimes you want as much inspiration as you do information, and you can get both with this one. (I received this book from BloggingForBooks.)