How to Grow Herbs

For thousands of years, people have used their gardens to cultivate functional plants. This tradition continues with the growing of herbs, which are not only practical for culinary and medicinal purposes, but look lovely in the garden as well. By growing herbs, you can add fragrance, texture, and a unique, natural look to your garden while providing yourself with fresh flavors for the kitchen and homegrown aromatherapy. Here are a few suggestions for successfully growing herbs, and some popular varieties with useful properties as well as aesthetic appeal.

Right Plant, Right Site

Unlike many ornamental plants, most herbs thrive in what are often considered difficult conditions. In fact, fertilizer and rich garden soil can actually lower the potency of many species. The most appropriate sites for the majority of herbs are hot, dry locations with very well-drained soil. Full sun is the most important growing condition for almost every type of herb, so be sure to pick a site that receives hours of bright sunlight every day. While some types, like parsley, prosper in constant moisture, most benefit from drying out after a thorough watering. Perfectly suited to rock gardens or a hot sunny spot, herbs will flourish in challenging places as long as sun and drainage are available.

Once you’ve selected a proper site, herbs can add pizzazz to your garden in a number of ways. Many varieties, such as sages and alliums, have distinctive, uniquely shaped flowers, while those like feverfew and borage display a delicate filigree of blooms. Even herbs without flamboyant flowers boast decorative, scented foliage that accents other flowering plants. Coriander’s sweet smell, lavender’s timeless fragrance, and the onion-like scent of chives will waft from the garden in an olfactory free-for-all. Thus almost any herb can be incorporated into a garden design and contribute color, a carefree look and enticing aroma. Whether grown in a wholly edible garden or scattered among other ornamentals, herbs deliver the best characteristics in a garden: vivid blooms, vibrant textures and alluring fragrances.

Hostile Takeovers

In botanical terms, herbs are barely removed from their wild relatives, so they are instinctively driven to reproduce and spread voraciously. Therefore some species, such as mint varieties, can be very aggressive in the garden and not well-behaved like more domesticated plants. To prevent them from overtaking other garden residents, keep a close watch, harvest regularly, and collect seeds or seed pods before they are dispersed, or consider cultivating your herbs in containers. While containers dry out faster than beds and borders, and hence require more frequent watering, they provide a perfect home for roaming, trailing herbs. The expansive foliage and meandering nature of herbs encourages them to fill out containers for a lush, profuse look, but the constrained space keeps them from disturbing other plants. Containers also make it easier to move

Another way to enjoy the look of herbs in the garden and prevent encroachment at the same time is to plant them in buckets and sink the entire bucket into a hole in the garden. As long as some openings are punched into the bucket for drainage, the herbs will thrive but not conquer your entire garden. While appearing like any peaceful garden plant on the surface, the roots will be stopped from choking out other flowers and shrubs, and the foliage can be easily pruned. If you prefer to grow herbs in a bed or border, and not use decorative containers, this method will furnish the look you desire while taming the herbs’ habit of wandering.

Beyond the Garden

When harvesting herbs you literally reap the benefits of these pretty and practical plants. Annuals, like parsley, garlic and marjoram, can be harvested all season long, right up until the first frost. Perennials should be harvested until approximately a month before frost so they can build up energy reserves prior to winter. When harvesting leaves, remove them just before the plant flowers, or as blooming begins, for the best potency. Flowers should be taken at the peak of blooming. If you are harvesting a large amount, simply cut and remove one third to one half of an entire stem; don’t strip off all the foliage and leave a bare twig.

Fresh herbs will last in the refrigerator for a couple weeks (in resealable plastic bags), but for long-term storage, drying is best. Tying stems into bundles and hanging them upside down in a cool, dark place, like a closet or attic, is a simple and effective way to preserve the harvested plant in its entirety. It takes a few weeks for herbs to dry sufficiently this way, but if you want instant results, a conventional or microwave oven can accomplish the task as well. Lay out leaves and flowers, or the whole stems, onto cookie sheets in a conventional oven on a very low setting, and within a few hours they’ll be dried to perfection. By placing them between sheets of paper towels in a microwave, you can dry herbs in just a couple minutes. When they are brittle and crumble easily, the herbs are ready to be stored in dark glass jars, away from bright light, where they will retain flavor, scent and potency for about a year.

Functional Favorites

Basil (genus Ocimum): This annual adds a wonderful flavor to many dishes, especially in Italian and Thai cooking. While it can be grown from seed, buying an established plant will provide instant results and maximize the amount you can harvest in one season. There are well over one hundred species of basil, including lemon-scented, sweet basil, and a purple variety whose distinctive foliage beautifully complements blues, pinks and yellows in the garden, making it a fantastic choice aesthetically and gastronomically. Grow this herb in full sun and well-drained soil, and by frequently harvesting leaves from the top of the plant, you’ll encourage this useful and fragrant herb to grow bountifully.

Chamomile: There are two species of chamomile; German (Matricaria recutita), which is an annual that reaches two to three feet in height, and Roman (Chamaemelum nobile), a low-growing perennial suitable for use as a groundcover. While both display daisy-like flowers with white petals and bright yellow centers, the German variety is tastier than the Roman. For this reason, if you expect to harvest and use a significant amount of chamomile, the German type is a better choice. A delicate and cheery addition to the garden, chamomile flowers make a calming tea that has helped people relax since ancient times.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Although many species of lavender exist, angustifolia is the most popular, and with ood reason. Its upright spikes of purple flowers and silvery leaves impart a unique shape and exceptional fragrance to beds, borders, and containers, and once established, it’s an extremely drought-tolerant perennial. Hardy to USDA zone 5, lavender should be covered with mulch during the winter for protection. Harvest entire stalks of flowers just as they bloom, and dry them for a soothing, rejuvenating tincture, perfume or massage oil. Crushed lavender in a relaxing eye pillow can ease headaches and insomnia.

Mint (genus Mentha): As one of the most aggressive herbs, mint varieties are best grown in containers, whether sunken or above ground. A large number of species are available, including peppermint, spearmint, and lemon mint, to name but a few. In contrast to many herbs, mints enjoy moisture and are more water-tolerant than most. Fragrant foliage is the hallmark of mint plants, but they do have small flowers that bloom in the summer. By planting them near a pathway or porch, you can enjoy the intense aroma of these perennials for years. Use their leaves in teas to help indigestion and stomach ailments of all kinds, and it helps relax away tension as well.

In short, herbs make a wonderful addition to the garden, either planted in beds and borders among other ornamentals, or spilling over in decorative containers. Whether or not you cook or use herbal remedies they provide a natural look and tantalizing fragrance. Since many species are native to
North America
, they appear like carefree wildflowers and can adapt to challenging conditions. If you do frequently use herbs, there is no better source than your own garden, so experiment with your favorite types and enjoy these unique plants in and out of the garden.

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