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Growing Herbs

If you're just starting out, and have no idea what I mean when I talk about soil pH or hardy perennials, then this is the section for you! Here I will discuss how to get started with your own herb garden, covering topics like Soil and Soil pH, Sun or Shade, Annuals versus Perennials, Hardiness Zones, Starting your Seeds, Transplanting, and finally, Container Gardening.


Soil
No mysteries here, we're talking about dirt! Basically herbs want moderately fertile, well-drained soil. Average garden soil is fine; make sure you add plenty of compost, well-rotted manure, shredded grass and leaves, and other organic material. Add your leaves and grass in the fall so they have a chance to break down and release nutrients; dig compost or OLD (not fresh--it will burn!) manure into the soil in the spring. You can also top-dress with compost once your plants have emerged. I never recommend using anything other than organic fertilizers; chemicals are simply too harsh and do too much damage to the soil and the organisms that live in it.
Once your plants are established, you can use mulch to help keep moisture from evaporating. Put down a layer of straw, hay, or grass clippings. If you do use grass clippings, try to mix them with a slightly looser material such as straw to keep them from forming a waterproof mat, and don't put them right against the stems of the plants. (Back to Top)
Soil pH
Soil pH is another factor to consider, although I have to admit I rarely worry about it and all my herbs are happy! This simply refers to the acidity level of the soil. Most herb plants prefer a pH of 6.5 to 7.0, which is neutral to slightly acidic. You can get small soil test kits at most nurseries, which will test for soil pH and a few nutrients, or contact your local extension office for a more thorough work-up. If you are gowing plants which prefer a different pH, such as lavender, rosemary, or eyebright (which prefer alkaline soil) or foxglove, arnica, or bloodroot (which prefer acid) you can change the pH of the soil by the type of amendments you add. Dolomitic limestone, wood ashes, or bonemeal with raise the pH (thus increasing the alkalinity); most organic material will lower it. (Back to Top)
Sun or Shade?
While most herbs are happiest in a sunny location, don't think that because your site is shaded you can grow nothing! Many of the herbs I've listed in the encyclopedia will flourish in a partly shaded location, and some even prefer shade! Herbs like catnip, chamomile, dill, parsley, and mint will grow happily in the shade; angelica, cardamom, chervil, ginseng, and violets actually prefer it. (Back to Top)
Annuals versus Perennials
This refers to how long the plant lives. Annuals live for only one year; they must grow, flower, and produce seed all in one year. Some common annuals are: basil, anise, German chamomile, nasturtium, and summer savory. Perennials are here to stay; they live for many years, producing flowers and seeds each year, although often a perennial will not flower its first year. Perennials need to be dug up and "divided" every few years; that is, gently break apart the root clumps into several smaller plants. Some common perennial herbs are: thyme, mint, sage, chives, St John's Wort, and lemon balm. Some perennials are not hardy, and so they are grown as annuals in the North; these are called tender perennials and include rosemary, aloe, and bay.
Of course just to confuse things, I'm going to throw biennials into the mix! These are plants which live for two seasons. The first year, they establish themselves; you generally will not see flowers this year. The second year they flower and go to seed, then they die. Parsley is a biennial, as is angelica, caraway, and foxglove. (Back to Top)
Hardiness Zones
Hardiness zones are a way of measuring the average winter temperatures where you live. The US Department of Agriculture has put together a map of the US divided into zones so that you can figure out what plants will grow in your area. Generally hardy plants will have a zone reference--hardy to zone 3, not hardy north of zone 6, and so on. If a perennial is hardy in your area, that means it will survive the winter. It may go dormant and look dead, or it may be an evergreen, but it will come back in the spring. If a perennial is not hardy in your area, you should expect either to get only one growing season from it (called growing as an annual)or to bring it indoors over the winter. Hardy annuals can be planted out early in the spring and will generally survive the first few frosts of fall; tender annuals need to be planted after all danger of frost is past, and will be killed by the first fall frost. You can find out the dates of your first and last frosts by consulting the extension service in your area. (Back to Top)
Starting your Seeds
Most herbs can be successfully started from seed, whether you start them indoors under lights or outside. Some, however, like parsley, borage, and the umbelliferous herbs like dill resent transplanting and should be sown where they are to grow. To start seeds indoors, you will need containers of some sort--jiffy pots, plastic flats like the nurseries use, styrofoam cups, or even milk cartons; a growing medium--most garden supply places will sell you something called germinating mix, or you can make your own from a mixture of potting soil, vermiculite, and peat moss; seeds; labels; and a light source ( an ordinary fluorescent bulb works fine!). Moisten your growing medium and fill the pots or flats about 3/4 of the way up. Plant seeds in clusters of 3 if you're using pots, or in rows about 2 inches apart if you're using flats. Cover them with a layer of soil about 2 to 3 times the diameter of the seed. Some seeds do need light to germinate and should not be covered: chamomile, angelica, dill, fevervew, lemon balm, and yarrow. Your seed packet will generally tell you this. Cover the pots with plastic wrap to keep the moisture in, and put them in a warm place. Once the seeds have sprouted, remove the plastic and move the pots to your light source. Keep the light as close as possible to the tops of the plants without burning them; this will ensure stout, sturdy seedlings instead of spindly ones. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings are about 2 inches tall, then allow it to dry between waterings. Thin the seedlings down to the strongest by snipping them with scissors at the soil surface.
To start your seeds outdoors, prepare your seedbed ahead of time. Make sure it is weed free, then rake it smooth, breaking up any clods. Scatter the seeds and cover them with a small amount of fine soil. Be sure to keep the seedbed moist as the seeds are germinating and the young seedlings growing. You will need to thin these down to the strongest as well. Keep the bed weed-free. (Back to Top)
Transplanting your Seedlings
Once the seedlings are 4 to 6 weeks old you can start to think about setting them out in the garden. Before you transplant them you will need to do what's called hardening them off, or get them accustomed to being outside. Put them outside in a sheltered location for an hour, gradually increasing the time until after about 10 days they are outside all day. This wil help prevent transplant shock once you do transplant them! If your seedlings are in flats, cut the soil in blocks around them before you begin hardening them off. The best day to transplant is one which is coolish and slightly overcast; again, giving the seedlings a chance to adjust before they have to face the blazing sun. Generally you should plant them as deeply as they were in their pots. If they are in jiffy pots or newspaper pots you can leave them in the pots, but be sure to cut slits so that the roots can get out. Make sure that the hole you have dug is big enough to take the whole block of potting soil without crumpling up the roots, and firm the soil gently around the plant. Water it in well, preferably by directing a spray of water at the dirt rather than at the plant itself. Keep them most for a few days until they have had time to adjust. (Back to Top)
Container Gardening
Don't think that you can't grow herbs just because you don't have a big plot of land suitable for a garden! Even city apartment dwellers can grow herbs in containers, whether in a sunny window or on a patio. Generally, unless it's a very large pot, I would stay away from growing things like "Mammoth Dill" simply because they tend to get away from you! But you can plant a window box ar a half whiskey barrel with your favorite cooking, tea, or medicinal herbs; or keep a few small pots on a sunny windowsill. My rosemary plants live outside during the summer, and winter over in the kitchen window in a pot. (Back to Top)

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