Growing herbs provides a great way for new gardeners to try their skills. Herbs are one of the easiest types of plants to grow and are so versatile and delicious when harvested. Growing herbs can be as simple as a single terra cotta pot with one type of herb, such as basil or parsley, or could be as complicated as a beautiful herb knot garden containing as many herbs as space allows. Many experienced gardeners will endeavor to recreate a medicinal herb garden they have read about in history or a historical novel. Other gardeners may choose to duplicate the beautiful English herb garden. In either case, these gardens are simple, carefree, and rewarding.
Growing herbs is not a new endeavor. Herbs were originally grown for medicinal purposes and for dyeing cloth but are now mainly grown for fragrance, adding special flavors to food, or just simply to add beauty to the landscape, as many varieties offer beautiful blooms and interesting foliage with variegated or silver leaves. Herbs trace their roots to the hot, dry conditions of Mediterranean Europe. These ideal conditions are duplicated in the Midlands. Herbs thrive in well-drained light soils, which many areas of the Sandhills naturally provide. However, you can easily amend the soils in other areas of the Midlands to give herbs the kind of environment they need to grow and thrive. Herbs are easy to grow if given the right combination of soil type and sun exposure. Many of the shrubby perennial herbs, such as rosemary, will last for years if planted in the right soil and given protection from drying winter winds.
Herb Garden Preparation
Herbs thrive in light, well-drained soil with a pH of 6 to 7. Garden pH can be determined by sending a soil sample to the Clemson Extension for examination. For a small fee, Clemson will examine the soil and will send a written report giving the soil make up, and if you note that the soil is being tested for an herb garden, they may suggest what additives to apply if needed. Most of our soils in the Midlands are conducive to growing herbs. If the soil is heavy, simply add play sand to the area. If the soil is too thin, add some weed-free organic matter such as mushroom compost. Be careful not to add too much mulch to the planted herb garden. The mulch can hold moisture and cause the herbs to rot. The herbs want to get a healthy drink of water once a week and drain completely and dry out before their next drink.
A raised bed provides an excellent means for successfully growing herbs. Herbs growing in raised beds drain well and evenly and will not rot because of too much standing water. You can easily control and mix the soil in a raised bed. Garden soil purchased from the nursery may be heavy, so remember to add sand to aid in drainage. Also add a shallow layer of pebbles in the bottom of the raised bed to keep the water flowing and drainage possible. It is easier to harvest herbs for cooking in a raised bed because they are at a higher level, which means less bending. Avoid planting them any deeper than the height they were planted while growing in their nursery pot.
Most herbs thrive in as much sun as possible but also benefit from the shelter of shade from the late afternoon broiling sun in our Midlands gardens. Plant tender, young plants on a cloudy day. Make sure the soil has been dug and raked level. Remove any weeds because they will grow vigorously and choke out the new, young herbs. Water gently with a watering wand after planting the tender, young herbs in the ground. Be careful not to drown the plants during the first weeks they are in the ground.
Hardy perennial herbs such as rosemary should optimally be planted in February, March, October, or November. However gardeners are fortunate in the Midlands that most herbs can be planted year-round. Cool weather annual herbs such as parsley can be planted in February, March, September, and October. Warm weather annual herbs such as basil should be planted after the threat of frost, usually the week after Good Friday. Some annual herbs can actually be planted as seeds directly into the garden. Basil has proven to be the easiest to sow directly into the garden soil. After the basil seeds germinate, thin the young shoots or they will overcrowd each other and will not thrive.
At the grocery store or nursery, peruse the herb seeds that are for sale. Choose three to four packets and start an herb garden in a large container. Make sure the container has good drainage and quality, well-drained soil. Spread the assortment of herb seeds on top of the soil and cover with 1/2 inch of the soil. Water gently and place in a sunny spot. The seeds should sprout in 10 to 12 days. Thin the seedlings as needed, and in a month you will have your own herb garden in a pot. This gardening project is great for beginning gardeners or children. It is easy and rewarding! It would be the perfect project to do with children to give to their mothers or grandmothers for Mother’s Day.
Herbs require as little care as possible in the gardening realm. If the herbs are planted in the ground, weed growth can be a serious problem so take care to keep the weeds under control. After the plants are established or hardened-off, weekly, gentle watering should be adequate. During the hot months of July and August, supplemental watering may be necessary. If any of the annual herbs such as basil or dill looks tired during the long, hot summer days, simply cut the plants back and they should thrive again when it begins to cool off in September. Blooms should be pruned off annual herbs to keep them producing leaves. However if herbs are purely for decorative purposes, then by all means let them bloom away. If using the herbs to create a hedge such as a rosemary or germander hedge, then regular pruning and trimming is necessary. A strong pair of very sharp scissors is the best tool for this task.
Artemisia — adds beautiful silver foliage to the garden.
Sweet bay — small tree that produces thick, green leaves that are a wonderful spice to add to soups and sauces.
Bee balm — member of the mint family that can be invasive. Some use the leaves for tea.
Chives — adds a delicious mild onion taste to recipes and is wonderful to use in sour cream to top baked potatoes.
Horseradish — dig the root when mature, grate, and add to sour cream as a delicious sauce for beef.
Lemon balm — offers a strong lemon fragrance. Use as a garnish for lemon sorbet or lemon ice cream, garnish iced tea, or use in flower arrangements for the refreshing scent of lemon in the house.
Lemon grass — graceful clumping form that adds beauty to the garden. It is used in Asian cuisine.
Lemon verbena — another herb that exudes fresh lemon scent, it can be used in any dish that requires lemon flavor. It is another good choice to use in flower arrangements to scent the house with lemon essence.
Marjoram — is killed by temperature lower than 20 degrees F but is used in many recipes.
Mint — one of the easiest herbs to grow, it is also one of the very few herbs that thrives in damp soil, so it was traditionally planted next to a drippy water faucet. It is delicious in iced tea or as a garnish on ice cream.
Oregano — an easy herb to dry after harvesting, it is used in many Italian and French recipes.
Rosemary — one of the most versatile herbs, it can be used as a focal point in container plantings; ideal as a hedge and a delicious herb to use when grilling meats and vegetables.
Rue — this ancient herb was referred to many times by Shakespeare, and it is also noted as a flea repellant.
Sage — it has beautiful silver leaves and is delicious in many recipes or fried and served as an hors d’oeuvre.
Santolina — a little temperamental in our hot, humid summer months, but it is used prolifically as a hedge in herbal knot gardens.
Thyme — another easy and fabulous herb to include in the herb garden, it is used in many Italian and French recipes and also as a ground cover between stones in a sunny area.
Basil — one of the easiest herbs to start from seed. A prolific producer of leaves that can be harvested for pesto, it is a great garnish for tomatoes and mozzarella cheese for a simple and delicious caprese salad.
Chervil — one of few herbs that thrive in more shade and is one of the French “fine herbs.”
Coriander — used extensively in Eastern and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Dill — can be planted in early spring and, if it dies out from the hot, humid summer months, can be replanted in the fall. It is a flavorful additive to white sauces and a tasty garnish for baked potatoes and baked salmon.
Arugula — not technically an herb but a mildly bitter lettuce that is a great addition to any green salad.
Potted Herb Combinations
Growing herbs in containers is a popular way to garden. Consider a large, simple container of herbs by your grill for snipping fresh herbs when while grilling fish or meat. Growing containers of herbs is a way for people living in apartments or townhouses to expand their gardening areas. Containers are easy to move around and change; one year consider growing a group of annual herbs such as basil, dill, and arugula. The next season plant a container garden consisting of rosemary, artemisia, and sage.
If planting purely for aesthetic reasons, consider leaf shape and color combinations. If planting for culinary reasons, consider herbs that go together in certain cuisines. One container could be planted with herbs that are used in Italian cooking, such as oregano, thyme, and basil. An Eastern cuisine theme could be lemongrass, coriander, and chervil. A good old Southern cooking container might consist of mint, lemon verbena, and dill for mashed potatoes. So many wonderful combinations and varieties are available. Peruse your local nursery and garden center to learn of different herbs.
Gardening Chores for the March Gardener
March is a busy and wonderful month in the garden. The trees are beginning to bud and leaf out, the ground is warming up, and the sun is rising higher in the sky, allowing for longer days in the garden.
• Plant large trees and shrubs during the first weeks this month before it gets too hot and too dry to plant such large specimens.
• Seeds may be started inside for planting later in the garden. Some to consider are zinnia, portulaca, salvia, and cleome. If there is no threat of severe frost during the last weeks of March, these seeds may be sown in the ground where they are to grow.
• It is not too late to divide overgrown perennials such as rudbeckia, lilies, daylilies, hostas, or coneflowers.
• Cut out any dead foliage from ferns such as autumn fern, holly fern, or painted fern.
• Do not prune azaleas now. They are just about to begin their spring show.
• Begin fertilizing shrubbery with a balanced fertilizer such as 10-10-10 with minor nutrients.
Check all outdoor lighting fixtures. Change any burned out bulbs. Trim bushes that may be blocking their glow. Adjust timers so that they come on at dusk and also early in the morning.
• Check irrigation system. Check drip lines for cuts or holes. Check drip lines in containers for any holes or cuts in the lines.
• Make sure beds are defined with a trench edge, brick border, or metal edging.
• Make sure tools are clean, sharp, and readily available in your garage, potting shed, or storage area.
• Check wheelbarrow tires. Inflate if they are flat after the winter.
Azalea, banana shrub, Camellia japonica, crabapple, dogwood, flowering almond and apricot, forsythia, quince, spirea, ajuga, gerbera daisy, heuchera, iris, pansy, daffodils, and tulips