Raise Herbs Or Raise Bountiful Herbs

Raise Herbs Or Raise Bountiful Herbs

What gardener, or non-gardener for that matter, doesn’t love herbs one way or another? Herbs liven up and add new dimensions to otherwise bland dishes in our kitchen or tickle our noses with their pleasing scents in potpourri and toiletries. Herbs also help keep us healthy or make us feel better when we’re ill as commercially prepared medicines or home remedies or maybe just add visual interest to floral arrangements.

The world of herbs that are, or have been used by man for his benefit is one which encompasses literally thousands of members of the plant world. Yet most gardeners do not venture beyond a handful of foundational herbs, mainly used for cooking in their gardening efforts. This is unfortunate because the world of herbs in its entirety can be a broad and enjoyable pass time. For those seeking to stay within the confines of culinary herbs, the spectrum of unique tastes and qualities can be endless.

Along with the culinary uses, there are herbs for medicinal, aroma, dies, insect control, cosmetics and many more. If these reasons are not enough to tweak your interest in trying new herb varieties, consider these:

Collecting herbs can be an enjoyable pass time

Introduces the grower to many new and unique flavors, aromas and uses

Provides valuable knowledge about new plants

Can add visual interest to the garden and landscape

Collecting herbs is a pass time that can take more than a lifetime to explore

There are few gardeners that either do not or have not grown at least a few herbs. Unfortunately, far to many gardeners who have tried their hand at herbs have experienced results that were less than expected. This is unfortunate because most herbs in general and especially those most commonly grown, are less demanding than most of of the other crops you may grow with regularity.

The following information is not all inclusive and no one article or series of articles can encompass the whole of the world of herbs. It is perhaps unfortunate, but much of the success of using and growing herbs is based on experience. Experience that will be gained by getting in and trying many different herbs. There will be be successes and yes, there will be disappointments, but even these can be valuable.

1) Start with an understanding of what unique quality about the herb that you are seeking to extract. By this we mean is it a particular flavor for seasoning? And of this, is it a flavor from leaves, seed, bark or flower. Is it an aroma or medicinal quality? Each of these may require a little different approach to how you raise the herb.

While the medicinal qualities of herbs is not a subject of discussion here, it is prudent to offer this caution:

Caution: Herbs can and do offer many great qualities to enhance our health, cure illness, relieve suffering and in general enhance our quality of life. Herbs have few, if any negative side effects and are generally safe when used properly, but each individual may react differently to a particular herb. However, as with anything else, not all herbs are safe and/or appropriate for medicinal use in a given situation, either internally or externally. Additionally, many herbs will interact with commercially prepared drugs, often in adverse ways. Never use herbs for medicinal purposes without first consulting with a trained practitioner or medical professional.

Some of the most commonly grown herbs such as thyme, oregano, sage, rosemary, lavender (leaves) and the mint family rely on oils that develop within the plant that are called essential oils. These are concentrated and therefore much stronger with lesser amounts of water and fertilizer. Because the oils are less volatile under cool to normal conditions, these herbs are good candidates for drying for winter use. Other common herbs such as basil, cilantro, fennel, parsley, chives, dill weed (the leaves), tarragon and others have their flavors concentrated in the water-borne juices within the plant. This fact causes the herb to loose flavor quickly and therefore more suitable for fresh use and normally have a relatively short shelf life when dried.

Lastly, many plants serve a dual role of herb or vegetable and spice. For this writer the difference between an herb and a spice being this:

If the primary part used is vegetative, such as leaves and or flower, to me it is an herb.

If the primary part used is seed, bark, sap or root, to me it is a spice.

Of course there are exceptions to both of these and thus the reason why there is no consensus as to a clear definition between an herb and a spice. But anyway, if the primary part desired is the dried seed, bark and or stem, there may be a little difference in how you grow these. Some examples of these “dual-role” herbs would be: coriander (the seed of cilantro), fennel, carrot, celery, dill, anise and mustard. All of these things will need to considered when starting your herb garden.

2) Plan your herb garden well before making a commitment. For the most part, your herbs are going to need different growing conditions from your general garden. With herbs, it is flavor, aroma or other qualities other than fruit that you are seeking and many times these qualities can only be brought to their fullest by providing specific conditions that may not be suitable for your general garden.

Consider building raised beds or large containers for the majority of your herbs. Raised beds or containers provide you with the best way of controlling the soil, fertilizer and moisture. Raised beds also allow the gardener the opportunity to group herbs together that have similar growing conditions but containers allow the gardener to double the use of the herbs as a decorative element on a patio, deck or porch. Containers also allow the culinary gardener the added advantage of bringing the herb indoors for fresh use during the winter.

Location, location, location is of the utmost importance with most commonly used herbs. Beyond harvesting herbs for drying, most fresh herb use will be “spur of the moment”. By this I mean it won’t be until you need an herb that you will want to harvest a few sprigs for a culinary dish or possibly a medical need arises out of the blue. Most of the time it is not until a cook has a need of a particular herb that the herb gets harvested and when a dish is being prepared is not a good time to have to run out to a garden some distance from the house.

Exposure is another factor to be considered. The majority of the herbs you will grow will need a minimum of 12 to 14 hours of sunlight daily in order to perform well. While many herbs will tolerate some shade, the flavors may not develop fully with less than full sun. Another factor is drainage. The majority of the herbs you will grow will not tolerate poorly drained soils. For these, you will need to:

Increase drainage by removing the top soil and loosening the subsoil, adding organic matter and perhaps some sand or “pea gravel” (finely ground road gravel) and replacing the topsoil. amend the topsoil with compost or other organic matter. The finished growing area should be at least 12 to 14 inches deep.

Constructing raised beds, loosening the underlying soil and adding organic matter then filling the bed with soil that has been amended with organic matter.

Growing your herbs in containers.

3) Make a commitment to your herbs. For the most part, herbs require little attention. But the attention they need must be met at the time needed or an entire years work will be lost. Good examples of this are basil and cilantro. When it comes to basil, it will normally try to flower early in the year and the flowers will often appear almost overnight. Once flowering starts, the flavor within the leaves will quickly deteriorate and the plant will be lost for culinary use. However, the blooming plants make a great food source for bees and other pollinators, so you may want to grow some extras for them.

Cilantro is much the same, with the exception that you can normally only pinch them back so long and then they are going to seed no matter what. This point will normally be evidenced by a noticeable decline in the flavor of the leaves when they decide it’s time to flower. At that point, either remove the plant or let it seed normally and harvest coriander seed after the seed ripens.

4) Group your herbs according to the growing conditions they prefer. This is not a factor with container grown herbs, but if you grow and use many herbs, you will no doubt grow many of them in raised beds or at least beds dedicated to growing herbs. Raised beds are a great way to grow most herbs and they can be constructed for little or no money and from any material that is handy or appropriate. For most gardeners, two or more beds will be required. One for herbs such as thyme, sage, rosemary, etc., which will be kept dryer and leaner and one for herbs such as basil, cilantro, parsley, chives, etc. which will be kept moister and have regular applications of fertilizer.

5) Consider alternate uses for your herbs other than for culinary purposes. Many herbs, especially those of the “Umbelliferae” family are especially beneficial as a food and nursery source for many butterflies, predatory wasps and other beneficial insects. This group of herbs includes cumin, parsley, carrot, coriander/cilantro, dill, caraway, fennel, parsnip, celery, Queen Anne’s Lace and other relatives.

As butterflies are an integral interest for many gardeners, consider either planting extras or an entire second bed that can be a mix of many different herbs just for them. The first group of herbs for yourself should be kept sprayed with insecticidal soap to discourage insects or insecticides such as “Pyola®”, pyrethrum, Bt or other biological

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