Gardens touch the senses. A garden may reach all five senses or it may be designed to fit a specific purpose. Some look good, some smell good, some taste good, some have interesting textures, and some provide a quiet setting where peace and tranquility abide.
Herb gardens naturally fit the bill in terms of stimulating the senses. They can be placed in gardens just for herbs or they can be added to gardens devoted to the beauty of food. They add fragrance, color and texture.
You find them everywhere — growing in garden plots, container gardens and window boxes. From there they find their way happily to bouquets, crafts and for use in medicines. We choose them for their scent, spice or soothing characteristics.
The term “herb” refers to a wide array of different plants, so when we talk about growing herbs, we are talking about a host of different plants. Just the same, herb gardening is a rewarding gardener-friendly activity. The National Garden Bureau has proclaimed 2012 as the Year of the Herbs to celebrate the endless world of herbs. We are all familiar with herbs whether we think about it or not. If you’ve browsed a cookbook, smelled an air freshener, brushed your teeth, spritzed some perfume, or used a breath mint, you have had a brush with herbs today. Holly Shimizu, director of the U.S. Botanic Garden, provided an accurate definition of herbs characterized by their use as “plants (trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, biennials or annuals) valued historically, presently, or potentially for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.”
In times past, doctors treated many maladies using herbs from a medicinal herb garden. Today’s doctors also treat many maladies with herbs or herb extracts found in pills, shots and other medicines. Ancient records show that Egyptian people had an understanding of the medical value of herbs as early as 3500 B.C. Chinese legend says that an emperor, Shen-Nong, tasted hundreds of herbs and the civilization developed herbal practices beginning around 2737 B.C. Ancient Greek and Roman cultures also used herbs for healing. Hippocrates classified herbs according to their usefulness in treating illnesses sometime between 460 and 377 B.C. In the Middle Ages, herbs were used to treat illnesses, but the decisions on how to use them were as much based on superstition as scientific evidence. The poor could not afford herbs imported from faraway places so they did the best they could with locally grown plants. In the Renaissance, herbal knowledge grew and spread rapidly through Europe. By 1652, Nicholas Culpeper documented medicinal remedies used in Europe to create a reference book available for use by anyone who needed the information.
When Columbus found America in 1492, he opened a door on a vast new source of herbs and herbal information. Native Americans had been using herbs from the Americas in healing and cooking for many centuries before Columbus found them.
To grow herbs, choose a sunny location. Few of them grow in areas with low light although when you choose those, be sure to place them accordingly. Seed packets should provide information on the ideal growing conditions for a specific plant.
Work your soil to provide the best possible conditions. Ideal soil is a mixture of silt, sand and organic matter with a fairly neutral pH level. Soil should be loose, well-drained and fertile. Few of us have soil that fits those descriptions and all of us in this valley must deal with an alkalinity problem. Improve your soil by adding compost to loosen it, improve fertility and increase drainage and improve water-holding capacity.
You will need to fertilize your plants according to variety and your soil. For the most part, herbs are pretty thrifty in terms of fertilizer use so you may find that adding compost or manure to the soil will do enough. Additional fertilizers can be applied sparingly as needed.
Water as needed, considering the needs of the particular variety of plant you are choosing. Some species like lavender, thyme and oregano like to be on the dry side, while others need more moisture. Check this before you plant and arrange the plants so that those with similar requirements are together. This saves water (we tend to water beds according to the thirstiest plant) and will help the plants grow better.
When planting tender young seedlings, you will need to water somewhat frequently, but as the plants mature, water more deeply and less often. This encourages deep rooting and helps plants adapt better to drought, heat and low humidity.
Use mulch to help maintain soil moisture and reduce the need for frequent watering.
Harvest your plants according to how you plan to use it and the season of the year. For optimum freshness, harvest in the morning after the dew has dried or in the early evening when the air temperatures have begun to cool. In midday, plants will be somewhat stressed for moisture and the essential oils are not as concentrated as they are in early morning or evening.
Avoid harvesting plants too late in the season when they have passed their prime.
Clipping herbs is one method of pruning and encouraging bushy growth. Use disinfected pruners to clip stems leaves or flowers and remove only the part of the plant needed. Clipping long growth shapes the plant.
Put the clippings in a paper bag or a bucket of cold water after you harvest and before you take them inside to use or store them.
Future columns will discuss more about specific herbs and their uses.