Wednesday

Planning Your First Herb Garden


I planted my first herb garden (with mom's help) when the wooden rake handle was still taller than I was. As I remember, my foray into herb gardening consisted of:
  • Lemon thyme
  • Chives
  • Sage (yellow and tri-color because I liked visual drama)
  • Peppermint
  • Parsley
I passed on the rosemary because I thought it smelled nasty. I kept all of the plants alive, and the peppermint thrived for years under the shade of a cherry tree.

If you're planting your first herb garden, or helping a child get started, these tips will help:


General Herb Garden Tips

I always think of herbs as garden plants that offer the biggest payoff for the work. They smell wonderful, can help repel bugs when used as companion plants (think catnip, garlic, lavender, basil and marigold) and you can cook with them. Most are also naturally hardy. It doesn't get much better than that.

Prepare the plot well. Herbs aren't very fussy about fertilizer, but they need a plot that drains well. If you have clay soil, either lighten it to a depth of at least eight inches or install raised beds. Check out your nearest garden center. Raised bed supports or whole raised mini-gardens, like the popular square foot gardens, are big these days. Patio and deck pots work well too. You can keep five culinary herbs in one large pot and get enough of a harvest to keep you in herbs over much of the winter. I've done it. Try: thyme, chives, oregano, dill and sage.

Read the directions on the plant or seed packet carefully. Most herbs come with lots of valuable information about how to grow them successfully. Where you plant can be important. If an herb needs full sun, that's not negotiable. Full sun means six hours or more of bright light a day. Less, and the plant will never reach its full potential.

A plant in the wrong spot will also be stressed -- or more vulnerable to disease and insect attack. If the directions call for keeping a plant in partial shade, that doesn't mean full sun with a plant in front of the shade plant. Dappled light is good, but you need to make sure that a shade loving herb plant is protected from bright light during the hottest part of the day. Reading and following the directions will give you the best opportunity to keep all your herbs alive and healthy.

A Child's First Herb Garden

If you're trying to get children interested in gardening, give them their own child-sized gardening tools. Tiny gardening tools are becoming more available these days and keep the frustration level down. Small hands need small implements.

Children love mint varieties like peppermint and spearmint, as well as other plants in the mint family like lemon balm and catnip (for the family cat, of course). Other favorites are apple mint, chocolate mint and orange mint. Mints are very hardy, so they can take quite a bit of abuse, too.

Fast growing herbs like cilantro are great starter herbs as well. They offer an instant payoff and can be used in a kid-designed summer recipe like tacos pretty easily.

Tips and Tricks for Your First Herb Garden

If you live in an area that gets very hot during the summer months, cover herbs with a layer of mulch to keep them from drying out. If you're maintaining them in pots on your deck, opt for containers with their own water reservoirs (or use potting soil that contains water-retaining polymers).

Check the height details for your herbs and plant accordingly with taller herbs behind shorter ones. Pay attention to the growth habit of your herbs too. Creeping thyme will grow very differently from standard growth habit thyme, and that will have an impact on how it will act, and react, in the garden.

Your local nursery will stock cultivars that work well in your area. They may not have all the herbs varieties you'll find through mail order or online suppliers, but chances are what you buy will work in your backyard.

Many herbs have standard, miniature, variegated and creeping varieties. Some will also have cultivars that are more or less vulnerable to frost, heat and specific pests and diseases. Knowing the planting zone you live in, as well as the spot you have in mind for your herb garden, will help you pick the best rosemary, lavender or sage for your needs if you do decide to buy from a national source.

This sounds complicated, but it's not. If you don't know your zone, there's a link at the bottom of this page that will take you to a handy map. There are also lots of comprehensive herb sites on the web that sell seeds and plants. Many of these sites also provide detailed information about which varieties are best for specific regions of the country.

Herb Varieties

Herbs like cilantro and dill grow quickly. Start them early and keep pinching them back when you see flower buds. Most herbs will stop putting the bulk of their energy into creating new leaves once they flower. Leaves are typically what you want to cultivate, so delaying flowering is the goal here. The fast growth spurt some herbs put on when the temps get hotter in summer is called bolting. Plants shoot up quickly, start to flower, and begin to look scraggly. Removing the buds and harvesting around a third of the plant will keep herbs viable longer.

These are some great herbs for beginners:

Dill
Cilantro
Basil
Thyme
Lavender
Sage
Chives
Tarragon
Rosemary
Parsley
Oregano

With this selection, you'll be able to cook and decorate with your herbs. This fall you'll also be able to add a few to a wreath or potpourri.

Harvesting

It's a good rule to wait until a plant is at least a few inches tall (this will vary from plant to plant) and a bit bushy before you start harvesting leaves. Never take more than a quarter or a third of the plant at one time, and wait for at least that much to regrow before taking more.

Some herbs like chives, parsley and tarragon, taste much better fresh. For these herbs, drying isn't the best choice. When you're ready to harvest the bulk of the plant in fall, check the best harvesting method (I have lots of specific info here), and freeze plants that don't dry well. You can wash and freeze herbs in freezer bags, or chop them into a bowl of water, stir and freeze them into ice cubes. The cubes can then be placed in freezer bags for single serving portions you can add to soups or stews over the winter months.

Other herbs can come indoors to spend the winter on a sunny windowsill, overwinter in the garden, or produce seeds for next year's crop and die off naturally (annuals).

There's no point in growing an herb you don't like using, but herbs are good for more than just cooking. Lavender is a natural antibacterial, and it's a muscle relaxer too. Flower buds added to your bath can be more relaxing than soft music and candlelight. Mint is great with lamb, but a soothing mint tea will also settle an upset stomach. Learn a little about each herb you have in mind before you make your final choices. That way you won't miss out on a good candidate and have to wait until next year.

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Photo courtesy of:  Kate Jewell [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Link: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Herb_garden_at_Hardwick_Hall_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1444243.jpg

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