If you haven’t yet discovered the beauty and advantages of growing herbs, it’s time to take a closer look at all these plants have to offer.
For centuries herbs have been used to create oils and salves to treat everything from migraines and depression to bee stings and joint pain and so much more. Fresh and dried herbs have been added to meals to elevate the flavor of ordinary dishes. Fragrant herbs infused in oils and soaps have relaxed the body and mind.
There’s a growing interest in the art of using herbs. Books with herbal remedies and recipes are abundant. Experimenting with herbal infused waters, teas, vinegars and oils can be fun and healthy.
Herbs are easy to grow and extremely versatile. They are often placed in intricate designs in formal gardens. The beauty of various herbs enhances the pattern of the garden. Diamonds, compasses, and knots are among the most favored designs. Theme gardens are also popular with biblical, scent, tea, kitchen, and apothecary ones scattered across the world.
But thankfully, herbs are just as at home in the cottage garden as they are in grandiose settings. They can thrive in a sunny window or herb spiral or simply tucked in among treasured flowers.
Regardless, where you decide to grow your herbs, I must warn you, that a small window sill garden can easily become an addiction. You just may fall in love with herbs and find them scattered in every nook and cranny of your landscape. They will grow happily wherever you place them as long as you keep their basic needs in mind.
Most of our valued culinary herbs are native to the Mediterranean region and therefore thrive in full sun, preferably eight hours per day. Well drained soil is super important to these plants. That means our southern soil will probably need to be amended with composted organic matter. Lavender and rosemary are woody plants, particularly prone to root rot in rainy seasons. They prefer gritty, sharply drained soil and often perform better in raised beds. The longevity of Mediterranean perennials also depends on good air circulation. Consider the mature size of the specific herb and plan accordingly when planting. Rosemary and lavender shrubs often reach four to five feet in diameter!
Small tender perennials may need protection from winter winds. Plant them on an eastern exposure, if possible. Evergreen trees and shrubs can be used to break the wind and create a “microclimate” for the herbs. Rocks are often incorporated into the design of herb gardens to provide focal points and windbreaks to help keep roots cool and moist during the heat of summer.
Although many herbs are considered drought-tolerant, some moisture is needed to maintain active growth. As with all plants, a thorough watering with a period of drying is preferred over frequent sprinkling. Annual herbs require more watering than most perennial herbs.
Proper nutrient balance is very important. Over-fertilization causes weak growth making the plant susceptible to disease and insect pests. Rapid growth also dilutes the concentration of essential oils which diminishes the distinctive flavor of the culinary herb. A light application of fertilizer to perennials in early spring should promote new root and shoot growth and ensure vigor in the new growing season. Light applications of fertilizer after each heavy harvest of annual herbs will help with continued growth.
Pruning is vital for the health of your plant. Regular harvesting will keep herbs from taking on a gangly, unkempt appearance. Woody perennial herbs will have less weak, dead wood if pruned well at least once a year. A good rule of thumb is to cut back your perennial herbs by about two-thirds at the end of each growing season.
Harvesting is best done in the morning, just after the dew has dried, while the concentration of essential oils is highest. Harvest your herbs for use all season, but when preparing to dry them, cut just before the plants bloom. Lavender is best harvested when about one-third of the blooms have opened.
Avoid making large harvests of the perennial herbs late in the season. This will allow time for new growth to harden and gather carbohydrates for winter. However, small harvests can be made during the fall. Sage flavor may actually be improved by two or three frosts prior to harvest.
When harvesting to dry, consider spraying the plants with a garden hose the day before cutting to clean dirt and dust off the leaves. The next morning, after the leaves have dried, cut your harvest. Remove dead or damaged leaves and make small bundles of the herbs. Tie the stems together and hang them in a well-ventilated, darkened room. Label each bundle since several of the herbs look similar when dried.
When completely dry, store whole leaves in air-tight containers in a cool place out of direct sunlight. To conserve essential oils, it’s best to not crush the herb until you are ready to use it.
There are hundreds of ways to utilize herbs in our daily lives. When we’ve gathered them from our own backyards it makes the experience even more rewarding.
Learn more about amazing herbs by listening to Patrick County Master Gardeners’ program on Medicinal Herbs, June 28 at 8:30 a.m. on WHEO 92.7.