Untitled by Ingrid Neuhofer Dohm
Growing your own herb garden can be rewarding in many ways. You can enjoy the relaxation of gardening and reap the many benefits of what you grow. The problem is, many people simply don't know how, or fear that it entails too much work or expense. In this article, I will guide you, step-by-step, through the process of growing your own herbs.
Early in the Spring, or even late in Winter, sit down and decide what your own needs are. Do you want herbs purely for medicinal purposes, or are you more interested in using them for cooking? With pen in hand and a small notebook, make a list of the herbs you would like to grow. You may want to go through a book such as "Rodale's Encyclopedia of Herbs" or "Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbalism."
After you've made a list, see if you can determine what herbs will grow in your area. Many of the more common herbs, such as basil or sage, will grow just about anywhere, but there's always a chance you chose a plant which just cannot thrive in your climate. Check in books, look at seed packets, call local nurseries, or check with your local County Extension service if you can't find the information anywhere else.
Going through catalogs is also a fun way to plan and learn. I know many people who love looking through seed catalogs. You can dream of the green, fertile garden you'll have in the Summer. It also seems to bring a touch of warmth to the cold days of late Winter days when we're all getting cabin-fever and longing for the sun. A few good catalogs to send for come from:Gurney's Seed and Nursery Co.
All this brings us to another consideration -- where to grow your herbs. Are you ready to invest the time necessary to have an outdoor herb garden, or would you rather grow a few favorite plants indoors? If you choose to have a mini-garden indoors, a warm window with southern exposure is a good choice, and you might even consider installing a special plant window for this purpose. There are plant windows available at larger hardware stores for around $200 - 400 and they are easy to install.
If you have chosen an outdoor garden, keep it small at first. 4' x 4' is a good size for a novice herb gardener, and will enable you to grow about nine different herbs. Select a very sunny spot which is easily accesible with a hose or sprinkler. Most herbs need lots of sunlight to thrive. Those which may require less light can be strategically placed so that shade from taller plants falls on them, or you can set up another spot entirely for them.
You can, in most cases, plant directly in your soil, but I prefer to make a raised bed from landscape timbers which is filled with a mixture of approximately 60% topsoil and 40% peat.
Work the soil in your chosen area. Dig up and discard any large rocks, break up solid chunks of dirt, take patches of grass to other parts of your yard that are bare and can use the help.
Construct your raised bed in the spot where it is to stand. Screw the landscape timbers together with 3" coarse-thread deck screws. Make the box at least two timbers high. Screw the timbers together by first drilling a 3/8" hole halfway through the timbers themselves. Otherwise, the screw will not go through the landscape timber.
Fill in the box with the topsoil and peat. You can figure out how many bags of topsoil you need either by judging with your eyes or figuring out how many cubic feet are in the area for your garden and then buying the corresponding cubic feet of soil. Peat comes in compressed blocks, and you will need approximately 1.65 cubic ft. per 4' x 4' area.
For an indoor garden, you can use any kind of pots or containers, as long as they retain moisture while allowing excess water to drain away. Fill with topsoil and peat, just like the outdoor garden.
Seeds or established plants? Which should you choose? For the novice herb gardener, I suggest plants. You can find these at reliable nurseries in your area, or sometimes in catalogs. Seeds can be unreliable, often not sprouting at all and therefore frustrating to the gardener who is excited about seeing life spring into being. If you do choose to grow from seeds, be aware that seedlings often need to be thinned -- this means removing those which are too close together and either replanting them or throwing them out. Seedlings are very delicate and don't always live when replanted, another frustration for the budding herb gardener.
Later on, after your herb garden has become established and you are more confident, you can use seeds. By that time, you have become accustomed to working with the plants and will have a "feel" for how to treat them.
Some herbs come in peat pots which can be directly transferred to the ground, however, I have never had much luck with these and recommend taking the plant out of these types of containers. When removing herbs from their pots, gently squeeze all around the container to loosen the dirt. Tear away the pot or ease the plant out if the pot is unbreakable. Very gently loosen the dirt around the roots by scrunching it with your fingers and tapping it lightly against your hand.
Make a hole in the soil about the size of the root ball and place the herb plant into this hole. Hold the plant with one hand while scooping earth around it with the other. Firmly pack the dirt around the plant.
For a basic 4' x 4' starter garden, place three plants equidistant from each other at each side, leaving a good 4 inches from the sides of the box. This will leave enough room for one or possibly two plants in the middle.
Most plants come with plastic markers which tell you what kind of plant it is, the plant's light and water requirements, and how much room the plant needs to grow. Don't throw those markers away! Instead, put them into the ground near the plant itself so that you always know which plant is which.
After you have all the herbs in the ground, water the area gently.
One thing you might consider doing is placing one or more crystals in the garden. I have a large one in the center of my herb garden and it is an excellent energy conduit. Quartz crystals are natural energy conductors and are very helpful in herb gardens, especially those in which the herbs will be used for spiritual or medicinal purposes.
For your first herb garden, try to select hardy herbs that will withstand occasional neglect and can do nicely without a lot of pampering. Some good choices include basil, marjoram, sage, mints of all kinds, thyme, catnip, oregano, vervain, and rosemary.
You might want to ask someone knowlegable about what certain herbs will grow well in your immediate area. A nursery employee or County Extension agent might know. Weather conditions in the past year can greatly affect the ability of certain herbs to thrive. For example, last year I tried to grow chamomile without any luck at all. The weather that year had been too hot and dry, and the plants couldn't live in the conditions created by the arid weather.
Most herbs should be planted well after the threat of frost has passed, usually in mid- to late Spring.
Depending on your climate, some of the plants may live throughout the year. In Texas, where I live, we have had some freezes, but the only plants that completely died were the basil and vervain. This may be due to the fact that I allowed the autumn leaves to be used as mulch in my garden. When the leaves fell, I left them there, figuring they'd make a good protector against coming cold temperatures. It turned out to be a good idea. Even the marjoram, which is mostly dead, has little green signs of life at it's base. The mints are still thriving, as is the oregano and the thyme. Everything else is still alive and will bloom into abundance once Spring has arrived.
It is hard to say what will make it through the Winter and what won't. Your particular climate makes all the difference. As a general rule, if you live in a place where the winters are harsh, you can either just mulch the plants over and take your chances with their coming back in the warmer weather, or take cuttings to root indoors until all threat of frost is gone. In temperate zones, chances are much better that your garden will live an even thrive through the Winter months.
Most herbs are fairly easy to maintain. They don't need water every day and don't really need fertilizer. The biggest concern you'll have is weeding.
To find out if your garden needs water, take a finger and push it into the soil. If it is damp or wet under the surface, you don't need to water it. If it stays dry all the way to your first knuckle, water it. Should your plants start drooping, water right away. This is more liable to happen in warmer climes and sometimes can be attributed to very hot temperatures, but is more likely to signify a desperate need for water.
As I said, herbs don't really need any kind of fertilizer, but if you feel better doing so, they might like some compost. The best thing I've ever done for my herbs was to place that large crystal in the middle of them. A good crystal is like Mother Nature's own fertilizer!
Sometimes you'll have problems with pests. Two solutions I've used are diatomeceous earth, and a spray made from onions liquified in the blender and then mixed in an old spray bottle with dish detergent and water. These are both organic solutions that work very well against all manner of creepy crawlies. For severe problems, you might want to introduce some ladybugs or praying mantises to the garden. These predators will get rid of the "bad" bugs and leave your plants alone. Spiders are also good to have in your garden for the same reason, and you will often find that they have taken up residence there of their own accord.
A very common problem is called "damping off." This happens when a fungus attacks the seedling, weakens the stem, and eventually kills it. Last year this fungus attacked every seedling I had. It started with the basil, which is most succeptable to damping off, and spread to everything else. It is impossible to cure but is easily prevented. The fungus thrives in damp conditions so restricted air flow is a big contributor to damping off. Crowded growing conditions are another factor. Sow your herb seeds thinly, and if planting seedlings make sure they have plenty of room between them. To stave off the dampness which encourages the fungus, try a light covering of Perlite (TM) or clean sand sprinkled over the soil where the seeds are sown. This will absorb excess moisture. When your seedlings have flopped over and appear to have given way at the point of emergence from the soil, they have damped off, and there's nothing to be done except plant a whole new crop.
While I think everything about growing herbs is a wonderful experience (well, maybe not the weeding!), harvesting is one my favorite things. It is, after all, the biggest reason to grow your herb garden.
Harvesting the herbs is very easy if you remember a few small guidelines. For one thing, you should never take more than 2/3 of the plant, and preferably a lot less than that. It's tempting to take a bunch of the herb when it first begins to grow toward maturity, but limit yourself to a few leaves in the beginning.
Use a pair of small gardening scissors to cut herbs with. Cut just above tender, new sprouts. If you make sure that there is still fresh growth, your herb plants will continue to flourish and give you a large crop.
Cut back your herbs after the flower buds first appear, but before the flowers open. If you wait until the flowers bloom, the volatile oils and therefore most of the flavor are greatly reduced. On the other hand, if you harvest too early, the oils haven't fully developed. Try to do your cutting in the morning after the dew is dry and before the sun gets hot.
Most people like to dry their herbs for later use. Drying them is extremely easy, even in humid climates. There's no need for large screens or elaborate set-ups; a ball of twine, some paper bags, and a place for hanging is all you need.
After you've harvested your herbs, rinse them thoroughly in a bath of lukewarm water. Gently swish them about in the water. You may need to gently coax stubborn dirt or sand off some of the leaves, or remove leaves with cocoons or egg sacks stuck beneath them. Look carefully for these kinds of things -- it certainly wouldn't be any fun to find a family of spiders living in a jar of carefully dried herbs!
Dry excess water from the herbs with a large towel. Fold the towel in half, and gently press the stalks between the folds.
After the herbs have been sufficiently dried off, gather several stalks together in a bundle. With a length of twine, wrap the base of the bundle 3-4 times around, then tie tightly, leaving a large loop for hanging purposes. You can then hang the bundles somewhere to dry. If you would like to keep dust off the herbs while they dry, put the herb bundles upside down into small paper bags. Gather the top of the bags around the tied base and secure with a rubber band, more twine, or a twist-tie.
Some people like to hang bagged herbs in a garage or spare room and open up the bags whenever they need some of the herbs. I prefer to strip the leaves from the stalks and store them in bottles, which I then label with the appropriate name. Herbs will keep best in bottles of darkly colored glass, such as those from powdered coffee creamer, but if they are stored in a dark place you can use any color bottle you have on hand.
Herbs are easy to work with from growth to use. A little planning and a modicum of care are all that is needed for you to have a delightful source for culinary, medicinal, and other uses. Take a chance -- there's a bountiful harvest waiting for you!
Melinda Reese is a writer, artist, avid herb gardener, and computer enthusiast living in Ft. Worth, Texas. She has had articles published in several professional journals and has a column in a Dallas/Ft. Worth area newsletter. For the past two years, Melinda has been studying alternative medicine, including herbology. As a mother to three human children and ten assorted "fur kids," her biggest goal at the moment is to get away for the weekend to a mountain cabin alone. Comments can be sent to Melinda Reese at morgaine@FastLane.NET. You can also visit her Web Site.
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