Springtime Herb Gardening

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

Itís spring at last, and gardeners everywhere are beginning to fantasize about all those picture perfect fresh vegetables and herbs that their gardens will soon be producing. Since our farm is "home" to a small herd of deer with a fondness for vegetable plants, we will have to rely on our local farm markets for those wonderful summertime vegetables. Fortunately, however, deer avoid most herbs so we can have all the basil, parsley, and chives we can eat.

Now is the time to start planning your herb garden. A basic culinary garden can be planted in a 5-foot by 10-foot bed. Putting in a new bed is a perfect opportunity to have the soil tested. An inexpensive soil test kit will let you know exactly what you need to do to make your bed ready for growing herbs. They are available at the Adams County Extension Office located along the Old Harrisburg Road in Gettysburg.

As a rule, herbs need well drained soil. Most herbs like heat and at least 6 hours a day of direct sunlight. Parsley and mint will both do well in part shade. Keep in mind, however, that mint, because of its invasiveness, needs to be contained. For the majority of culinary herbs, a rich soil is not required; many of them grow naturally in extremely rocky soil along the Mediterranean. French tarragon, chives, and basil do seem to prefer a well amended soil. A couple of shovelfuls of well composted horse or cow manure mixed in with the soil around each plant will make them happy.

Some herbsóchives, sage, oregano, marjoram, and salad burnetócan be started quite easily from seeds on a kitchen windowsill. Dill and cilantro grow readily from seeds but do not transplant well, so should be sown in place. For the other culinary herbs, it is best to start with plants.

A basic culinary garden would include these perennials herbs: chives, French tarragon, thyme (French, English, and/or lemon thyme), oregano, sage, salad burnet (an underused cucumber flavored herb), and winter savory. Rosemary and marjoram are also perennials but not always hardy in this area. Due to its habit of going to seed early in the second year, parsley is best treated as an annual.

Summer savory is an annual with much the same flavor as its perennial counterpart. Cilantro and dill are self seeding annuals; let some go to seed in the garden for a continuous supply. Basil is also an annual and has been chosen by the International Herb Association as the Herb of the Year 2003. As a result, there will be many varieties available this year, along with the standard Sweet or Genovese basil we think of most often.

With the exception of basil, herbs can be planted in the garden by the middle of April. Basil is very sensitive to the cold and should not be planted before Motherís Day. It really needs warm soil to grow (60 degrees or more). Basil planted Memorial Day weekend will shortly be the same size as basil planted on Motherís Day.

Herb plants should be planted about a foot or a foot and a half apart. Larger plants, such as rosemary, sage, French tarragon, and savory need a little more space. When planting herb plants, fertilize with a 10-5-5 fertilizer according to instructions. Since too much fertilizer will yield lush but not very aromatic or flavorful plants, it is not necessary to fertilize again until midsummer or after taking a large harvest. Established perennial herbs are quite drought tolerant and need little, if any further watering. Annuals, however, should be watered like garden vegetables.

If you donít have enough space or sunlight for a garden dedicated only to herbs, you can still grow most of the culinary ones in deck or patio containers. Keep in mind that they will require more watering, however, and monthly fertilizing. Many of the culinary herbs can also be grown among vegetables in the garden. In fact, many are good companion plants for vegetables. Tomatoes and basil not only complement each other on the dinner plate but also in the garden. Additionally, there are many culinary herbs that make great landscape plants and can be planted among the flowers in the garden. Rosemary and sage add great texture in the garden. The colored and variegated forms of thyme and sage add welcome color.

Although some of us can only daydream about plucking ripe, lush tomatoes from the backyard garden, almost anyone can have fresh herbs for the picking. Now is the time to begin planning for that pesto!

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