Herb growing combines the delight of the flower garden with the yield of the vegetable garden. The results are a decorative, excellent in aroma and flavor and inexpensive garden.
Many herbs are graced by attractive foliage and a scent ranging from the fresh, citrus tang of lemon balm to the aroma of fennel and the sweet apple perfume of chamomile. Historically, herbs have been used for flavoring and preserving food, and for making medicines and toiletries. Their aesthetic appeal has always been important too, and their ornamental qualities, as well as their practical uses, are of equal value.
Although fresh and dried herbs are widely available, they rarely have as fine an aroma or flavor as those harvested from a home garden. Growing herbs combines the joy of the flower garden with the production of a vegetable garden. Most herbs flourish and require little attention once established.
Most herbs are grown in full sun or with light afternoon shade. Herbs need loose, rich well-drained soils. If grown in a container use one of the commercially prepared potting mixes.
Maintaining herbs consists of cutting back plants in the spring and summer to encourage healthy growth and cleaning-up dormant plants in the winter. Herbs also need routine watering and feeding during the growing season.
Herbs that are valuable for their fresh foliage may be cut back to produce a regular supply of new leaves. Flowering stems should be removed as they appear such as with sorrel. Chives and oregano may be left until after flowering because the flowers are attractive and useful as flavoring. Variegated forms of marjoram, mint and lemon balm will fade; however, they produce bright new foliage if the plant is cut back hard after flowering.
The growth of invasive herbs should be checked regularly, such as peppermint and spearmint. Even when these herbs are planted in sunken containers, they produce surface runners that should be removed before they spread too far. Remove any reverted, plain shoots from variegated herbs as soon as they appear.
Unless the gardener is planning to save seeds, the dead flower heads should be removed from most herbs. This prevents energy from going to the seed and channels it to the growth of the plant. Deadheading annuals such as borage lengthens the flowering season. Certain herbs such as angelica self-sow prolifically, so be careful they don’t become a nuisance if left to set seed.
Deadhead and prune shrubby herbs such as lavender and thyme by trimming lightly with shears after flowering. Hard pruning in spring encourages side shoots and new growth from the base that makes for a fuller plant.
Mulch should be used only on established herbs that thrive in moist soils, such as mint and bee balm. In summer, mulch after a rain or heavy watering to retrain moisture and enrich the soil as it breaks down humus. Use inorganic mulch such as volcanic rock around Mediterranean or gray-leafed plants in heavy clay soils to reduce the risk of rotting. This rock should not be used around other herbs because the rock will increase temperatures higher than most herbs can tolerate.
There are no guidelines on how herbs can be cut back in the fall. If the weather forecast suggests an extremely cold winter, leaving the dead foliage of perennial herbs until spring helps to protect them against cold and windy weather. Remove any dead leaves that have fallen around the herbs to prevent fungal diseases.
In cold weather, any tender herbs should either be brought indoors or otherwise protected. In spring, cut them back and plant them out again or propagate new plants from cuttings. The hardiness of a number of herbs such as sage and lavender varies according to the species or variety. When purchasing herbs, be sure to check the cold hardiness of that particular variety.
Jim Coe lives in Lawton.