Herb gardening mistakes, at least a few, are inevitable. Pointing out how we fail rather than how we succeed has always seemed a little counter-productive to me. Better to just be enthusiastic about sound practices that lead to natural rewards like healthy plants and good harvests. If you don't have a decade to learn the ropes by experiencing what works and what doesn't first hand (which can actually be pretty fun and freeing), I have some insights into the most common gotchas in herb gardening.
I know quite a few because I've stepped in them myself -- more than once. What follows is my list of five herb gardening mistakes newbies and even seasoned gardeners make from time to time. If you've fallen victim to a couple, remember the old adage that you don't really know a plant until you've accidentally assassinated at least a couple of specimens. RIP to all those plants that have succumbed to the learning curve. May they become primo compost for a whole new generation.
5 Herb Gardening Mistakes You Can Avoid
False starts and stops
You probably know the Bible quote "To every thing there is a season. . . ." That goes for choosing the right time to install plants in your garden. If you've ever lost a crop to a late spring frost or been surprised by an early fall freeze, you know how depressing it can be to misjudge the weather. I've praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the past for providing a network of regional pundits ready to help gardeners become better guessers. For good regional information about weather and other gardening challenges visit the USDA's Cooperative Extension Locator, an interactive map that will lead you to a phone number for local gardening help and insights. You can also visit the First and Last Frost Date Calculator at The Old Farmer's Almanac. Just key in your zip code, and circle the resulting dates on your calendar.
If you have houseplants, you've heard that the biggest killer of indoor plants is overwatering -- or generosity gone wrong. That happens in the garden, too. From over watering to over fertilizing to providing too much sun, sometimes "more" is not a good thing. The best way to know for sure what your plants need is to read up on the varieties you grow. You may think a plant is out to bushwhack you when it gives up and dies for no apparent reason, but plants actually work hard to survive. To give them the best shot at a long life, do your homework. I'd love for you to park on this blog to learn all about your herbs and other plants, but there are lots of wonderful sites on the web you can visit to up your game.
Down time in the garden is prime time for learning about next year's intended crop. Actually, many herbs can thrive without soil amendments or other special accommodations, so when a variety does need a little something extra, most sites are good about mentioning it and offering suggestions. For example: Lavender needs soil that drains well -- very well -- so no wet feet for this flowering beauty.
A little research can go a long way toward making you generous when and where it counts -- which will save your plants and your pocketbook.
Mistaken identity fails
Whether you're growing plants from seed or buying seedlings, mistaking an invited plant for a weed hurts on a number of levels. If you've started plants from seed, you may only get one shot. Destroy what you've nurtured, and you'll have to wait until next year to try again. If you're buying plants, even a few foolish losses can be pricy as well as embarrassing.
Accidentally ripping a plant out of the ground is a surprisingly easy mistake to make. It may be your first experience with a variety you're not all that familiar with. One inattentive weeding session, and that's all she wrote. Or you could have helpers with more enthusiasm than knowledge slaying plants faster than you can shout a warning. However it happens, these types of mistakes can be exasperating. (I mean, what kind of a gardener are you if you mistake your own plants for weeds.) I have to say herbs are particularly at risk, too. They're wonderfully useful, but some herbs are plain Janes that can be mistaken for wild plants. Heck, sometimes they are wild plants.
One way to avoid losses like this is to place markers next to your herbs, especially the new additions. Another is to mulch and weed regularly. This keeps uninvited plants from depleting your soil, and it also helps avoid those slash and burn sessions where you (or others) go on weeding autopilot, yanking everything in sight.
Real estate miscalculations
This is one of my greatest failings -- not leaving enough room for plants to grow to their full potential. The recommendations printed on seed packets and seedling spikes are apparently there for good reason. Eighteen inches isn’t 12 inches, no matter how you measure it. I know it can be almost physically painful to leave all that space between tiny plants, especially when you don't have a roomy garden to begin with. The seedlings of today are the mammoth monster plants of tomorrow, (hopefully, anyway) so work through the pain and give your sprouts the space they need. Plants suffering cramped conditions are often stunted. They produce fewer leaves, flowers and seeds. They are also more susceptible to disease and insect assault.
Taking a wait and see attitude
No one enjoys having sick and failing plants, but it happens. Drooping leaves and yellow spots aren't necessarily portents of disaster, but they are important clues that something's wrong. It's always better to catch problems earlier rather than later. Translated, this means you should keep an eye on your herb garden and respond quickly to signs of trouble. For example, treating with a fungicide early can save a crop. Also, if you get a jump on problems, you have time to research homemade, organic solutions rather than having to rely on chemical overkill approaches to common gardening problems.
It's almost never a good idea to just let nature take its course and destroy a plant. Nature is greedy and usually finds a way to make a mess of your carefully planned garden once a destructive element has been introduced. If you have a plant problem you can't identify, collect a leaf (or bug), place it in a plastic sandwich bag and take it to your local garden center. Those folks have seen it all and can probably offer some good advice. You can also contact your Cooperative Extension Office for suggestions. Take those suggestions and act quickly. Your plants will thank you. Well, actually they won't, but curing the problem will help your garden and give you more confidence when dealing with the occasional setback in the future.
Photo: Flickr User: Elliott Brown
Walled Herb Garden at Houghton Hall