Herbs in the Garden
I love green beans fresh from the garden. There’s nothing like a basket full of vine-ripened tomatoes to make me smile. New potatoes are one of early summer’s real prizes. Of course, there is nothing quite so good as just-pulled-from-the-stalk sweet corn. All of these garden treasures are rewarding to home gardeners, but for good return for small investment of time and space, nothing we gardeners can grow can match the products of an herb garden. Herbs are absolutely crucial for good cooking and good food.
Now, it is obvious that we can go to the store and buy herbs. However, we may have to take out a bank loan to finance the purchase. Store-bought processed herbs are very expensive. The wonderful thing about growing our own herbs is that the same stuff that costs so much when purchased can often be grown in bulk and at little expense in gardens in the Midwest.
My wife and daughter insist on a sizable portion of our home garden being devoted to herb production, and even though that means I can’t grow quite as many green beans, I can’t argue with the growing of herbs. Herbs take up small space, have generous growing needs, and have a long season of harvest. These herbs are perfect home gardening crops.
How to Start an Herb Garden
For most who want to get into the herb growing thing, the first consideration is to find a piece of land which gets eight to ten hours of sun each day. Most herbs need full sun- mint and a few others are exceptions. After determining that the light needs can be met, the rest is pretty easy.
Soil requirements of most herbs are quite generous. Herbs are not hybridized plants with very specific needs- they are close to their wild and native forms, so they grow in most soils with good drainage and where they can be watered frequently when needed.
In fact, most herbs don’t do well in super-rich manure heavy soils. This kind of soil generates rampant herb plant growth, but the taste and cooking value of herbs grown too big and too fast is low. It is better to have average soil than “improved” soil for most herbs. Herb garden drainage is important. Most herbs will not tolerate wet soil for long periods of time, so our herb gardens need to have soil that moves water into and through the beds quickly.
Herb garden beginners are urged to consider raised beds with non-manure based compost soil. Herb garden soil preparation is in general the same as vegetable garden preparation. Spade the soil to a depth of six to ten inches deep, and level and rake the soil to remove any large particles of soil, rocks, or compost debris.
Specific herbs do best as started plants, and others do best when sown as seeds. A little pre-planting study will allow herb gardeners to make the best choices.
Herbs do very well in dedicated herb garden situations, but they can also fill in on garden borders and other odd places in the yard and vegetable garden. Just make sure that your herbs won’t receive any spray from powdered or liquid herbicide or insecticide applications.
Herb growers also need to keep in mind that many kinds of herbs can do well in containers, and with a bit of artificial light and temperature protection, lots of herbs do great things when brought into the home in winter. It is a rare gift to be able to step to a kitchen window and pick a few sprigs of fresh herbs to add to a tomato sauce or stew recipe.
Of course, herb growers should be aware that herbs don’t have to be used fresh. Many herbs are very effective in recipes when the herb has been picked, dried, and packaged months earlier. Dried homegrown herbs are almost always better than store-bought. A corner of the pantry or kitchen with a few strings of dried herbs hanging smells so good during winter.
Herbs to Plant
Selecting the herbs to grow is easy. It comes down to what kinds of herbs you use in your cooking Those are the kinds to try and grow.
Carolee Snyder, operator of Carolee’s Plants and Gifts in Blackford County, Indiana –(765-348-3162 or www.caroleesherbfarm.com) says, “Start small. Start with herbs you use most in cooking. Get off to a good start by getting perennial plants and starting annual herb plant seeds yourself.” She adds, “Don’t grow something you’ll never use.”
Some suggested and easy to grow herbs for Midwest gardeners are listed below:
Basil- Absolutely essential for homemade tomato sauce and other Italian cooking. This bushy, green plant comes in many forms and sizes.
Chives- This onion-like plant gives a fine, full taste to Italian recipes and any recipe that calls for onions.
Cilantro – This herb is essential for Mexican and Caribbean recipes. It goes very well with most tomato recipes. Cilantro is a cool weather herb- it won’t tolerate high heat and humidity.
Marjoram- This small-leafed herb is sweet, and it works well in spaghetti sauce recipes.
Oregano- Another herb which does well in Italian and Mediterranean recipes- it can have a sharp, peppery flavor.
Parsley- This biennial herb will produce heavily its second season- It is very usable in a wide range of recipes.
Rosemary- This herb can grow to an impressive size where it is cold weather protected. We have rosemary plants that are three feet tall and five feet across. Rosemary is very good in pork and poultry recipes.
Sage- is A tough perennial herb with grayish colored leaves. It is very good in pork and sausage recipes.
Thyme- Another herb thatcan get pretty large in protected locations. Many kinds of flavored thyme can be grown.
Bay- Requires a bit more care. This stout bush needs to be brought indoors in winter- it’s not winter hardy in the Midwest. It can get pretty large. Fresh bay leaves are so good in stews, soups and gumbos, it is worth the trouble.
Carolee Snyder advises beginning herb growers to be selective when it comes to growing oregano in particular. She says, “Be sure to get oregano with white flowers. Purple flower oreganos are primarily ornamentals and not so good as kitchen herbs.”
Many beginning herb growers want mint in their garden. We grow mint- there’s nothing much better than a few mint leaves steeped with a pitcher of tea on hot summer days. This makes a truly cooling iced tea for afternoon recovery drinks.
However, mint is a mixed blessing in the garden. While it is a wonderful herb, it is also very aggressive in its growth patterns. Carolee Snyder says, “Mint is easy to grow, but we recommend hanging baskets for mint. Mint will escape containers on the ground and grow wild.” I can testify to this. We planted mint in our herb garden and within a couple of years, we had mint in every corner - it really can take over lots of territory, and it is hard to discourage.
Herb gardeners need to realize from the beginning that herb growing is a trial and error proposition. Herbs that grow well in one locality may not grow in our location. Herbs that just won’t survive in Alabama, for instance, may do very well in Iowa and Nebraska. That’s part of the fun of herb gardening- it’s a case of finding out what can we grow and how well can we grow it.
Herbs are generally not prone to insect damage. Flea beetles sometimes eat small holes in basil leaves,but a quick application of a pyrethrum-based insecticide usually clears up this problem.
Of course, with specific herbs, certain insects will invite themselves to a meal. One year we noticed small caterpillars eating on one of our fennel plants. I was on my way to the tool house to get the pyrethrum dust when my wife told me to wait. We went inside and looked up what kind of insect these nasty little caterpillars would grow up to be.
I am so glad I didn’t dust the little crawlers.
It turns out that baby spicebush swallowtail butterflies like to eat fennel when they are growing up, and those little green caterpillars on our fennel plants would become the big butterflies we like so much in our garden.
Our herb garden that year turned out to generate two crops; one was the normal crop of delicious cooking herbs, and the other crop was a big hatch of gorgeous swallowtail butterflies. We enjoyed checking and noting the growth and progress of “our” caterpillars, and we noted with pleasure when the caterpillars made cocoons and then later hatched into beautiful butterflies. We lost a little fennel, but we gained a lot of unanticipated pleasure from our herb garden’s yield.
One problem that herb growers must accept- and there’s nothing to be done about this- is that your herbs will look lush, full, and green in spring, and then look pretty scraggly and rough when summer comes along. This is just typical herb plant growth.. Herb gardens are attractive, but they can get a little rough around the edges in late summer and fall.
Sources of Herb Seeds and Plants
Those of us just getting started in the homegrown herb gardening game may have a bit of trouble getting under way. We can’t just run down to the local big-box store and pick up a few flats of herb plants in most cases.
However, if we look online, we can sometimes find local sources of herbs and even local herb clubs which can be the very best sources of herbs for our specific growing region.
A suggested mail-order source of herbs seeds and herb plants is Nichols Garden Nursery
(800-422-3985 or www.nicholsgardenandnursery.com) a family-owned business that specializes in herb growers’ needs. These good folks can provide some very good herb advice, plants, or seeds.