Herbs, glorious herbs

Herb gardens have been cultivated by everyone from peasant housewives to master gardeners for centuries.  And why not? They can be easy to maintain and provide great fresh herbs for summer cooking and entertaining.

What’s an herb?
Botanists define herbs as seed plants that do not produce a woody stem like a tree.  But most of us think of culinary herbs – herbs that have strong flavours and a wide range of uses in cooking.  These include parsley, dill, sage, chives, basil, thyme, savory, marjoram, mint, oregano, and rosemary. Pick the herbs you’d like to use in your cooking and plant away!

Indoor herb gardening
Herbs can be grown indoors and enjoyed all year round. The critical factors in growing herbs are sunlight and soil that is well drained, and not too rich.  If the soil is too rich the herbs will grow large leaves but have less flavour and scent.

A south or west window is key.  Grow lamps can be helpful as well in winter.

Any container can be used to grow herbs as long as it has a drainage hole. Clay pots are often preferred because they are more porous than plastic.

Place about an inch of gravel in the bottom of the pot to ensure drainage.  Then add a mix of 2 parts potting soil to one part sand. If growing from seed, be sure to sow the seeds shallowly – generally the finer the seed the less soil you will want to cover it. If selecting seedlings, chose plants without blossoms and avoid tall “leggy” plants.

Water with a fine spray. It is important to water plants regularly but not to soak the soil. Because of the nature of container gardening, this may mean watering once or twice a day.

Small and slow-growing herbs look best in containers. Some of these include thyme, oregano, chives, purple sage, and summer savory.

Outdoor herb gardening
Nearly any amount of space – from a half-barrel at the side of the patio to a large plot – can be fashioned into an herb garden.  Again, sunlight and well-drained soil are key to success.  6 to 8 hours of sunlight are optimal.

If you don’t have an area with good drainage, remove the soil to a depth of about one and a half feet and place a 3 inch layer of crushed stone along the bottom excavated area.  Mix some compost, sand, or peat moss into the soil to lighten it before returning to the area.

Sow seeds in shallow boxes in late winter and transplant outdoors in the spring, after there is no chance of frost. 

Few pests affect herbs, so pesticides are not usually necessary. Aphids are, however, an exception so you may want to inspect your plants for them. Mulches can help in preventing weeds, but to be effective much be applied about 3 inches deep.

In planning your garden you can use almost any shape.  A traditional herb garden is usually a series of beds, often in rows, with walkways between them.  Another common shape for an herb garden is a pie shape, with beds forming each “slice” (some use an old wagon-type wheel with beds between the spokes).

One caveat: if planting mint, it’s best to plant the mint in a separate container as mint is extremely aggressive and will take over not only an herb garden, but a lawn as well.

Enjoy the fruit of your labour
Making use of your herbs is as simple as taking your kitchen shears to the plant to select leaves or springs for the grill that evening.  It’s a good idea to trim herbs frequently to encourage growth and in cases of annuals, such as basil, to prevent flowering. You can harvest up to 75 per cent of a plant at a time.

When harvesting outdoor plants, early morning is the best time to harvest to ensure the fullest flavour.

Two methods of preserving your herbs for later use are freezing and drying.

To freeze herbs, rinse them quickly in cold water, shake off the excess, then chop coarsely. Spread the herbs loosely onto a cookie sheet to freeze, then transfer the herbs into a large plastic bag and seal.  Do not re-freeze herbs after thawing.

Drying is a time honoured method of herb preservation. Rinse herbs in cold water, shake off the excess water, and spread the herbs out to dry on paper towels or dishcloths until any water on the surface has evaporated. Tie the stems into small bundles with twine or string and hang them upside down in a warm, dry, airy place out of the sun – sunlight will remove the flavour. Some herbs will grow mould if they are not kept in a dry place.

More information
Detailed information can be found at the following websites:

Growing Herbs for the Home Gardener

A Kitchen (Barrel Half) Herb Garden

Common herbs and tips for preserving