Add herbs for flavor and more
Herbs add flavor to food, but can also be beautiful and helpful in the garden and add fragrance to your home. They are easy to grow and are quite free from damage by diseases and insect. Depending on the species, cultivar, and growth cycle, herbs are either annual (e.g. basil, cilantro, dill), biennial (parsley), or perennial (e.g. mint, oregano).
Most herbs prefer a location with 6-8 hours of sun, well-drained soil, and a pH around 6.0 to 7.0. perennial herbs need an area that will not be disturbed.
Propagation and Cultivation
Most beginning herb gardeners use starter plants. Transplant herb plants after the danger of severe frost has passed. Manage weeds to prevent competition for water and nutrients. A light 1” mulch will conserve soil moisture and help control weeds.
Water herbs in the early morning, deeply at the base of the plant to encourage root growth. Plants need 1”- 2” of water a week but should be watered if the soil is dry 1” inch below the surface. Check raised beds and containers often as they dry faster than a garden bed.
Here are a few tips for growing some of the popular herbs.
Basil: When harvesting leaves during the growing season, cut stems near a node (see photo). This will produce more stems and leaves on a bushier plant. Pinch off any flowers.
Cilantro: This annual will bolt (go to seed) after a hot spell. To keep harvesting leaves try succession planting. This herb is easy to grow from seed. You can sow a new pot every two weeks and get a fresh plant when the last one is done. Cilantro seeds are coriander and can be ground to use in recipes.
Mints: Mints spread by runners and need to be contained. Use pots with drainage holes covered by landscape cloth to contain the roots, sink them in the ground leaving 2” above the soil line. This will allow runners to be pruned before rooting. Repot every 2 years.
Herb leaves to be used fresh may be picked whenever the plant has enough foliage to maintain continued growth. Cut sprigs of herbs near a point just above a leaf cluster or, in the case of parsley and chives, at the bottom of the stem. For daily use pick herbs early in the day as the sun’s heat will pull flavorful oils from the plant. Gently rinse and dry ones for immediate use. Store extras, unwashed, in UNsealed plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper and wash before use.
Pick herbs for drying before the flowers open, when the leaves contain the highest content of aromatic, volatile oils. Discontinue harvesting leaves of perennials by late summer to allow the plants to store enough carbohydrates to overwinter.
Look for Preserving and Storing Herbs in my next column.
Carol Kagan is a master gardener and author who has been active in herbal organizations for over 35 years. She has designed and maintained herb gardens and provided docent services at historic properties. She is the author of Herb Sampler. The book is a great resource for beginners who love herbs but aren’t quite sure how to get started; or have been unsuccessful in establishing a herb garden.