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Gardening Basics – A Little Bit on Herbs

herb potsOne of the easiest and most rewarding things for a gardener to grow is a selection of herbs. It’s fun to use your own fresh herbs in cooking, they are interesting to learn, the most common ones all have the same growing requirements, and animal pests tend to leave them along.

First, cooking. That is when you make your own meal from a series of ingredients instead of buying in at McDonald’s or tossing a frozen bag of pasta into the microwave. Just thought you might want to know. It takes a combination of time and thyme, but on those days when the weatherman has you cowering inside from the elements (Rain today, run for your lives! Hot today, for goodness sake don’t go out there!!), it can be fun to spend some time following a classic Julia Child recipe instead of downloading apps onto your I-phone. But that’s just me.

Anyway: more on herbs as I understand them. Spices and edible herbs are used for flavoring food. Spices are tropical, are often seeds, and often come from trees, shrubs or vines (pepper; cinnamon which is tree bark; vanilla which is the seed pod of an orchid). Our common herbs are more temperate in origin, and look like your standard garden plant, sometimes annuals, usually perennials.

Just because something is called an herb DOES NOT MEAN IT IS EDIBLE. Herb usage was traditionally medicinal, the province of shamans, monks and witches; the flavoring aspect was just a byproduct. (Take two leaves and call me in the morning, if you’re still alive.) Example: Rue is one of the herbs that is usually sold at garden centers. It’s a pretty blue-leaved plant, but can cause a dermatitis reaction like poison ivy on some people (you will rue the day…). So, once you step away from the common herbs like basil and thyme, Google that bad boy before you throw it in the soup.

Right off, I can’t think of any that are North American in origin; they often come from the Mediterranean area, basil originally from India I think. On the whole, they do best in full sun and need good soil drainage. The flavoring frequently comes from oils that develop most strongly in hot weather. That’s why your basil tastes better in the summer than in the winter. When dried, some herbs hold the flavor, others lose it, especially the leafy herbs. That’s why dry basil and parsley are not as good as say, dried rosemary.

Harvest your herbs early in the day for best flavor. Growing them on a sunny windowsill? Some herbs are okay in a south window, but especially in winter, it’s going to be tough to have enough light for them to thrive or develop much flavor.
The strong flavors of herbs should repel deer, so if you have deer problems, try planting some sage or thyme. Let us know if they graze on your basil. We keep lists.

A good place to see herbs in action, so to speak, is at the huge herb garden at the National Arboretum in DC. Depending on what they have going on this year, will be able to observe things like which lavenders or rosemary varieties do better in our climate, and which herbs are more ornamental. The herb garden is near the visitor center and the Bonsai pavilion. The Arboretum is free, of course, and well worth a trip any time of the year.

For beginners, basil is a great plant, and can easily be grown in a pot on a sunny deck. It is an annual, it grows fast, and you harvest the leaves and soft tips. As the summer progresses and the plant matures, clip off the flower spikes and discard them. Make your own pesto. Probably okay to plant now. They are notorious for rotting off at the soil line in cool weather.
Also easy to grow: parsley (grow as an annual); dill (annual); fennel (seeds out badly, watch out for this one); chives (perennial); thyme (perennial); sage (perennial); oregano (perennial); and French Tarragon (perennial).

Rosemary and lavender: perennial but touchy; siting in good drainage is critical, and for rosemary, some varieties are more winter hardy than others. We have a huge rosemary shrub at the exit at our garden center in Beltsville. It is in a raised bed with great drainage, and has the heat of a poorly insulated building for company in winter. Here’s hoping you try some herbs this year!

Stephanie Fleming

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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