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How do I grow culinary herbs?
Growing your own herbs for fresh use in salads, soups, casseroles, dips and stews, to mention a few, has become quite popular. This has followed the realization that fresh, unlike dried, herbs have a more distinctive taste used fresh right out of the garden.
Raising herbs is quite simple. Typically they take little space and can be planted as companion plants in an existing bed or in containers, and can be placed most anywhere in the landscape or outdoor living area. Additionally, many common herbs are quite attractive and demand little regarding pest control and maintenance.
Many herbs, such as thyme, sage and winter savory, are perennial. Other herbs, such as rosemary and lavender, are perennial but tender and so must be grown as annuals. Some, such as parsley, are biennials, flowering in the second year before dieing. Before planting an herb garden, there are a few things you should do. The first is to check the soil drainage. Many herbs come from arid climates receiving little summer rainfall. These plants typically grow slowly and have a very pungent odor and taste. A few like lovage, sweet basil, and spearmint do well under wetter soil conditions. Arid climates commonly have soils with near neutral to alkaline conditions (pH 7.0 to 7.2). If you are planting perennial herbs, take the time to check the soil pH. This may be one of the few times that some lime should be added to the garden bed, but only after the test results are known. Proper growing conditions affect the production of essential oils on leaves, stems, and flower parts which gives them the aromatic essence we want.
Another helpful tip is to locate the planting in a cool but sunny area which receives at least 4 to 6 hours of full sun each day. Areas exposed to the morning sun are better than those areas with mid-day and afternoon sun. This is again because the flavorful oils are much more concentrated under cool growing conditions. East sides of homes, or shady afternoon areas, are ideal spots for an herb garden. If all you have is shade, you might try the more shade-tolerant lemon balm, oregano, parsley, lovage, comfrey or mint.
If the area is too shady for the herbs you want, try growing them in containers. This gives you great flexibility in positioning the plants for best light exposure. It also gives some portability for over-wintering half-hardy or tender herbs like sweet bay, lemon verbena, rosemary, lavender and pineapple sage in a protected, bright spot until spring. Another use for containers is to keep plants in bounds. Mint is notorious for being invasive, growing rampant in garden areas. Planting mint in a 12-inch drain tile or clay pot sunk in a garden bed will help keep it under control. A good container soil may consist of 2 parts soil mix to one part perlite.
Harvesting herbs is best done when the flower buds are just beginning to form, and always before they open. At this stage, the oils are at their highest concentration. The time of day to harvest also makes a difference. This should be done in the morning after the dew has gone and before the sun gets too hot. The heat causes the oils to evaporate from the leaves, lowering their smell and flavor. If washing is necessary, use cold water for the same reason. On the other hand, many good cooks pick their herbs when they need them.
HERBS FOR THE GARDEN
Basil - Annual, grown from seeds
Borage - Annual, grown from seeds, self-sowing, harvest leaves fresh
Chervil - Annual, grown from seeds, fresh/dried leaves
Chives - Perennial, seed or division, onion-like flavored leaves and flowers, fresh or dried
Dill - Annual, grown from seed, fresh leaves and seeds
Lemon Balm - Perennial, grown from cuttings, leaves
Lovage - Perennial, seed planted in late summer, strong celery taste to leaves
Marjoram - Annual, seed or cutting, fresh/dried leaves, perfume-like
Mint - Perennial, divisions or cuttings, container plant, some are invasive, fresh/dried leaves
Oregano - Perennial, seed or cutting, fresh/dried leaves/flowers
Parsley - Biennial, grown from seed, fresh leaves are best
Rosemary - Annual, tender evergreen, container plant, fresh/dried leaves
Sage - Perennial, seed or cutting, slow to grow at first, cut back every 3 years, fresh/dried leaves/flowers
Summer Savory - Annual, grown from seed, fresh/dried leaves
Tarragon - Perennial, division, prefers shade, use fresh leaves only
Thyme - Perennial, seed, cuttings, division, fresh/dried leaves, very aromatic
Winter Savory - Perennial, seed or cutting, fresh/dried leaves