Thursday, May 8, 2008

Herbs for Beginning Gardeners

Adapted from Pub. NE 208 published by the Cooperative Extension Services of the Northeast States

Beginning herb gardeners may have a problem deciding which herbs to plant because of the large number of herbs from which to select. A quick check of your supermarket shelf will give you some idea of the types of herbs used in cooking and also will serve as a planting guide. Many cookbooks also offer information on uses of various herbs as flavorings.

Following is a good variety of flavors and uses of recommended herbs for beginners:

Strong herbs -- winter savory, rosemary, sage
Herbs strong enough for accent -- sweet basil, dill, mint, sweet marjoram, tarragon, thyme
Herbs for blending -- chives, parsley, summer savory

As your interest and needs increase, you can add to the variety of herbs in your garden. Keep in mind that herbs can be annuals, biennials, or perennials when selecting herbs to grow for the first time.

Annuals (bloom one season and die) -- anise, basil, chervil, coriander, dill, summer savory
Biennials (live two seasons, blooming second season only) -- caraway, parsley
Perennials (overwinter; bloom each season once established) -- chives, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, tarragon,
thyme, winter savory.


Outdoor Herb Culture Tips

Most commonly used herbs will grow in the Northeast. If you have room, you can make herbs part of your vegetable garden. However, you may prefer to grow herbs in a separate area, particularly the perennials.

Herb Garden Size

First, decide on the size of your herb garden; this will depend on the amount of variety you want. Generally, a kitchen garden can be an area 20 by 4 feet. Individual 12- by 18-inch plots within the area should be adequate for separate herbs. You might like to grow some of the more colorful and frequently used herbs, such as parsley and purple basil, as border plants. Keep annual and perennial herbs separate. A diagram of the area and labels for the plants also will help.

Site and Soil Conditions

When selecting the site for your herb garden, consider drainage and soil fertility. Drainage is probably the most important single factor in successful herb growing. None of the herbs will grow in wet soils. If the garden area is poorly drained, you will have to modify the soil for any chance of success. To improve drainage at the garden site, remove the soil to a depth of 15 to 18 inches. Place a 3-inch layer of crushed stone or similar material on the bottom of the excavated site. Before returning the soil to the bed area, mix some compost or sphagnum peat and sand with it to lighten the texture. Then, refill the beds higher than the original level to allow for settling of the soil.

The soil at the site does not have to be especially fertile, so little fertilizer should be used. Generally, highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor. Plants, such as chervil, fennel, lovage, and summer savory, require moderate amounts of fertilizer. Adding several bushels of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil condition and retain needed moisture.

Sowing Herb Seed

Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Although rust infects mints, very few diseases or insects attack herbs. In hot, dry weather, red spider mites may be found on low-growing plants. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill, and fennel.

A few herbs, such as mints, need to be contained or they will overtake a garden. Plant them in a no. 10 can or bucket; punch several holes just above the bottom rim to allow for drainage. A drain tile, clay pot, or cement block also can be used. Sink these into the ground; this should confine the plants for several years.

Herbs can also be grown in containers, window boxes, or hanging baskets. These methods will require more care, especially watering.

If possible, sow seeds in shallow boxes in late winter. Transplant seedlings outdoors in the spring. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Sow anise, coriander, dill, and fennel directly in the garden since they do not transplant well.

Most biennials should be sown in late spring directly into the ground. Work the soil surface to a fine texture and wet it slightly. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows and firm the soil over them. Do not sow the seeds too deeply. Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory, or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Some of the larger seeds can be covered by as much as one-eighth of an inch of soil. With fine seeds, cover the bed with wet burlap or paper to keep the soil moist during germination. Water with a fine spray to prevent washing away of the soil.

Cutting and Division

Cutting and division also are useful in propagating certain herbs. When seeds are slow to germinate, cuttings may be the answer. Some herbs, however, spread rapidly enough to make division a main source of propagation. Tarragon, chives, and mint should be divided while lavender should be cut.

Harvesting Herbs

Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To ensure good oil content, pick leaves or seeds after dew has disappeared but before the sun becomes too hot. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick the seed heads as the color changes from green to brown or gray. Wash dirty leaves and seed heads in cold water; drain thoroughly before drying.

Winter Protection

Perennial and biennial herbs should be winter protected. Many herbs are shallow-rooted, which makes them susceptible to heaving during spring thaws. Mulch with straw, oak leaves, or evergreen boughs 4 inches deep to protect the plants. Apply the mulch after the ground has frozen in early winter. Do not remove the mulch until plants show signs of growth in early spring. Early removal could result in some early frost damage.


Indoor Herb Gardening

Herbs can also be grown indoors for year-round enjoyment. Growing herbs indoors is no more difficult than growing them in the garden.

Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as herbs grown outdoors -- sunlight and a well-drained soil mix that is not too rich.

Select a south or west window. Different herbs have different light requirements, but most need a sunny location; in winter, "grow lamps" or fluorescent lamps are helpful in supplementing light.

When planting, mix two parts sterilized potting soil and one part coarse sand or perlite. To ensure sweetness of the soil, add a cut of ground limestone per bushel of soil -- or 1 teaspoon of lime per 5-inch pot. There should be an inch of gravel at the bottom of each pot to ensure good drainage.

Consider the water needs of each herb. Growing plants need more water as do plants in clay pots or hanging baskets. Misting and grouping the plants on a tray of moistened pebbles will help keep them in a humid condition. Don't drench herbs -- avoid getting herb roots soggy.

Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you place them outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim, or keep it in a protected location on the porch or patio.

Herb plants need sun during the summer months, so place them accordingly. To prevent the loss of foliage and avoid plant damage, bring herbs indoors before frost. A light frost is helpful on mint, chives, and tarragon; it tends to induce a rest period and make the resulting new growth firm and fresh.

You can maintain an indoor herb garden indefinitely by periodic light feeding, yearly re potting, renewing annuals, seasonal moves outdoors for perennials, and occasional pruning. Water plants as needed. Use several planters or a divided one to allow for different moisture needs of plants.


Drying Herbs

If you have an herb garden, you'll find that home-dried herbs can be just as tasty as those bought at the store. However, proper handling is as important to the success of your herb harvest as good cultural practices.


Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering, so this is a good time to collect them for drying and storage. To be certain, check drying directions on specific herbs in a reliable reference book. Cut off the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has dried. Cut annuals off at ground level, and perennials about one-third down the main stem, including the side branches.

Wash herbs, with the leaves on the stems, lightly in cold running water to remove any soil, dust, bugs, or other foreign material. Drain thoroughly on absorbent towels or hang plants upside down in the sun until the water evaporates.

Strip leaves off the stalks once plants have drained and dried, leaving only the top 6 inches. Remove all blossoms.

Natural or Air Drying

Herbs must be dried thoroughly before storing. Herbs with high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags. Hanging leaves down allows essential oils to flow from stems to leaves. Tie whole stems very tightly in small bunches. Individual stems will shrink and fall. Hang in a dark, warm (70o-80oF [21.1o-26.7oC]), well-ventilated, dust-free area. Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly in about 1 to 2 weeks.

Drying Seeds

Seeds take longer to dry than leaves, sometimes as much as 2 weeks for larger seeds. Place seed heads on cloth or paper. When partially dry, rub seeds gently between palms to remove dirt and hulls. Spread clean seed in thin layers on cloth or paper until thoroughly dry.

You also can dry herb seeds by hanging the whole plant upside down inside a paper bag. The bag will catch the seeds as they dry and fall from the pod.

Over Drying

For quick oven drying, take care to prevent loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven at low heat less than 180oF (82.2oC) for about 2 to 4 hours.

Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds.

Silica Gel or Salt Drying

Silica gel or non iodized table salt can be used to dry or "cure" non-hairy leaves. Clean and blot dry leaves before placing them in a tray or shallow pan of the silica gel or salt. After the leaves have dried, approximately 2 to 4 weeks, remove the leaves from the drying material, shake off the excess material, and store them in glass containers. Before using, rinse leaves thoroughly in clear, cold water.

Another method of drying herbs is to remove the leaves from the plants, wash them, and spread them thinly on screens to dry, avoiding exposure to bright light. Cheesecloth makes a good screen material and stretches well.

Freezing Herbs

Herbs also can be frozen. Harvest herbs according to recommendations. Wash them thoroughly and blanch them in boiling, unsalted water for 50 seconds Cool them quickly in ice water and then package and freeze them. Washed fresh dill, chives, and basil can be frozen without blanching.


When completely dry, the leaves may be screened to a powder or stored whole in airtight containers, such as canning jars with tightly sealed lids.

Seeds should be stored whole and ground as needed. Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just before use.

For a few days, it is very important to examine daily the jars in which you have stored dried herbs. If you see any moisture in the jars, remove the herbs and repeat the drying process. Herbs will mold quickly in closed jars if not completely dry.

Once you are sure the herbs are completely dry, place them in the airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place away from light. Never use paper or cardboard containers for storage as they will absorb the herbs' aromatic oils.