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How-To Guide for Planting and Caring for Herbs

Ramsey Press 3/22/2004

How-To Guide for Planting and Caring for Herbs

 

Which Herbs To ChooseHerbs are among the easiest of plants to grow and enjoy. A herb garden, even in a single pot on a patio or window sill can yield more fun and make a bigger difference in your cooking or your life, plant for plant, than any other kind. Herbs provide flowers, fragrance, flavor, more comfort, and better health. Aloe offers first aid for burns, lavender and tansy keep moths out of clothes, and shoofly keeps flies out of the kitchen. Any plant with possible uses-- culinary, aromatic, therapeutic, medicinal, cosmetic, for natural dyes-- beyond the usual one for landscaping or producing food is a herb and you can pronounce it with or without the H. ALOE

Which Herbs To Choose
The first herbs to get are those you will use or enjoy most and those that will grow most successfully for you.

You need to know whether they need sun or partial shade, constant moisture or dry spells between watering. Knowing how tall they will get lets you put them in the front or back of the border or box. Most herbs stay much smaller in containers.

You need to know whether they are annual like nasturtiums and will need planting every year, perennials like lemon balm and mint that will come up every year, or biennials like parsley that will bloom the second year and then die out. Some annual herbs like dill and borage will self seed as long as there is sufficient moisture.

Choose plants that are hardy in your climate. If you live in the Sunbelt, you can grow ginger and citrus.

Some otherwise delightful herbs like mint can take over your garden, but not if planted in a container or if you surround the plot with mown grass or cement walks. This booklet and the label or advice you get with your plant will start you off just fine and you can learn as you go. Books from the library or bookstore, advice or bulletins from the county Cooperative Extension Service, or advice from the people where you buy the plants can fill in the details as you need them.

Selecting the Site Top of Page
Some herbs grow well in partial shade, but most need sun for at least five to six hours a day. In Sunbelt climates, winter sun with some summer shade works best. SUNLIGHT

Nothing beats the convenience and pleasure of having the cooking herbs by the kitchen door or on the kitchen window sill in winter. Start with half a dozen of the most useful culinary herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, plus mint and chives. (Also- see chart)

Herbs can grow in mixed flower borders or among shrubs. Plant the ones with fragrant foliage where you can brush against them or pluck a leaf to crush when passing or sitting nearby. Herbs that chase mosquitoes and flies, like basil, shoofly (Nicandra) plant, and certain scented geraniums, are best by the kitchen door or on the patio. The ones that you raise for wreaths or potpourri can go in rows in the vegetable garden.

ROSEMARY, PARSELT, SAGE, THYME
Rosemary.. Parsley.. Sage ..Thyme

Preparing the Soil Top of Page
To prepare the bed, turn the soil as deeply as possible, a good 6 to 8 inches, by hand or with a rototiller and smooth out any lumps with a garden rake. Add as much humus in the form of compost, peat, or well rotted manure as you can, especially in heavy clay or very sandy soils. Herbs tend to be less fussy about soil as long as the drainage is good.

Starting with SeedTop of Page
You can start all of the annual and many perennial herbs from seeds for the most plants at the least expense. For indoor planting, gather together everything you'll need before you start: seeds, clean containers, sterile potting soil or other seed starting medium like milled sphagnum moss or vermiculite, water, bread bags, flat pans for watering and labels.

STARTING SEEDS INDOORS
Gather Materials for Starting Seeds Indoors

Use margarine dishes, 4 inch pots, or milk cartons cut to size. If there are no drainage holes, make some with the point of a paring knife or an ice pick warmed over a flame.

With pen or pencil that will not fade in rain and weather (nurseries sell these) or an indelible laundry marker, write the name of the plant on the label. Add the date or the color or height of the plant if there is room. Fill the container to within half an inch of the top with soil or medium that is fairly moist but not soggy. CONTAINERLevel it off and press it down gently. Then sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface. Small seeds like parsley need only be pressed in, not covered. Larger seeds should be barely covered. Plant one kind to small pots or several kinds in rows in the same flat.

POTWater each container well. The best way is to let it soak in a pan of water until the top is moist. If watering from the top, use only the gentlest spray that will not dislodge the seeds or wash too much soil over some and expose others.

Then add the label and place each container or BAG
pan of pots in a plastic bag, but do not close it tightly. The plastic prevents drying out for a week or more and many seeds will sprout by then. Most seeds will germinate best if the soil temperature is maintained at 75 degrees F. Setting the containers on top of the TV, refrigerator, dryer, or heat pipes will help. Or run a heating cable under the flats. Only a few kinds of herbs need light to germinate. If time and space are limited, plant only those special kinds and varieties of herbs indoors that you cannot seed outside or buy from local outlets.

Care of Seedlings Top of Page
Watch carefully, remove the plastic covering, and move containers into brighter light and cooler temperatures (usually a window sill) as soon as seeds begin to sprout.SEEDLINGS
If overhead light is not bright enough to make a strong shadow, put trays of seedlings on shelves just a few inches below fluorescent lights and they will grow almost as well as in a greenhouse. Water carefully. Never allow the seed containers to dry out. But also do not over water or damping-off disease could cause seedlings to rot at the soil line. Fertilize the seedlings with a weak liquid solution beginning when the first true leaves have opened.

ARTIFICAL LIGHT SOURCE


When plants in flats or crowded containers show four to six leaves, transplant them directly outdoors if it is warm enough or to individual pots if not, or give them more room in mixed containers. Fill pots with damp, fertile soil. Then use a pencil to lift plants up carefully. Hold them by the leaves, not the fragile stems, as you firm the soil gently around the roots.

Planting Seed Outdoors Top of Page
Many herbs: anise, chervil, dill, coriander, cumin and parsley do better if sown directly in the garden where they will grow. This assures good light, room for roots, better air circulation, and no transplanting shock. WATERING SEEDLINGS
Use Fine Spray Twice a Day Unless Rainy

Leave walkways or place stepping stones so you can easily get to all parts of the bed. Plant your seeds according to packet directions.

Unless it is rainy, water seeded areas at least twice a day with a fine spray to keep the soil evenly moist at all times. The top, where most seeds are germinating, can dry out quickly on a hot or windy day. A hard rain, on the other hand, may wash out smaller seeds. If it does, replant as soon as possible. Two weeks after the seedlings emerge, broadcast some safe, slow-release, non-burning fertilizer.

Transplanting HerbsTop of Page
1. Hardening off or gradually acclimating a plant to its new environment is the most effective means of reducing the trauma of transplanting. Move potted plants to the the back porch, a few days later to a protected spot in the garden, and eventually to their permanent place. Or set them in a coldframe and open it a little more every day.

COLD FRAMECold Frame

2. If it is very cold, or windy, shade and protect the plant, with a Hot-Kap, overturned canning jar, bottomless milk jug, or floating row cover that will let in some air and light. Remove this for longer parts of each day for about a week. Summer transplants also benefit from covers for shade and added humidity.

3. Whenever possible, transplant late in the day or on a cloudy day to give the plants the longest possible time to readjust.

4. Cut back the foliage to reduce transpiration and stress on the roots. For herbs, use, freeze, or dry the leaves and sprigs you cut off. Immediate harvest from a new plant reduces the shock of transplanting and increases the appreciation of the planter.

5. New plants, even ones that will be drought resistant later, need constant moisture when first transplanted. Make a donut like depression around the plant and then water well and slowly. WATERING METHOD
................................................................. ......"Donut" Depression Gathers Water

Making More Plants with Cuttings Top of Page
Some herbs like true French tarragon and horseradish do not produce seeds. All seedlings have two parents, so there can be variations of flavor or flower color. Cuttings or division give the exact same kind of plant and also grow more quickly and surely.

For cuttings fill a clean container with a sterile medium like vermiculite, perlite, or sand that is wet but not soggy. Cut off 4 to 8 inches of tip growth, cutting just above a node or leaf joint so unsightly stubs on the parent will not attract insects and diseases. Make a new slanting cut just below a node and remove the lower leaves of the cuttings.

Making More Plants with Cuttings
Cut Below Node and Remove Lower Leafs

With herbs you can use these otherwise discarded pieces in cooking or potpourris. If you have powdered rooting hormone, dip the stem ends in water and then in the hormone. Then make a hole in the medium and insert the cuttings to cover at least one node. Firm the medium around the stem. Cuttings can go fairly close in the container with the leaf tips just touching. Keep cuttings out of direct light and keep humidity high. After about two weeks, pull one to test. If it pulls out too easily roots are not mature enough; reset the cutting and wait a few more days. To remove rooted cuttings from the medium insert a trowel or spoon gently and lift the roots intact. Plant at once.

Still Deciding which Herbs to Plant? Top of Page


Consider This:

Dividing Clumps of Herbs

Dividing Clumps of Herbs Top of Page
Many clump-forming perennial herbs like French tarragon are easy to propagate by dividing established plants. Lift the plant carefully out of the ground with a spading fork or knock it gently out of the pot. If possible, break the clump into parts by hand. If not, use the prongs of two spading forks (or table forks for a very small potful). If all else fails, use a butcher knife to get individual plants, each with some roots and a bud to sprout a shoot.

New plants can sometimes be cut from the side of a clump with a spade or trowel without disturbing the main plant at all.

Tips for Super GrowingTop of Page
1. Water as needed whenever rainfall is less than one inch a week. Watering weekly will do in most soils, but giving half an inch twice weekly is better in sandy soils. Containers should be checked daily and watered as needed. Do not over water.

2. Though not necessary, many growers favor raised beds for better drainage, easier maintenance, longer lasting soil improvement, and neater appearance.

3. Put several kinds of herbs together rather than all one kind. The mixture will give better pest control.

4. Mulch around herbs to keep the ground a more even temperature and prevent alternate freezing and thawing in spring that can thrust roots out of the ground. Mulch soaks up water and holds it around the plant, thus preventing both runoff and erosion. If the layer is thick enough to keep light from the weed seeds, weeds will not germinate. The few that do will pull up easily because the soil will be soft and workable.

5. Do not overfeed herbs. Use any all-purpose fertilizer and read the label carefully. Then start with half of the recommended strength and see if that is sufficient. Also be sure the plants have all the other things they need: sun,water, humidity and reasonable temperatures. Overfeeding will decrease the concentration of essential oils and therefore the fragrance and flavor. Too much nitrogen can cause rapid, lush growth of foliage but hardly any flowers or seeds. Remove weeds when they are tiny, before they go to seed.

Pruning HerbsTop of Page
Trim herbs as you use them or prune as needed with snips or shears. Even in hedges, keep plants far enough apart for good air circulation. Whenever pruning, lay a piece of plastic, paper, or cloth beside and beneath the plant to catch the clipping and use them all, either for potpourris,for mulching garden paths, or for adding to the fireplace for fragrance or to the grill for flavor.

LAVENDER
.. Lavender....

Let such long and lovely bloomers as lavender grow freely throughout the summer and then cut them well back at harvest in early autumn. Germander will usually manage to bloom in spite of frequent clipping. If flowers are not important, make a spring and a mid- to late-summer clipping.

Controlling Pests and Disease
Top of Page
Herbs are among the most resistant of all plants to pests and diseases. However, they are not completely immune, and as a rule, the warmer and more humid the climate, the more frequent and severe the problems. Good soil drainage and aeration and wide enough spacing between plants for air circulation can do much to reduce diseases. Good cultural practices will keep stress to a minimum and therefore reduce the threat of insects. But into every garden, a few bugs and spores will fly.

Discard the rare plant with serious problems to the bottom of a HOT compost pile or to a trash bag.

Root rot sometimes occurs, especially in a very humid climate like the Florida gulf coast in the summer or in a wet and muggy season elsewhere. The gray-leaved herbs and the low, sprawling thymes and marjoram are most susceptible. Raised beds, improved drainage, extra

RAISED BEDS

humus and a gravel or rock mulch will all help prevent the problem. Once detected, it is usually too late for control and sulfur and Bordeaux mix are the only fungicides recommended.

 

Winterizing Your Herb Garden Top of Page
Perennial herbs will live over the winter where they are hardy. Give them a good drink before the ground freezes and a loose mulch to prevent thawing and refreezing. Some herbs, like parsley, will live over most places if you cover the plants with an overturned basket. They usually bloom and die the second year, though they may reseed themselves

.Winterizing Your Herb Garden
Cover with Overturned
....Basket in Winter


Growing Herbs Indoors
Top of Page
When the season ends outdoors, you can extend the livesGrowing Herbs Indoors
of annual herbs like basil for some months and save
some of the tender perennials like lemon verbena by bringing them inside. Pot up the entire plant if it is not too large. To keep some plants in pots all year, sink pots in the garden in the summer and then lift, trim away any roots growing through the pot hole, and bring indoors before the furnace goes on in fall Make the move gradually with a stop on the porch or in the shade. Mist the foliage to add humidity.

Or take cuttings and start new plants (go to "Making More Plants with Cuttings".) Bring in the ones you most want to have all winter or just want to save. Plant several different herbs together in an old kettle or crock, or put them in a window box on your kitchen window sill or in hanging baskets. WINDOW BOX

With five to six hours of sunlight daily in south or west-facing windows, they will do almost as well as outdoors and be much more convenient.
POTTED HERB

With fluorescent lights, plants can brighten the darkest corner or produce a cash crop in the basement.HANGING BASKETS

Indoor Care Top of Page
Herbs don't need much fertilizer in winter. If you do use a houseplant food, cut to half. Pest problems are unlikely and any mealy bugs or aphids that do cause trouble can usually be washed away with soapy water.

INDOOR PLANT CARE
Work Beads of Release
Fertilizer Into Top 1/2" of Soil


Herbs that grow indoors all year benefit from regular, light feedings of one of the balanced houseplant fertilizers applied in liquid solution. Feed them as often as every two weeks from late spring to early fall if they are growing vigorously. Most dry fertilizers are too strong, but potted herbs as well as outdoor ones can use one application of a slow-release fertilizer in the spring and another in summer. Work the little beads into the top half inch of soil and they will do their job for a good three or four months.

Using Herbs Fresh Top of Page USING FRESH HERBS
The best time for picking and using herbs is anytime you have clippers in hand and a use in mind. This can start from transplanting or thinning. For evergreens or potted herbs it can be anytime all year.

Slip out in the midst of supper preparations to gather a mixed handful of nasturtium flowers and leaves, parsley, arugula, cress, or purslane for the salad. Pick mint or lemon balm for the sun tea in the morning when you set it out for best infusion or just before serving for garnish. When you gather the vegetables for supper or canning, gather the herbs to put with them.

HERBS AS GARNISHES
Parsley.. Herbs as Garnishes.. Nastursium.. Purslane


Fresh herbs give the best flavor and texture and take the least work. Cut stems and heads of seeds when they are almost mature but before any capsules begin to open. Put these upside down in a paper bag with the kind and date written on it. Close the top to keep out insects. When these are completely dry, much of the seed will fall out on its own. A good pounding will release the rest. Remove any large pieces of stem by hand.

Harvesting for StorageTop of Page
The leaves of most culinary herbs reach peak flavor when the flower buds just begin to open. Mint is an exception that is best in full flower. After this, the leaves become fibrous and their flavor is not as rich or as sweet.

Gather leaves and flowers in the morning just after the dew has dried and before the sun dissipates the essential oils. Use a pruning snips, shears, or scissors or simply pinch brittle stems. If you want the whole plant, you can cut back annuals to 3 inches aboveHARVESTING HERBS
the ground. Never take more than a third of the perennials so as not to weaken the plant.

FreezingTop of Page
As with vegetables, frozen fennel, salad burnet, chervil, parsley, basil, tarragon, sweet cicely, and chives are second only to fresh as far as flavor and nutrition are concerned. Texture varies with the kind, but for use in cooked dishes, crispness is not so important. Crumble still frozen and brittle leaves into salad dressings. Or puree them, 1 tablespoon leaves to 1 tablespoon of water and freeze in ice-cube trays. After the cubes freeze solid, remove them from the tray to a freezer bag or box and label this with date and kind.

FENNEL, CHERVIL
..Fennel .........Chervil

DryingTop of Page
Drying is the most common way of preservingDRYING HERBS
herbs and home-dried ones have much better quality than most you can buy. Wash quickly. Remove dead or discolored leaves, and shake,
sling, or pat dry. Leaves can remain on stems.

Use a gas or electric oven on its lowest setting with the door open a few inches. Turn the leaves frequently. Unfortunately, they often dry too fast by this method.

To dry in a microwave, spread four or five stems of herbs on a double thickness of paper towels and cover with a single layer of toweling. Microwave at full power until the leaves are brittle: about two minutes for small leaves; three for larger ones. Turn halfway through. Add 30

DRYING HERB METHODS
Put Herbs Between Paper Towels
When Drying in Microwave Ovens

seconds more if needed. When the leaves are brittle and fragile, but not so dry that they turn to powder when touched, they are ready for storage.

HERB STORAGERemove stems and pack whole leaves loosely in dark, airtight glass bottles. (Save bottles from prune juice.) Plastic or metal containers may change the chemistry. Paper or cardboard will absorb the oils. Label each container with the name and date and plan to use dried herbs within a year. After that, put any aromatic ones left over into potpourris or feed them bit by bit onto an open fire or grill.

Check the stored herbs for the first few days and if any condensation forms on the glass, remove them and dry them further.

Air drying works best for large quantities of herbs. AIR DRYING HERBSAir Drying
A closet or attic with the addition of heat or fan if needed,will give good results. Cut these herbs with longer stems, wash only if necessary, and tie no more than 10 stems loosely it and hang upside down. If dust or insects are possible,cover the bunch with a paper bag. Or spread small quantities on a thin cloth or an open brown paper bag with many fine holes punched in it. Place this on a wire rack so air can circulate all around.

Leaves should dry in about four days at optimum temperatures, up to two weeks if it is cooler. Then store as directed above.

Getting Started

  • Pick the location_light_soil_space
  • Select your plants-seeds
  • Pots or containers
  • Soil or seed starting medium
  • Rooting hormone powder for cuttings
  • Peat, compost, or soil amendments
  • Fertilizer
  • Mulch
  • Tools_spade_hoe_trowel_hose_watering can_pruning shears or scissors
  • Extra labels_marking pen_gro-light fixture

Some facts may vary by region. Please check with your local lawn and garden dealer if concerned about possible variations.