Despite their diminutive size, herbs play an outsized role in cooking, landscaping, and healthy living.

Despite their diminutive size, herbs play an outsized role in cooking, landscaping, and healthy living.

Fresh herbs often provide the first bright taste of a new growing season. They are affordable, accessible and easy to grow, even in small spaces.

Just ask a home gardener like Heidi Laino. On a recent morning, prior to the intense heat of mid-day and the drumbeat of an afternoon thunderstorm, she was outside her house in Pueblo harvesting leaves from a patch of winter-hardy Swiss chard and surveying the many herbs already growing vigorously all around her.

She described her cooking motto as “less salt, more flavor.”

Many of her favorite herbs are Asian inspired and possess a natural salt-like flavor, such as leaf celery.

“It’s like soy sauce,” she said crushing a few leaves between her fingers. “It’s good in soups. It has so much flavor.”

Another is Japanese shiso leaves.

“My daughter-in-law has tons of it in Texas,” she said. “I’d like to grow some of it here.”

Her gardening space also contained clumps of Korean chives (also called garlic chives) as well as dill and sage.

“I work at the college, and sometimes I bring the students soup. They love it, and they always ask what makes it so good,” said Laino, who works for CSU-Pueblo’s Center for International Programs.

Every serious gardener has their favorites, and finds creative ways to incorporate them, as demonstrated during Pueblo’s recent water-wise gardening tour, hosted by the Pueblo County Extension Service and the Master Gardeners program.

Basil seemed to rank high on many lists, including that of Maureen Van Ness, who lives in west Pueblo near the Cattails Crossing demonstration garden and helps with its upkeep.

Without basil, there would be no Caprese salad — the universally beloved combination of fresh basil leaves layered with sliced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese, drizzled with olive oil — that for many represents the peak of summer flavor.

“I tend to specialize in growing weeds,” Van Ness joked. She said she had come to rely on container gardening as an antidote to the area’s dry rocky soils.

Standing outside his house artfully framed by two tall linden trees, Ted Freeman gave his vote to French tarragon, which has a slight licorice flavor.

“I also like rosemary and thyme. But fresh basil is lovely too,” he said.

Since his retirement, Freeman has transformed his modest yard into a colorful oasis, with an eye-catching curbside display in front and a small but elegant Japanese garden hidden in back that pays homage to three years he was stationed in that country.

Some of his herbs were planted in a big vase, but many others were scattered around the property, nestled amid blooming flowers that included vivid orange poppies and purple iris.

People sometimes overlook the diversity herbs offer, he pointed out. Within his curbside plantings were several varieties of ornamental sage, including Mojave, Russian and autumn sage.

“Lavender’s not all the same,” he added. “There are four or five different varieties of lavender but only one survives the winter here in Colorado and that’s the English lavender.”

Herbal plants often add beauty to landscaping while doing double-duty as pollinators. Echinacea, for example, also known as coneflowers, and calendula are popular examples.

The beauty combined with practicality of herbal plants was not lost on Sandy Vernon, who previously operated a small hay and horse farm in Penrose and recently moved to Canon City.

“I love to cook, and I love to eat,” she said. “I think a tomato plant is as beautiful as any of these ornamentals, and it produces something you can eat too.”

Liz Catt is the former coordinator of the Master Gardener program at Pueblo County Extension Service and runs the demonstration garden at the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District.

Asked about her favorite herb, the one that immediately sprang to mind for her was rosemary.

“I love it. I cook with it all the time,” she said. “I grew up with rosemary in California. Everybody grows it there. It’s like a landscape plant.” Most kinds of rosemary won’t overwinter in Colorado, but a few do, including Madeline Hill and Arp.

She also grows kitchen sage, which can be turned into a quick appetizer that guests clamor for at parties.

“Fry sage leaves in heated olive oil or browned butter,” she said. “You have to watch it closely because it cooks really fast.”

“Lovage is another herb I’ve fallen in love with,” she added. “It’s like a large flat-leaf parsley. The flavor is somewhere between celery and parsley.”

To learn more about which herbs grow well and how to use them, she recommends “Homegrown Herbs,” a book by Tammi Hartung, owner of Desert Canyon Farm in Canon City.

Hartung recently wrapped up a series of classes and open house weekends at her farm, but has several more speaking engagements planned this summer. She will be at Tagawa Gardens’s herb fest in Centennial on June 17 and at the Perennial Plant Association’s annual symposium July 23-28 in Denver.

More info about her books and activities is posted at desertcanyonfarm.wordpress.com.