Growing your own herbs is cheap, easy, and very rewarding |

Sadye Matula

Chefs, gardeners, herbalists and witches all admire and use herbs — whether it’s to flavor food, cure an ailment or create a magic potion. Clemson Cooperative Extension describes herbs as “plants that are grown for their medicinal, aromatic and seasoning uses. Most herbs are herbaceous annuals or perennials.” My lavender […]

Chefs, gardeners, herbalists and witches all admire and use herbs — whether it’s to flavor food, cure an ailment or create a magic potion.

Clemson Cooperative Extension describes herbs as “plants that are grown for their medicinal, aromatic and seasoning uses. Most herbs are herbaceous annuals or perennials.” My lavender and my rosemary, both perennials, grew into shrubs and are a beautiful and fragrant addition to the landscape.

“Spices are the flowers, fruit, seeds, bark, and roots typical of tropical plants and range from brown to black to red in color,” according to Pennsylvania Extension. Some herbs produce both an herb and a spice. For example, we eat dill weed and dill seeds.

Interest in herbs goes back centuries: The Arab merchants traveled by animals through India, China, and Southeastern Asia on the incense route to provide spices to the Greeks.

The popularity of herbs continued to grow as the use of them spread through the civilized world. According to Penn State Extension, from 1990 to 1994, an average of 530 million pounds of herbs valued at $373 million were brought into the United States.

The United States produces about 200 billion pounds of herbs and spices per year. Besides being used in foods, herbs are sought after ingredients for beauty products. I am attracted to the delightful and calming scent of lavender and seek items which list it as an ingredient.

 

Get started growing herbs

Many purchase herbs from their local grocers or from upscale herbal stores hoping to get the freshest product. I often reach for jars labeled organic (which seem to be getting more shelf space).

It is easy to get the tastiest selections right outside our own doors. Homeowners are becoming more interested in growing their own herbs and creating edible gardens. Growing herbs is easy, inexpensive, and can be done in a space as small as a container. Specially-constructed structures to use for herb-growing are easy to find and a handsome addition to any home garden. Even a patio or a balcony can hold an herb garden.

Herbs make interesting additions to a mixed border or a flower bed. Some can stand perfectly on their own as part of a landscape.

My sister has a handsome herb garden box known as a kitchen garden, built as part of her house outside the kitchen window. She could almost reach out and pinch off the herbs for the evening meal.

 







Basil




Benefits for pollinators

Herbs that flower — such as basil — provide nectar and pollen for pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The bees gather around basil flowers. Many people regularly pinch the blooms off their basil. Simple solution: plant extra. I keep the flowers removed to heighten the flavor on some plants, and on others, I leave the flowers for the pollinators.

Planting lots of flat leaf parsley allows the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars to munch as much as they want (and maybe leave a bit for the cook). The caterpillars will literally eat the parsley to the ground. Herbs such as bronze fennel provide the support structures butterfly caterpillars need to attach the chrysalis.

Another exceptional pollinator herb is pineapple sage. It can reach four feet or more tall.

Charming red flowers attract the pollinators and the leaves smell like pineapple when crushed. It is a must-have in a sunny garden. I am especially fond of pineapple sage with chartreuse leaves, but there are also green-leaved ones. It is “a lucky perennial” — some years it comes back and other years it does not.

Should you have the room in your landscape for an in-ground herb garden, it is as beautiful as it is useful. Herbs are not tough to grow. Just a few simple guidelines will help the gardener produce a tasty crop.

 







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Pineapple sage




Growing conditions

To thrive, herbs need full sun (at least six hours), well-drained soil (as most other plants do) and they prefer dry summers. Herbs are not partial to clay soil or high humidity. We can not do much about summer’s high humidity; we can, however, prepare great soil before we plant our beds. If your soil can not be amended to suit your herbs, plant them in a raised bed. It is even possible to buy the makings of a raised herb bed on the internet.

Herbs can fall victim to aphids and spider mites (especially in dry weather). A nice stream of water can help keep these insects at bay.

With the right amount of sunlight, herbs produce more fragrant oils. Parsley and basil seem to like a bit of shade. Mint is happier in some shade.

Very few herbs like wet soil. Mint, however, really enjoys a wet place such as under a dripping faucet or in a place where water collects. Watch out as it will readily spread.

It is no surprise that herbs flourish in well-amended soil, whether in the ground or a raised bed. It is a good idea to check your soil’s pH level to make sure it is good for your herbs — a pH of 6 to 7 is good.

 

Planting procedure

Herbs such as basil, parsley, coriander, cilantro and dill (and many others) can be sowed directly into the soil as seeds. I have also planted my basil as a transplant. When planting basil, wait until the last frost has passed.

Parsley and cilantro can handle the cold weather and actually do better planted in the fall. I added sage and curly parsley to my pansy containers for that special something. Cilantro tends to bolt in the warm weather.

Transplants of most herbs can also be planted in the spring. Check the labels for temperature extremes. Perennial herbs do well planted in the spring as seeds or transplants.

A word of caution: Mint can be aggressive to the point of being invasive. If you plant mint, be sure to confine it or you will have mint for your entire community. Years ago, chocolate mint ran over an entire flower bed. It did smell delightful, though.

If planting seeds is not your choice, the big box stores and garden centers will have a large array of herbs in transplant form. Look over the plants carefully to make certain your plants are not leggy or yellow or have insects. They should be compact and a nice shade of healthy green.

 

Water and mulch

Herbs are fairly drought tolerant, but they must have moisture to grow. Like other plants, herbs should be watered well, allowed to dry out and watered again. Keep an eye on the water level, especially in the heat of the summer.

Herbs should be mulched. Mulch helps conserve water, moderates soil temperature, keeps the soil from crusting and keeps stray weeds from popping off. I use pine bark mulch to top off my containers. It not only keeps the surface from drying out, but it is also aesthetically pleasing.

Clemson University suggests a one- to two-inch mulch of pea gravel for herbs that do not like excessive moisture. I plan to try that with my lavender this summer.

Since I use high-grade potting soil, I do not use much in the way of fertilizers on my herbs. For an in-ground garden, a soil test will let you know if you need to add anything.

Herbs do not like rich soil — less or no fertilizer is the best choice.

 

And once they’ve grown?

Pinching your herbs frequently helps the plants get bushier and encourages the plant to produce more. The oils are most fragrant before the flowers bloom. I tend to go out and pick an herb any time it complements my meal (or perhaps a friend’s meal).

If an herb garden is successful, there is always extra. Some people dry the excess (see HGIC 3086 Drying Herbs). Others freeze them. Freezing is an easy way to have the taste of fresh herbs all year long. Rinse your herbs, and then chop them in your usual fashion. Add a bit of water and the herbs to an ice cube tray. Freeze the trays. Pop out a cube as needed. The herbs will look a bit wilted and their appearance will not compare to fresh, but they will taste as good. It is also possible to make herb-infused oils (see HGIC 3471 Herb Infused Oils).

 







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Lavender




Container garden care

Herbs are ideal for a container garden. Since I do not have room for either a raised bed or an in-ground bed, my herbs are planted in containers. Cloth planting bags are an ideal home for herbs as they provide excellent drainage.

The same rules for a container garden apply as for others with a few additions. Herbs in containers still need six hours of sun.

Herbs need the correct container as a home. Choose one large enough to support an herb through its growing season. It needs to be stable so it does not get knocked over in a storm. If a pot is too large, it may stay too wet for your herbs, causing them to rot. Make certain your pot has a hole. Lately, all the store-bought containers I have purchased have had no hole; do not assume the pots have drainage holes — check. I have a great friend who puts at least five holes in each of my lightweight containers.

It will be important to water herbs in containers more often as they can dry out quicker. Use a finger stick test to see when the soil needs water. Too much water can cause roots to rot and too little will cause the roots to dry out.

Garden soil is not the correct medium (even store-bought garden soil). Potting soil is necessary.

I have planted seeds in a container, and there are varieties that perform better in them. I have to thin them in containers, which is difficult as I hate to pull up extra little seedlings. I normally use transplants when they are available. Take note of the mature size of the herb to give it enough room to thrive without depriving any others in the same container of water and nutrients.

A few last tips to grow a bountiful herb garden: 

• Research your herbs to find out if they are annuals or perennials. Annual herbs such as basil produce only one season, whereas rosemary can be in the garden for years and grow to a good size.

• Purchase high quality seeds. Research the company if you buy online. Check the expiration dates on the packages when you receive them. Follow the directions as how and when to plant the seeds and store them.

A pot of basil outside a sunny door is a gift. It is easy. There is no reason not to try growing basil or any other herb this season.

 

Sherry Blanton, “The Southern Gardener,” writes about gardening for The Anniston Star. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Facebook at Southern Gardener-Anniston Star. 

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