Herb Garden: What is an Herb?

Herbs are a fascinating group of plants with a history of cultivation stretching back to the dawn of civilization. Once the herb garden was a practical project, necessary for supplying flavorings for the kitchen and medicines for the family. Today, gardeners are growing herbs for medicinal purposes and for their attractive looks, pleasing fragrances, and tasty flavors. Whether your interest is kindled by taste, aroma, beauty, or history, you’ll find herbs a satisfying addition to your garden.

What is a Herb?

 
Traditionally, herbs have been defined as plants that are useful to people. The oregano and thyme on your pizza are herbs just as the ornamental foxglove, from which we once extracted the medicine digitalis, is a herb. The insecticide pyrethrin is derived from the painted daisy, making it a herb as well. The list goes on and on; we use herbs and herb products every day.

Choosing Herbs:

In addition to a herb’s taste, aroma, and appearance, consider its preferred growing conditions when choosing what to grow. Herbs are such a diverse group of plants that broad generalizations are often misleading. Most herbs thrive in moderately fertile, well-drained soil in a sunny location; some do well in poor soil or partial shade, and a few tolerate soggy soil. Despite summer heat in your climate. If you live in a cold-winter climate and want to grow a herb that’s tender to your winters-rosemary, for instance you can grow it in a pot and overwinter it indoors. Plants adapted to the conditions of your area {soil, temperature, rainfall, and so on} are more likely to succeed for you and to require less care.

Herbs in the Home Landscape:

With such a wide variety of flowers, foliage, and forms to choose from, you can consider a herb for a spot in a flower bed or border just as you would any other annual, perennial, or shrub. Take advantage of aromatic herbs such as lavender, clary sage, and dianthus, which have scents that waft through the air, by placing them near seating or upwind of open windows. Place herbs with leaves or flowers that must be crushed to release their fragrance, such as mints and sage, within easy reach. If herbs can withstand light foot traffic, as do chamomile, pennyroyal, and oregano, plant them between flagstones on a path or patio. Plant herbs such as creeping thyme in soil that fills the spaces between stones in a wall or rocky outcrop. Use Santolina or creeping thyme as a sunny groundcover. The small stature, leaves, and flowers of a number of herbs fit nicely with the diminutive alpine plants traditional in rock gardens.

Getting Started with Herbs.

Herbs compromise annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees, and are grown and cared for like other members of their respective groups. You can buy plants from a nursery, or you can start many annual and perennial herbs from seed. Nursery-bought plants are your only option for true French tarragon, particular mints, and oregano, which need to be grown from cuttings or divisions to produce the desired characteristics. Depending on the herb, you can increase your supply of plants by dividing clumps in your garden or root cuttings. Planted in moderately fertile, well-drained soil, many herbs require little routine care after they’ve become established. Poor drainage is the bane of many herbs because soggy soil readily rots their roots {especially over winter} or harbors fungal disease. If your soil doesn’t drain well, consider growing herbs in raised beds or containers.

Herbal Knot Garden.

If you’re ambitious, consider an herbal knot garden. Knot gardens can be spectacular additions to your landscape, but they are time-consuming to make and can be tedious to maintain. If you’re interested in creating a knot garden, it’s worthwhile to visit one and talk with the gardener to find out what’s involved. A local nursery or garden club may be able to refer you to someone in your town who has a knot garden.
Knot refers to the interlocking geometric shapes-circles or diamonds, for example. The hedges appear to twine together, one over or under the other, like the strands in a knot. This is an illusion enhanced by careful planting and clipping where one hedge intersects another. In an herbal knot garden, the outline is usually made with low-growing evergreen herbs, such as germander or Santolina. The spaces they create are filled with other herbs, often with foliage or flowers in contrasting colors. You can make an herbal knot garden for purely decorative purposes or get double duty from it, planting the interior spaces with culinary or fragrant herbs. Remember that the appearance may suffer when leaves, flowers, or whole plants are harvested for use. Instead of herbs, you can also plant spring bulbs followed by annual flowers as fillers.

Making a Knot Garden:

First prepare the soil as you would for a new garden bed. Lay out the lines of the hedges using garden lime as “chalk” to draw the pattern on the soil surface. Create circles or arcs with string and a stake {the stake at the center, the string forming the radius}. Use straight pieces of wood or flexible garden hose to lay out the other shapes. Plant the hedge plants first; then fill in the centers. The hedge plants may take a season or two to grow together. Prune by cutting back the stem tips to encourage bushy growth. Pruning time and amount depend on the plants. A knowledgeable nursery staff member or herb gardener can help you select appropriate herbs for the hedges in your knot garden, as well as teach you the best pruning times and techniques.

Herbs: Container Gardens.

 Many herbs make excellent container plants. If your gardening is restricted to a patio or balcony, you can easily grow mints, chives, basil, parsley, and many other herbs in pots. Container planting also allows gardeners in cold-winter climates to move tender herbs such as sweet bay and rosemary inside for the winter. You can have fun combining plants in single pots, arranging groups of containers for best effect, and placing potted herbs in garden settings to provide interest. As long as they have the same sun and moisture requirements, you can combine different herbs {as well as other plants} in the same container. Try creeping thyme or chamomile as a ground cover for a sweet bay tree. Edge a pot of geraniums with curly-leaved parsley. Combine chives, parsley, and thyme in a window box or deck railing box.
Annual and tender perennial herbs are grown the same way as other container plants. Remember

 that containers must have drainage holes, the soil must drain well, the plants will need periodic fertilizing, and the containers may need watering as often as twice a day.

Perennial herbs and those that are shrubs or trees can be grown in pots, too. These plants need special care to keep them healthy from year to year. Overwintering herbs indoors in pots or growing them indoors year-round is problematic because light levels, even in south-facing windows, are seldom sufficient. Plants may survive, but growth and flavor will be weak and shoots and stems will be “leggy” {elongated with leaves spaced too far apart}.
To ensure robust health in overwintered herbs, grow them under fluorescent lights. Place them so that their top leaves are a few inches below the tubes, and keep the lights on for 16 to 18 hours a day. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. Fertilize plants that continue growing every month, but don’t fertilize plants that normally go dormant during the winter. As the plants grow, they’ll need to be pruned and re-potted in the same or larger pots.

Kitchen Herb Garden.

If your interests are culinary, grow herbs used for food and flavoring where they’ll be handy near the kitchen door. Such gardens are often small and laid out geometrically, but they can also be planted as a border along the back wall or around a patio. Divide the plantings into beds with narrow paths of wood chips or brick to emphasize the geometry and provide easy access.

Suggested Plants:

You’ll undoubtedly have favorite herbs you’ll want to plant, but consider including oregano, sage, chives, thyme, and tarragon. These perennials can form the foundation of the garden. Plan spaces for them first because they will remain in the garden for years and will spread considerably while they’re there. When they’re young, fill in spaces between them with annuals. {Place tall annuals where they won’t shade or crowd the young perennials.} Chives and oregano will self-sow everywhere if you let the flowers go to seed; instead, cut the flower stems when blooms are half-open, and hang them upside down to dry for use in indoor bouquets.
Must-have annuals for any herb garden are green- or purple-leaved basil, fern-like parsley, tall and airy dill, and leafy coriander, which is known as cilantro when grown for its leaves. Plant the annuals where you can clean them up in the fall without disturbing your perennials.
Several indispensable herbs are woody. Rosemary and lemon verbena are shrubs though they’re usually referred to as tender perennials. Sweet bay grows slowly into a tree. With the exception of a hardy rosemary named ‘Arp’, which survives in sheltered sites in Zones 7 or 6, none of the three overwinter in areas colder than Zone 8. If you live in a cold-winter region, plant these tender herbs in containers, or pot them up at the end of the season. Bring them indoors for the winter months. You’ll need to re pot both rosemary and sweet bay every two to three years because they get quite large as they mature.

Harvesting Herbs.

Herb leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season. Depending on the plant and your needs, you may gather just a few leaves or cut away half or more of its foliage. For some herbs, picking stimulates new growth and provides a long season of harvest. Harvest in the morning, when the dew has dried off the leaves but before the heat of the day has driven off some of the plant’s flavorful oils. Descriptions in the Herb Gallery offer specific information on harvesting certain herbs.

Herbs that you wish to use fresh will keep for a short time in a vase of water. Leaves can also be dried and stored for long periods. Bind small bundles of stems together with rubber bands, and place the bundles in a dry, well-ventilated place, out of direct sun. You can hang the bundles or place them on screens {for air movement}. Turn the bundles regularly to ensure uniform drying {and to check for mildew and mold}. When the leaves are brittle, strip them off the stems, and put them in lidded jars. Don’t crush the leaves until you use them; crushing releases their oils.
To collect herb seeds, harvest when the seeds begin to turn brown. Band seed stalks together in small bundles and put the bundles inside a paper bag tied around the stem. As they dry, the seeds will drop into the bag.
For other methods of preserving herbs, include oven drying, microwave drying, and freezing, contact your cooperative Extension Service or consult one of the many books devoted to herbs.
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