SELECTED VEGETABLE CROPS [continued]
Ch. 10, pp. 126 - 130
Crops: intro |
brussels sprouts |
sweet corn |
tomatoes | herbs |
herb use ]
Herbs have been used for seasoning, medicine, and sorcery for
thousands of years. Among the legendary varieties are henbane and
mandrake for witches' spells, St. Johnswort for casting out evil,
comfrey for healing, and Alchemilla (lady's mantle). Each leaf of
the Alchemilla gathers a drop of dew during the night; it was
believed that if the drops were gathered and used properly, they
would facilitate the process of alchemy - the making of gold from
base metals. Tarragon, rosemary, and thyme are among the most
ancient of seasonings, yet there are few culinary achievements
that can top good poultry roasted with these three herbs.
Most herbs can be grown successfully with a minimum of
effort. Several are drought-tolerant, some are perennials, and
many are resistant to insects and diseases. They are versatile
plants, providing flavors for seasoning food and fragrances for
room-freshening potpourri. And with their enticing scents, diverse
textures, attractive shapes, and countless shades of green and
gray, herbs are often used to make a landscape that appeals to the
senses of touch and smell as well as sight.
The classic use for herbs in the landscape is the
formal garden. Many intricate designs have been drawn and planted
using the beauty of herb plants to enhance the pattern of the
garden; diamonds, compasses and knots are among the most popular
designs. The knot garden is especially intriguing; herbs with
various textures and colors are planted carefully and trimmed
neatly to create the appearance of ropes looping over and under
each other. The effect is striking, especially when viewed from an
upper-story window. Theme gardens are also popular. There are
Biblical gardens, scent gardens, tea gardens, witch's gardens,
kitchen gardens, and apothecary gardens, to name a few.
When selecting a site to plant your herbs, keep in mind that most
culinary herbs are native to the Mediterranean region and
therefore prefer full sun, good air circulation, and well-drained
Start with a small herb garden that can be easily
constructed and maintained, but leave space around it so that you
can plan its expansion during the long, cold months of winter.
Choose a soil that is fertile and loamy for best results; although
many of the herbs will live in poor ground, for the healthiest
plants and best harvest, they need good soil to thrive. Most herbs
require a soil pH of 6.3 to 6.8 for optimum growth, but lavender
prefers a pH of 6.5 to 7.0
Prepare the soil to a depth of 8 inches. If it is heavy
or has poor drainage, amend it with composted organic matter.
Raised beds are an excellent solution to this problem. Fill them
with a mixture of the heavy soil and the suggested amendments, or
use a pre-mixed, soilless potting medium.
Plant perennial herbs in an area which will not be
disturbed by tilling. Those that spread by runners, such as the
mints, should be given a large, isolated area or must be contained
in some fashion (to a depth of ten to twelve inches) to prevent
them from taking over the garden.
Some tender perennials need protection from winter
winds. Plant on an eastern exposure, if possible. Evergreen trees
and shrubs can be used to break the wind and create a "microclimate"
for the herbs. Rocks are often incorporated into the design of
herb gardens to provide focal points and windbreaks, and to help
keep roots cool and moist during the heat of summer.
Many perennial varieties may be started from seed, though it is
much easier to get plants from your local nursery or a reputable
mail-order company, propagate them from root divisions or cuttings
taken in the summer, after new growth has hardened. Root cuttings
in a window box or some other suitable container, preferably
covered with plastic to maintain high humidity. About 5 inches of
clean, coarse sand is a good rooting medium. Keep the sand moist
and out of direct sunlight when the plants are young. In 4 to 6
weeks, move the plants to pots or cold frames for the winter.
Transplant all herb plants after danger of severe
frost. Control weeds during the growing season to prevent
competition for water and nutrients which are needed by your
herbs. A light mulch (about one inch) will conserve soil moisture
and help control weeds.
Most of the herbs that have a mature height under 12
inches may be grown in 6-inch pots as indoor plants. There are
many dwarf varieties of the larger herbs that would be appropriate
indoors, as well. Basil `Spicy Globe,' dwarf sage, winter savory,
parsley, chives, and varieties of oregano and thyme are some of
the best for window sill culture. When given proper care in a
sunny window, they will supply sprigs for culinary use through all
seasons. When cooking, use greater quantities of fresh herbs;
although they often have better flavor than dried herbs, they are
usually not as strong.
Although many herbs are considered drought-tolerant, some moisture
is needed to maintain active growth. For a continual supply of
fresh-cut herbs, periodic irrigation during dry periods is needed.
As with all plants, a thorough watering with a period of drying is
preferred over frequent sprinkling. Annual herbs require a higher
level of available soil moisture than most perennial herbs.
Proper nutrient balance is very important. Weak,
succulent growth can be caused by over-fertilization, making the
plant susceptible to disease and insect pests. Rapid growth also
dilutes the concentration of essential oils that impart the
distinctive flavor to the culinary herb. Inadequate fertilizer can
severely limit new growth, predisposes the plant to insect and
disease problems, and increases the susceptibility of tender
perennials to winter injury. A light application of fertilizer to
perennials in early spring should promote new root and shoot
growth and ensure vigor in the new growing season.
Generally, adequate herb growth can be achieved with
1/4 to 1/2 the nitrogen recommended for vegetables in your area.
Sequential harvests of annual herbs will be facilitated by light
applications of fertilizer after each heavy harvest
The high concentration of essential oils in healthy,
actively growing herbs repels most insects. However, aphids and
spider mites can be a problem. Aphids seem to be more prevalent in
crowded conditions with rapidly growing, succulent plants. Spider
mites thrive in dry conditions, and can be controlled by spraying
the plants with plain water at regular intervals, especially
during periods of drought. Since there are very few labeled
pesticides for use on herbs, the best defense against pests is
preventative cultural management, such as good sanitation, removal
of weak or infested growth, and regular pruning.
Periodic, judicious pruning promotes vigorous, sturdy
plants that are less susceptible to disease and winter injury. If
they are allowed to grow unchecked, some herbs will take on a
gangly, unkempt appearance. If you are lavish in your use of
herbs, regular harvesting for use in cooking, potpourri, and
flower arrangements should keep your herbs sufficiently pruned.
It is best to harvest your herbs in the morning, just after the
dew has dried, but before the sun gets hot. The concentration of
essential oils is highest at this point. Harvest your herbs for
fresh use all season, but for drying, cut just before the plants
bloom. This will ensure the maximum concentration of essential
oils. When harvesting, cut just above the first joint of tender
growth - it takes the plant longer to send out new shoots from
Stop making large harvests of the perennial herbs in
late summer or fall. This will allow time for new growth to harden
and gather carbohydrates in preparation for winter. However, small
harvests can be made during most of the fall. Sage flavor may
actually be improved by two or three frosts prior to harvest.
If you are interested in saving seed for the next
season, choose one or two plants of each variety and allow them to
bloom and go to seed. Harvest the seed heads when they change from
green to brown or gray, and dry them thoroughly to ensure a good
The best dried herbs are those that have been dried rapidly, but
without excessive heat or exposure to sunlight.
When harvesting to dry, it is often necessary to spray
the plants with a garden hose the day before cutting to clean dirt
and dust off the leaves. The next morning, after the leaves have
dried, make your harvest. Remove dead or damaged leaves and make
small bunches of the herbs. Tie the stems together and hang them
in a temperate, well-ventilated, darkened room which has little
dust. Label each bunch, since several of the herbs look similar
Herbs may also be dried by removing the leaves and
spreading them in a single layer on cookie sheets or foil, though
it is preferable to use trays made of window screening for maximum
air circulation. Again, remember to label the different varieties
for accurate identification after drying.
Herb leaves are dry if they crumble into powder when
rubbed between your hands. When the drying process seems to be
complete, fill a small, glass container with the herb and seal.
Put it into a hot oven for about fifteen minutes (or microwave it,
don't use a metal cover!) for about 5 minutes) and then check for
condensation on the inside of the jar If there is moisture
present, let the rest of the herbs dry some more; if your harvest
is not completely dry when stored it may succumb to molds. If
necessary, herbs may be dried on cookie sheets in an oven set for
110 degrees F or less, though there is some loss of essential oils
using this method.
When completely dry, store whole leaves in air-tight
containers, preferably of dark glass or some material that will
not let in light, in a cool to temperate place out of direct
sunlight. This will ensure good flavor and color in your
seasonings. To conserve essential oils, do not crush the herb
until you add it to your cooking.