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Herb Gardening

Most commonly used herbs will grow in the Northeast. If you have room, you can make herbs part of your vegetable garden. However, you may prefer to grow herbs in a separate area, particularly the perennials.

Herb Garden Size
First, decide on the size of your herb garden; this will depend on the amount of variety you want. Generally, a kitchen garden can be an area 20 by 4 feet. Individual 12- by 18-inch plots within the area should be adequate for separate herbs. You might like to grow some of the more colorful and frequently used herbs, such as parsley and purple basil, as border plants. Keep annual and perennial herbs separate. A diagram of the area and labels for the plants also will help.

Site and Soil Conditions
When selecting the site for your herb garden, consider drainage and soil fertility. Drainage is probably the most important single factor in successful herb growing. None of the herbs will grow in wet soils. If the garden area is poorly drained, you will have to modify the soil for any chance of success. To improve drainage at the garden site, remove the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches. Place a 3-inch layer of crushed stone or similar material on the bottom of the excavated site. Before returning the soil to the bed area, mix some compost or sphagnum peat and sand with it to lighten the texture. Then, refill the beds higher than the original level to allow for settling of the soil.

The soil at the site does not have to be especially fertile, so little fertilizer should be used. Generally, highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor. Plants, such as chervil, fennel, lovage, and summer savory, require moderate amounts of fertilizer. Adding several bushels of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil condition and retain needed moisture.

Sowing Herb Seed
Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. In hot, dry weather, red spider mites may be found on low-growing plants. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill, and fennel.

A few herbs, such as mints, need to be contained or they will overtake a garden. Plant them in a no. 10 can or bucket; punch several holes just above the bottom rim to allow for drainage. A drain tile, clay pot, or cement block also can be used. Sink these into the ground; this should confine the plants for several years.

Herbs can also be grown in containers, window boxes, or hanging baskets. These methods will require more care, especially watering.

If possible, sow seeds in shallow boxes in late winter. Transplant seedlings outdoors in the spring. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Sow anise, coriander, dill, and fennel directly in the garden since they do not transplant well.

Most biennials should be sown in late spring directly into the ground. Work the soil surface to a fine texture and wet it slightly. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows and firm the soil over them. Do not sow the seeds too deeply. Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory, or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Some of the larger seeds can be covered by as much as one-eighth of an inch of soil. With fine seeds, cover the bed with wet burlap or paper to keep the soil moist during germination. Water with a fine spray to prevent washing away of the soil.

Cutting and Division
Cutting and division also are useful in propagating certain herbs. When seeds are slow to germinate, cuttings may be the answer. Some herbs, however, spread rapidly enough to make division a main source of propagation. Tarragon, chives, and mint should be divided while lavender should be cut.
Harvesting Herbs
Herbs should be harvested when the oils responsible for flavor and aroma are at their peak. Proper timing depends on the plant part you are harvesting and the intended use. Herbs grown for their foliage should be harvested before they flower. While chives are quite attractive in bloom, flowering can cause the foliage to develop an off-flavor. Harvest herbs grown for seeds as the seed pods change in color from green to brown to gray but before they shatter (open). Collect herb flowers, such as borage and chamomile, just before full flower. Harvest herb roots, such as bloodroot, chicory, ginseng, and goldenseal, in the fall after the foliage fades. Some general guidelines to use include:
  • Begin harvesting the herb when the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Up to 75% of the current season's growth can be harvested at one time.
  • Harvest early in the morning, after the dew dries, but before the heat of the day.
  • Harvest herbs before flowering, otherwise, leaf production declines.
  • Herb flowers have their most intense oil concentration and flavor when harvested after flower buds appear but before they open.
  • Herb flowers harvested to dry for craft purposes should be picked just before they are fully open.
  • Annual herbs can be harvested until frost.
  • Perennial herbs can be clipped until late August. Stop harvesting about one month before the frost date. Late pruning could encourage tender growth that cannot harden-off before winter.
  • Harvest tarragon or lavender flowers in early summer and then shear the plants to half their height to encourage a second flowering period in the fall.

Garden Herbs

  History of Herbs
  Herb Gardening
  Herbs for Beginners
  Drying & Preserving Herbs
  Indoor Herb Gardening
  Herb Garden Hints & Tips

Herbal Cooking

  Herb Chart
  Using Herbs
  Culinary Herbs
  Herb Oil and Vinegar
  Herb Teas
  Herb Candy
  Herb Jelly

Herb Simples

  Alphabetical Listing

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