Planting an Herb Garden

Many of the plants we grow such as annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees are really herbs in the true sense of the word. With increased interest in recent years in gourmet cooking, the word "herb" is nearly always thought of by home gardeners to mean the "culinary" herb.

Ever go to the grocery store on to find that they are out of fresh basil, rosemary or mint? With a little planning, you can build your own 24-hour supply of garden-fresh herbs. Even a small garden can infuse your kitchen with heavenly aromas and striking flavor.

If you have not yet had the pleasure of growing these interesting plants, you might want to give some thought to starting a small herb garden. Even a small plot 4 by 6-feet will grow all your family would probably need. If not grown for use in cooking, herbs are worth growing for pleasant aroma and some of them for the beauty of the flowers as well. Herbs can be used fresh for garnish in salads and to perk up the flavors of bland vegetables or to add flavor to meats and stews in which case one needs only to snip off a few leaves when wanted.

When growing herbs, location is key. Some like it sunny and dry, while others prefer filtered sunlight and moist soil. It's best to match seeds with the site. If your patio is the only sunny spot, set out herbs in large pots. If your yard is all sun, try planting shade-loving plants east of taller varieties like sunflowers. The tall plants will generate shade for the smaller ones.

Wondering which herbs are sun lovers? Here are helpful lists:

Prefer Full Sun ...

Basil
Chives
Dill
Oregano
Rosemary
Tarragon
Thyme

Prefer Partial Shade ...

Chervil
Lemon Balm
Mint

HERBS FOR BEGINNING GARDENERS

Beginning herb gardeners may have a problem deciding which herbs to plant because of the large number of herbs from which to select. A quick check of your supermarket shelf will give you some idea of the types of herbs used in cooking and also will serve as a planting guide. Many cookbooks also offer information on uses of various herbs as flavorings.

Following is a good variety of flavors and uses of recommended herbs for beginners:

Strong herbs -- winter savory, rosemary, sage
Herbs strong enough for accent -- sweet basil, dill, mint, sweet marjoram, tarragon, thyme
Herbs for blending -- chives, parsley, summer savory

As your interest and needs increase, you can add to the variety of herbs in your garden. Keep in mind that herbs can be annuals, biennials or perennials when selecting herbs to grow for the first time.

Annuals (bloom one season and die) -- anise, basil, chervil, coriander, dill, summer savory
Biennials (live two seasons, blooming second season only) -- caraway, parsley
Perennials (overwinter; bloom each season once established) -- chives, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, tarragon, thyme, winter savory.

PLANNING YOUR GARDEN

It's best to start small. Grow herbs you know you'll use, plus a few new ones for fun. Need ideas? CLICK HERE for a Herb & Spice Chart. The chart outlines each herb, its flavor, source and common uses.

How much should you plant? Many people are surprised to learn how much a single plant can produce. A single rosemary or tarragon plant will satisfy most culinary needs. If you plan to freeze or dry herbs for the Winter (see below for how to do that), take that into consideration. It might take a dozen basil plants to generate a year's worth of pesto.

GETTING THINGS GROWING

Some plants, including basil, chives, lemongrass, parsley and thyme, do best with seeds started indoors. Others, including mint, rosemary and tarragon, do better when propagated from cuttings (bought as plants).

When starting seeds, note the germination requirements, including soil temperature. Once seedlings appear, make sure they have ample air circulation, sunlight and humidity. To increase humidity, mist the area with a spray bottle. And be patient... some plants take several weeks.

As soon as your plants bear a couple sets of leaves, thin them to the proper spacing distance. To see how much space each plant needs, consult your supplier. Roots need room to gather food and water, and overcrowded plants will go hungry.

Seeds should stay indoors until your frost-free date, which will vary by region. In the Midwest, May 15 is the recommended date. Packaging instructions may refer to your "zone."

When it's time to transplant, it's a good idea to "harden" your seedlings. Gradually move the seedlings or transplants outdoors so they have time to adjust to new temperature, wind and light levels. If possible, transplant on a cloudy day or in late afternoon. Special boxes and plastic tunnels are available for hardening seedlings. Check with your supplier for additional tips.

KEEPING THINGS GROWING

Remember to water and weed early and often. When you water, saturate the soil thoroughly (and make sure there's ample drainage). Watering deep allows plants to grow strong roots. Weeding keeps your garden clear of competition (and makes it look more attractive).

When plants are several inches tall, you might consider mulching. Mulch deprives weeds of the light they need to grow. Leave a circle of soil bare around the base of each plant to prevent mulch-loving pests like slugs and snails from taking over.

BRINGING HERBS TO THE TABLE

Once you have a fresh supply of herbs in the kitchen, the opportunities are truly endless. Here are a few simple ideas:

*Pair basil leaves with sun-warmed tomato slices for an irresistible sandwich or salad.
*Drop whole mint leaves into a tall glass of iced tea.
*To create herbal butters, mince herbs and mix into softened butter.
*Create Fines Herbes by mixing 1 Tbsp. each of chervil, parsley, chives and tarragon. Sprinkle the mixture over eggs or meats before serving.
*Add freshly minced herbs to vegetable or fruit salads.
*Puree fresh herbs with mayonnaise to produce innovative sandwiches.

PREPARING FOR WINTER

Few plants can survive winter temperatures, especially in cooler climates. If you've grown the herbs in pots, simply bring them indoors. If you've grown them in the garden, dig them out and plant them in pots that are 2" wider than the root ball. Many plants will thrive in a window that gets a few hours of sun each day or when placed under fluorescent lamps.

To preserve summer herbs for winter soups and stews, make herb cubes in the freezer. Chop up your herbs and place them in ice cube trays, then cover with water and freeze. To preserve the color and flavor, use boiling water to fill the tray (this blanches the herbs). Some herbs, like cilantro, keep better when frozen in oil. Mince the herb in a food processor, then introduce olive oil until you produce a fine puree. Pour into ice cube trays or bags and freeze. When introducing the frozen herbs to recipes, remember that they contain water or oil. If this will throw off the recipe's consistency, thaw and drain the cubes first.

Or you can dry herbs for winter use. Cut off tops of the leafy varieties in midsummer and wash them off with cold water. Hang them up just long enough for the drops of water to evaporate, then tie the stems together and place in a paper bag with stem ends at the opening and close the bag with a rubber band. Use a paper clip as a hook through the band and place the other hooked end over your line where you are going to hang the herbs to dry, indoors. After 2 or 3 weeks remove from paper bags, crumble the leaves and place on a shallow pan and dry out in the oven with the setting at "warm" or at least not over 100 degrees. Some herb enthusiasts dry them by spreading them out on trays or sheets of hardware cloth covered with cheese cloth and place in a dry area. To dry seed heads allow them to grow until seeds are mature and ready to drop from the plant. Cut seed heads on a very dry day and spread on clean paper (not newspaper). It is better to keep them in the sun the first day as little insects, which may have been secreted in the heads, will leave as the seeds dry out. Store herbs in glass jars or other airtight containers in a cool place.

Or for quick oven drying, take care to prevent loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven at low heat less than 180oF (82.2oC) for about 2 to 4 hours.

Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds.

INDOOR HERB GARDENING

Herbs can also be grown indoors for year-round enjoyment. Growing herbs indoors is no more difficult than growing them in the garden.

Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as herbs grown outdoors -- sunlight and a well-drained soil mix that is not too rich.

Select a south or west window. Different herbs have different light requirements, but most need a sunny location; in winter, "grow lamps" or fluorescent lamps are helpful in supplementing light.

When planting, mix two parts sterilized potting soil and one part coarse sand or perlite. To ensure sweetness of the soil, add a cut of ground limestone per bushel of soil -- or 1 teaspoon of lime per 5-inch pot. There should be an inch of gravel at the bottom of each pot to ensure good drainage.

Consider the water needs of each herb. Growing plants need more water as do plants in clay pots or hanging baskets. Misting and grouping the plants on a tray of moistened pebbles will help keep them in a humid condition. Don't drench herbs -- avoid getting herb roots soggy.

Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you place them outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim, or keep it in a protected location on the porch or patio.

Herb plants need sun during the summer months, so place them accordingly. To prevent the loss of foliage and avoid plant damage, bring herbs indoors before frost. A light frost is helpful on mint, chives, and tarragon; it tends to induce a rest period and make the resulting new growth firm and fresh.

You can maintain an indoor herb garden indefinitely by periodic light feeding, yearly repotting, renewing annuals, seasonal moves outdoors for perennials, and occasional pruning. Water plants as needed. Use several planters or a divided one to allow for different moisture needs of plants.

HERBS TO GROW FROM SEED

ANISE (Pimpinella anisum) A dainty annual that grows from 1-1/2 to 2 feet high. It has finely cut, serrated leaves and very small, whitish flowers in flat clusters. The leaves and seeds have a warm, sweet taste that suggests licorice. Anise grows rapidly from seed. Plant after all danger of frost has passed. If planted in rows, thin to 6 to 8 inches apart in rows 2 feet apart. The green leaves can be cut whenever plants are large enough. Gather seeds about 1 month after flowers bloom. Anise leaves can be used in salads and as a garnish. Use the seeds to flavor confections such as cakes and cookies. Oil from anise seed is used in medicine.

BASIL, SWEET (Ocimum basilicum) Both green and 'Dark Opal' basil are attractive plants for the garden. Plant the seed where it is to grow directly to - the garden in mid-May. Germination usually occurs in 7 to 10 days. Basil is not difficult to transplant. It grows to 18 inches; space 12 inches between plants. 'Dark Opal' has beautiful deep red foliage and lovely pink flowers and is excellent to use along a walk or as a solid bed for decoration in the garden. Basil is very good to use to flavor tomato juice and tomato pastes.

BORAGE (Borago officinalis) This has pinkish blossoms which turn blue like the perennial pulmonaria. It is an annual and should be planted directly to the garden in early May in the North. Growing to 2 feet it should be spaced 10 inches apart. Germinates in 7 -to 10 days. Resents transplanting except when quite small. It is excellent used in tossed salad to add a most elusive flavor.

CARAWAY (Carum carvi) Caraway is a biennial plant that grows about 30 inches tall. The flowers appear in flat, white clusters and, like the finely cut leaves, resemble those of carrots. Caraway can be easily raised from seed. Usually, plants do not bear seed the first year they are planted, but if planted in the fall, they will bear seed the following year. This herb is not easily transplanted. If sown in rows, thin to 8 to 12 inches apart in rows 3 feet apart. Protect roots with mulch in winter. Seeds can be picked when ripe, about a month after flowering, when they are grayish-brown in color. Caraway seeds have a warm, aromatic odor and flavor and are popular in cooking. The oil of caraway seeds is an important ingredient in liqueurs. Use in Hungarian-type dishes, coleslaw, cheese spreads, meat stews and fish casseroles.

CATNIP (Nepeta cataria) Catnip is a hardy perennial plant that grows 3 to 4 feet tall. The heart-shaped leaves are green above and gray below. The plant has purple flowers. Catnip is a hardy plant that will grow in sun or shade. It can be grown from seed or propagated by division. When young, the plants are decorative. As they grow older, however, they become scraggly. It's best to plant catnip as a background plant. Cut and dry the mature leafy tops and leaves. Catnip leaves are used for tea and seasoning and also are attractive to cats.

CHERVIL (Anthriscus cerefolium) Although this plant will germinate in the fall and live over the winter, the inexperienced gardener might want to grow it as an annual, sowing the seed to the garden in mid-May. Grows to 2 feet and should be spaced 8 inches apart. Grows quickly and is mature in 6 weeks. Resents transplanting. Fresh leaves can be frozen in small packets after washing carefully. Excellent to flavor egg dishes.

CHIVES (Allium scboenoprasum) This is a perennial plant growing from bulblets. They are really very easy to grow from seed. Can be started under fluorescent lights as well as in the greenhouse in the spring germinated in 10 days. The tiny little plants look like fragile spears of grass. When transplanted they wilt slightly. Even during a continued drought they grow very well. Mature plants grow to 12, inches; space 6 inches apart. They are very hardy even in cold locations. Flowers are pretty enough so that chives can be grown as a border or in the rock garden. Fine in salads, egg dishes and sauces of all kinds. Potted up, chives will grow on a sunny windowsill in winter.

DILL (Anethum graveolens) This is an easily grown annual with feathery foliage. Blossoms are tiny and pale yellow. Grows to 21/2 feet in my garden and germinates in 7 to 10 days planted at the same time as tender vegetables. Resents transplanting. May be spaced as close as 4 inches apart. Self-sows readily. Fine for use in pickling and to flavor meats.

FENNEL (Foeniculum dulce) Fennel is a perennial (but usually grown as an annual) that grows to about 3 to 4 feet tall. The leaves are finely divided into thread-like segments and are light green. Fennel grows easily from seed planted in the garden in spring. Sow in full sun. Space rows 3 feet apart. Thin plants 10 to 12 inches apart and stake when 18 inches tall to protect from wind. Pick seeds when ripe. The best stems for eating are the tender flower stalks just before they blossom. Fennel seeds are used as a condiment. The leaves have an anise-like flavor and the stems can be eaten like celery. Seeds can be used in cheese spreads and vegetable dishes.

LAVENDER (Lavandula). I have had excellent success with germinating seeds of lavender giving a four-week pre-chilling period in the coldframe before bringing into the greenhouse with germination in 14 days. This year sown under the lights the seeds germinated in 15 days with no pre-chilling period. This is a hardy perennial with gray foliage and spikes of fragrant lavender flowers, which when dried are used to perfume the linen chest and for sachets. Dry easily when hung free in a dry garage or attic.

MARJORAM, SWEET (Majorana hortensis) This is a perennial in frost-free sections of the South but is grown as a hardy annual in the North. Sow seed indoors with germination in 7 to 10 days. Grows to 12 inches; space 6 inches apart. Plants may be potted up and grown in the greenhouse or sunny window over -the winter. Adds a delicate flavor to lamb, fish, salads and soups.

MINT (Mentha spicata) This mint is very easy to grow. It is a hardy perennial and spreads by root stolons. Sown indoors seed germinates in 10 to 15 days. It grows to 2 feet and is rather sprawling, in habit. Space 12 inches apart. Is at its best in good rich soil. Fine to use for mint jelly and in mint juleps, lemonade and other fruit drinks.

OREGANO (Origanum vulgare) Oregano, also called "wild marjoram," is a hardy perennial that has sprawling stems which can grow to 2 feet tall. This plant is much coarser than sweet marjoram and smells more like thyme. It has small pink or white flowers. Oregano grows well in poor soil and can be propagated by seed or division. Thin plants 10 to 12 inches apart. Stimulate foliage by cutting back flowers. Replant when plants become woody in 3 to 4 years. Use fresh leaves as needed. Preserve leaves by drying. Oregano leaves are used extensively as a flavoring on pizza. Sprinkle leaves over lamb or steak rubbed with lemon juice. Add to other Italian-type sauces.

PARSLEY (Petroselinum crispum) Parsley is a hardy biennial that is usually treated as an annual. It is popular because of its much-divided, sometimes curly leaves which have a characteristic flavor and smell. Cut parsley when the leaves are of suitable size. Leaves can be used fresh or dried. Parsley is one of the most familiar of all herbs and is used for both garnishing and flavoring. It is relatively high in vitamins A and C and iron.

ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus officinalis) Rosemary is a hardy evergreen shrub in areas where winter temperatures stay above 50 degrees . In the Northeast, however, this perennial should be taken indoors and kept as a pot plant during winter. The narrow leaves have a leather-like feel and a spicy, resinous fragrance. Rosemary grows best in well-drained, sunny locations in lime-rich soil. It can be propagated by cuttings or grown from seed. Pinch the tips to direct growth. Use fresh leaves as needed. Rosemary is a popular flavoring for meats and dressings or as a garnish on large roasts. Oil from leaves is used in medicine.

SAGE (Saivia officinalis) This is a hardy perennial in our location and is often grown in gardens for its pretty foliage and spikes of bluish flowers. Seed sown indoors germinates in 14 days. Grows to 2 feet and should be spaced 12 inches apart. Can be sown outdoors in May with germination in 21 to 30 days. Fine herb for dressings for chicken, turkey, pork and for flavoring sausages.

SAVORY, SUMMER (Satureja bortensis) This is an easily grown annual being best planted in mid-May in our location directly to the garden where it is to grow with germination in 7 to 10 days. Grows to 12 inches tall; space 5 or 6 inches apart. Good to flavor fish dishes, beans and soups.

SESAME (Sesamum orientale) This herb has whitish colored leaves and pretty pink flowers. Needs warmth for germination and should not be planted into the garden until the soil and air are very warm; about 70 degrees. This would be in late Mayn. Germination will take place in 3 to 7 days. Although they grow 2-1/2 to 3 feet they need but 9 or 10 inches between plants as they do not branch. Seeds are used to flavor breads, crackers and cookies.

TARRAGON (Artemisia dracunculus) Tarragon is an herbaceous perennial that grows to about 2 feet tall. It has multibranched growth with narrow, somewhat twisted, green leaves. Tarragon will grow in full sun but seems to do better in semishade. It can be propagated from root cuttings or by division. It needs protection in winter in cold climates. Make new plantings every 3 to 4 years. It is best to use fresh young leaves and stem tips. Flavor is lost when tarragon is dried. Tarragon leaves have a distinctive flavor similar to anise and are used in salads, marinades and sauces. Leaves yield flavor to vinegar when steeped.

THYME (Thymus vulgaris) This is a hardy perennial being of somewhat shrubby growth. Leaves are cut for drying before the blossoms are open. It is easily grown from seed sown indoors with germination in 21 to 30 days. Grows slowly when young. Grows to 12. inches; space 8 inches apart. It needs rich soil. Propagate with cuttings, divisions, or by direct seeding. Thyme is an attractive edging plant or a spreading plant among and over rocks. Cut leafy tops and flower clusters when first blossoms open and dry. It goes well in gumbos, bouillabaisse, clam chowder, poultry stuffings, soups and slow-cooking beef dishes.

       
This page is dedicated to the inspiring British actresses,
Pam Ferris & Felicity Kendal, of Rosemary & Thyme.
CLICK HERE to visit my Rosemary & Thyme page.


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