This article outlines key considerations for successful herb gardening including planning, selection, culture, and harvesting herbs for culinary, medicinal, and crafting purposes.
Plant an herb garden and your harvest will include culinary delights, plants with medicinal value, and aromatic leaves and flowers for crafting and gifts. Whether you desire sweet basil for pesto, spearmint for tea, or lavender for sachets, your herb garden will provide the all the flavors and fragrances you need.
Herbs are incredibly versatile. At home, almost anywhere, herbs can be planted along a pathway, in a terrace, in raised beds, in window boxes, or in containers on a deck or patio. The herbs you choose to grow and the space you have available will determine how you plan your garden.
There are several key points to remember when planning an herb garden. Although some herbs, including mints, watercress, and lemon balm, grow very well in shade, most herbs prefer at least six to eight of full sun each day. Lovage, sorrel, rue, and parsley can be successfully grown in partial shade. While many herbs can survive in almost any type of soil, most prefer well-drained sandy loam. The exception to this rule is mint, which will thrive in all except the most harsh conditions.
Probably the most important consideration for success with herb culture is soil pH (the level of acidity or alkalinity in the soil). Herbs do not like acidic soil. They will survive in neutral (pH 7.0) soil, but prefer sweet or alkaline soil to thrive. Be sure to test your soil and add generous amounts of lime if the soil is acidic. If you have clay or heavy, compacted soil, do not add peat moss to increase drainage. Add sand instead. Peat moss will lower the pH and make the soil more acidic. Sand will not affect the pH of the soil. If your soil is very poorly drained, you should consider raised beds for your herb garden.
Most herbs respond poorly to overfeeding. Fertilize in early spring with organic fertilizers such as well rotted manures, compost, fish emulsion, and cottonseed meal.
There are three types of herbs, perennials, biennials, and annuals. Perennial herbs, once established, will live for several years. In northern areas, some perennials such as rosemary and bay, must be protected in winter or treated as annuals. In addition to rosemary and bay, other perennials include mint, thyme, chives, oregano, sage, and tarragon. Annuals may be started from seed or transplants each year. Anise, basil, borage, chervil, coriander, sweet marjoram, and summer savory are all annuals. Some herbs are biennials, producing flowers and seeds their second year of growth. Parsley and caraway are biennials. Rosemary, oregano, marjoram, and thyme are difficult to grow from seed because of slow or poor germination and are best propagated from cuttings or root divisions.
When you plan your herb garden, you should take into consideration the growth habits of the herbs you intend to grow. Wormwood and members of the mint family are aggressive growers. Mint can grow up to three feet tall, spread quickly, and take over a small garden in one growing season. All mints, including peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, orange mint , and lemon mint, are best grown in confined areas. Rosemary, on the other hand, can grown up to six feet tall and can shade smaller, compact herbs like chives and lemon verbena. On the positive side, the woody stems and small, needle-like leaves of rosemary allow it to be shaped into bonsai or topiaries for more formal gardens. The trailing growth habit of thyme makes it a perfect candidate for a hanging basket or a rock garden.
Fortunately, most herbs do not have many insect pests. Bay trees can attract scale insects, and flea beetles will occasionally attack dill. Such infestations can usually be repelled using a spray made of crushed garlic cloves soaked in water.
The best methods of preserving herbs are drying and freezing. Leaves and soft stems can be frozen in ice cubes for seasoning soups, stews, and bean dishes. Dried herbs have many uses other than flavoring prepared dishes. Sweet woodruff and lavender can be dried and used in sachets. Dried bay leaves repel moths. Rosemary, mint, and catnip make comforting medicinal teas. Experimenting with combinations of herbs for potpourri will yield some invigorating scent sensations.
A well kept herb garden is a delightful addition to your landscape and a wonderful source of flavors and scents for your home.