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Grow Herbs for Fun and Flavor

I’m a Horticulturalist so I’m not supposed to favor one type of plant over another, but I have to confess that I’m crazy about herbs. They are a delight to grow, not only for their diverse flowers, scents and forms, but because they are the simplest group of plants to cultivate. Herbs have an air of mystery about them, some folklore and some true, but the growing of them is not a mystery. They are born survivors and if you are new to gardening I would encourage you to start with herbs because success is almost guaranteed.

Many parts of herbs are used for various reasons. Foliage is the most commonly used part of an herb (think culinary herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme), but other parts such as stems, roots, flowers, seeds and bark all can be used. Most herbal flowers are edible, but flowers are also used for the distilling of essential oils, which are not to be ingested. Seeds, berries and fruits are used in cooking or for making teas; these parts require a longer simmering process to unlock their flavors. Stems are the parts of the plant visible above the ground; roots, rhizomes, tubers and bulbs are the parts below the ground.

Horticultural Practices

Caring for your herbs simply means following proven horticultural practices that are research-proven techniques to provide maximum garden success while preserving and protecting the environment. These practices include soil preparation, the use of mulch, planting your herbs where they will receive sunlight at least four to six hours a day, watering and fertilizing, pruning and harvesting methods.

Raised beds make gardening easier in McKinney. The soil warms faster, so you can get a head start before the hot weather arrives, and using raised beds allows you to influence the quality of the soil. Organic matter such as compost is an essential ingredient in soil health. It improves the soil by breaking up clay particles, feeds the microorganisms that make nutrients more readily available, and also supplies some nutrients to plants. If your budget allows, expanded shale is useful in loosening tight clay soils and making them more workable.

Mulch is an important part of successful gardening; it helps control weeds, prevents erosion and soil compaction, conserves soil moisture and prevents crusting of soil, regulates soil temperature by avoiding extremes in temperature, and keeps plants cleaner because it avoids soil splashing up on the leaves of the plant (a source of disease ausing pathogens). The use of shredded hardwood mulch adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme and lavender benefit from a mulch of pea gravel because the use of hardwood mulch close to their stems may cause rotting; and the pea gravel reflects light up into the plant (adding a layer of landscape fabric will keep the pea gravel from migrating into the soil).

The amount of light that a plant receives is important to its growth; in fact, I consider it the most limiting factor to plant health. Too little and plants fail to thrive, too much and they burn up. Plants vary in their light requirements, but in general, herbs require at least a half day of sun, preferably morning light with afternoon protection. There are some herbs that will tolerate light shade such as chervil, chives, lemon balm, lemon, mints, Mexican mint marigold, parsley, pineapple sage, St. John’s Wort and violets.

Watering efficiently is important to conserve water, and for the health of the plant. Plants vary in their water needs; for instance, basil and mints love a daily drink, while rosemary and lavender not so much so. The goal is to replenish water used by the plant and water lost through evaporation. A sign that plants need water is slight wilting of the leaves in the morning. It’s best to water the plant thoroughly and then allow it to slightly dry out. Applying water at the root zone through drip irrigation or soaker hoses reduces evaporation and disease problems associated with wet foliage.

Grouping plants according to their sun and water needs is efficient and smart.

Here are some plants that are good neighbors and will grow well together:

Sunny and Dry: Dill, Lavender, Marjoram, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Winter Savory

Sunny and Moist: Basil, Bay, Calendula, Lemongrass, Lemon Verbena, Mexican Mint Marigold, Oregano, Pineapple Sage, Salad Burnett, Stevia

Shady and Moist: Chervil, Chives, Cilantro, Lemon Balm, Mexican Mint Marigold, Parsley, Pineapple Sage

Did you notice that Mexican Mint Marigold and Pineapple Sage are listed under both sunny and moist and shady and moist? This sometimes happens with plants.

Many people never fertilize their herbs and that’s okay; adding organic matter to the soil will supply herbs with most of their nutrient needs. But, if your budget allows, I have found that herbs will be at their tastiest if given a little fertilizer at the time of planting, and at least once more during the growing season. Some herbs, like basil and chives do best when fertilized once a month while they are actively growing.

Pruning is done on a regular basis as you snip herbs to add to your food. Pinch pruning is constantly nipping out the shoot tip; this is how most herbs are pruned. Chives, cilantro and parsley are the exception; the leaves need to be cut close to the ground (but never remove more than 1/3 of the plant). Pruning encourages new growth and a stocky, well branched plant.

Planting Guidelines

The general guidelines for planting herbs is very much like most other plants. Watering the plant the day before allows the tissues to become turgid (full of water) and helps reduce the shock of transplanting. Schedule to plant just before the sun goes down (or on an overcast day) to reduce the amount of transpiration (loss of water). Plant at the same depth that the plant was previously grown and water well (especially for the first week), so the transplant gets off to a good start.

Annuals: Basil, Borage, Calendula, Chervil, Cilantro, Dill, Florence Fennel, Nigella, Pelargoniums

Biennials: Clary Sage, Evening Primrose, Luneria, Mullein, Parsley, Sweet William

Perennials: Artemisia, Bay, Catmint, Chives, Echinacea, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Mints, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, St. John’s Wort, Thyme, Violet, Winter Savory

Tender Perennials: Lemon Verbena, Pineapple Sage, Tarragon, (some) Lavenders

I love these wise words from the revered Texas Herbalist Madalene Hill (Southern Herb Growing):

“The fascinating plants we call herbs look and smell today much the same as they have for countless ages. Indeed, much of the allure of herbs is their antiquity. In a world full of feverishly rapid change, people on planet Earth are taking comfort in old things, herbs not the least among them.”

I hope you will be encouraged to grow some herbs for you and your family to enjoy!

Special thanks to Mary Nell Jackson who assisted with some of the information in this article.

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