By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
If you are one of the millions of people who began gardening for the first time, or have returned to gardening within the last six years, then you already know that growing your own food saves money, increases self-sufficiency, and leads to a healthier lifestyle. Yet, among those who grow a wide variety of edible plants, many have not yet tuned into the fun and simplicity of growing their own herbs and spices. So if you have been thinking about growing your own, but just haven’t gotten around to it, then this article is for you.
While summer may not seem like the idea time to start an herb garden, now is actually a great time to catch one of the many end-of-the-season plant sales at your local nursery or big box store where you can pick up all kinds of perennial herbs for just pennies on the dollar. Once you have a few herbs in hand, all you need is a garden area with halfway decent dirt that gets six to eight hours of sun a day and a few pointers to help you get started.
It is often recommended that herbs be grown in full sun. But honestly, lots of herbs will not only tolerate partial shade, but will thrive in it. In fact, a few herbs such as bay tree and ginger may die if grown in full sun, especially in areas with very hot summers.
That being said, if you can provide your herbs with at least 6 hours of direct sunlight, then chances are your herb garden will thrive. This is especially true if shade covers your herb garden during the latter part of the day, where it can actually protect herbs from the brutal sun.
If your garden is situated in full sun with little shade, you can try growing shade-loving herbs on the northwest side of the house, or to the north of other tall herbs and flowers.
It is often said that herbs do not need “good” soil, but that’s a little misleading. While many herbs are hardy and can withstand adverse conditions like drought, heat, and low soil fertility, most need at least average fertility and excellent drainage.
If the soil in your garden is poorly drained, raising the beds above using stones, concrete blocks, or landscape timbers creates beds that drain more quickly. For clay soils, adding compost, shredded leaves, and other organic materials to the soil before planting will improve drainage and increase overall soil fertility.
Most gardeners have soil that is sufficient for growing most common herbs and adding fertilizer or other fertility amendments is generally not necessary. In fact, herbs that are over-fertilized often have less flavor and less medicinal value than their unfertilized counterparts.
Over-fertilization also leads to spurts of exaggerated growth prone to legginess. That said, applying compost around your plants once a year provides them with just enough quality nutrients to keep them healthy and growing strong. If your garden does not have fertile soil, you should direct your focus on increasing the quality of soil structure through the addition of organic matter, rather than on supplementing with fertilizers.
If fertilizer is necessary, apply well-rotted compost or a natural fertilizer formulated especially for herbs. Organic foliar fertilizers such as water-soluble fish emulsion and kelp are ideal for use on herbs during stressful summer months. Kelp is a fantastic source of trace minerals and when applied to the leaves every other week can help prevent the formation of fungal diseases that affect foliage.
If you are using a pre-formulated fertilizer, select one that has a low phosphorus (P) content. Phosphorus stimulates plants to bloom, and in leafy annuals such as basil, blooms are not what the herb gardener is looking for.
On the other hand, herbs grown for their seed—dill, fennel, cumin, and anise, for example—should be side-dressed with bone meal to help promote fruitful blossoms. In general, high-nitrogen fertilizers should be avoided because they produce excessive amounts of leafy growth weak in flavor.
Anther misconception about herbs is that they need lots of water. But unlike vegetable crops, most herbs will do well on as little as 1 inch of water every two weeks. Overall, if your soil drains quickly or if your herbs are in pots, they will likely need watering more often. If possible, avoiding watering herbs from overhead to reduce the occurrence of fungal diseases such as powdery or downy mildew.
I cannot say enough about the benefits of mulching herbs in the home garden. Mulch keeps soil cool and moist during hot summer months, smothers weeds, and keeps disease-carrying soil away from the leaves.
In the winter, mulch protects perennial herb roots and tender stems from cold, drying winds. But more importantly, a thick layer of winter mulch helps to keep the soil temperature even, which in turn prevents a vicious freeze-and-thaw cycle that can literally heave well-established plants out of the ground and kill them.
Anything that covers the soil can be considered as mulch, including rocks, pea gravel, compost, shredded leaves, pine needles, grass, hay, straw, bark, landscaping fabric, or plastic row covers. Ideally, mulch should be attractive, functional and breathable.
One of the benefits of natural mulch versus row covers or landscaping fabric is its ability to improve the texture of the soil and provide organic nutrients to the herbs as it breaks down over time. But before you go out and buy natural mulch such as wood chips or pine straw, take into consideration how that specific material may increase or decrease the pH of your soil.
Last but not least, remember to replenish and refresh all types of mulches annually to keep the beds looking their best.
By starting your herb garden in early summer, you not only stand to save a lot of money, but your new herbs will have a long time to develop roots for the coming winter months and there’s a good chance you’ll be using – and enjoying – fresh herbs within a few short weeks!
© 2013 Jill Henderson
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.