Growing your own herbs
For home-grown purposes, herbs are generally recognized in two categories – culinary (cooking) and aromatic/potpourri (fragrance).
The Culinary Garden:
While everyone has specific tastes when it comes to food and flavours, there are a few herbs that seem to be standard in many home-chef’s gardens. If you are not sure which you prefer, purchase a variety of fresh, cut herbs from your grocery or organic store. Look for rich colour and crisp fresh leaves. Avoid wilted leaves and definitely any herb that has mildewed parts. If packaged in plastic, check the ‘Best Before’ date and use accordingly.
Try a few (or all) of the following:
Oregano: Comes in several varieties, and flavour varies slightly in each. Italian and Greek seem to be the most popular. Oregano is excellent in meat and poultry dishes or for hearty soups and pasta dishes.
Basil: Consider both green and burgundy varieties such as Sweet Basil; Purple Ruffles and Dark Opal. Basil is the key ingredient in Pesto sauce.
Thyme: Although there are many varieties, Common and Lemon Thyme are the most popular. Often used in seafood dishes, it adds a lovely flavour to fish.
Parsley: An all-around must-have herb that it used extensively in cooking and for garnishes. Curly and Italian varieties are the most common grown.
Herbs mentioned above are definitely a staple in any garden, however many other culinary herbs can also be considered, such as: Tarragon, Rosemary, Sage, Marjoram, Dill, Fennel, Chives, Cilantro and Mint. All provide unique value and enhance the flavour of your dishes.
The Aromatic-Potpourri Garden:
Whether dipped into boiling water for an aromatic tea or infused into a warm bath, herbs have held an important role in human culture for centuries. From medicinal purposes* to dyes and essential oils, herbs have a lot to offer for the little effort in takes to grow them in the garden. Mixed in between perennials, this combination of plants rock! Perfect for sweetly scented sachets for a relaxing bath or combined in a bowl as a spicy potpourri on the kitchen counter, consider the following:
Lavender: Tranquility, restful, soothing – the perfect plant for sachets, soaps, jams and teas. Also said to repel flies. A must for the herb garden!
Chamomile: Known for its relaxing properties, it is a lovely addition to the garden. Often offered in tea form at spas. Why not enjoy your own plant at home?
Lemon Balm: Lovely scent – for use in cooking, as a tea, for a steam facial and in sachets. With its diverse nature it is worth consideration.
Mint: Comes in many varieties including applemint, water mint, pineapple mint, pennyroyal* and spearmint. Used as an invigorating bath, mint is as diverse as the varieties available. *Pennyroyal is toxic if ingested, but can be rubbed onto skin to repel insects.
In combination with the above list, enjoy the benefits of Lemon Verbena, Sage, Aniseed and Fennel, which hold their own for both culinary and aromatic-potpourri uses! All can generally be steeped for a flavourful tea.
Getting Started ~ The Basics
Soil conditions as well as sun; shade and water requirements are very important for good growth and the health of each plant. Whether you start from seed or begin with established potted plants, the better the soil conditions the more likelihood of a successful crop. As most plants, some herbs are perennials (grow back every year) while others are annuals (single season) and must be planted each year.
Whether you plant herbs in the garden or in a container (or both), the quality of soil, compost and nutrients is extremely important for strong and healthy growth. Amend soil as required keeping in mind that the plant will be drawing from its nutrients along with the liquids that you provide. Be aware of any additives: remember, what goes into the herb goes into you. Often good quality, well balanced soil, water and sun are the only ingredients needed for a healthy, nutritious-laden plant that will add a bounty of flavour to your food.
Generally most herbs enjoy the sun, so find a good sunny spot on your property. Once planted, allow the herbs to establish before you begin harvesting or you will find that there will be little growth to enjoy throughout the season. (Sharing from experience... I simply cannot put an herb in the soil before I begin snipping leaves and stems destined for the kitchen! I am truly envious when I see a client’s big, bushy basil plant…)
Begin with a small garden or one large container. There is no point creating an area that will become too large to maintain. Remember, a little goes a long way. Start with the basic herbs you currently enjoy and expand each year as you become more comfortable with your garden or container collection. If adding another garden area to maintain is not appealing simply plant your herbs in an existing vegetable or flower bed, ensuring they are easily accessible and can co-exist with surrounding plants. For added interest, plant annual herbs in a hanging basket and attach to a shepherd’s hook that sits close to the kitchen door.
Before planting or potting up herbs, it is important to understand which grow best together and which ones should grow separately. ‘Companion planting’ is a common term which simply means “plants that grow well together and provide a mutual benefit.” That is, a vegetable with an herb; a group of herbs or vegetables and/or herbs with flowers. The general purpose is to ward off insects that can damage a plant or conversely, will attract beneficial insects – for example, tomatoes and peppers work well with basil, oregano and parsley.
I have personally had great success with a grouping of oregano, parsley, green & purple basil and thyme, all grown in one container on my sunny patio. I have a separate pot for regular and garlic chives. And in recent years I have added rosemary and tarragon to the mix and it seems to work out well. I have not had any herb that has taken on the flavour of another and therefore, for my own use, it works.
You may find that some herbs, such as basil, require more moisture and less sun than the others and so, you may opt to take basil out of the mix and grow it separately where you can provide less sun and maintain higher moisture content.
Container Versus Garden:
Growing herbs in a garden has its advantages. Most importantly, Mother Earth provides the room to grow a strong root system. Unless you choose oversized containers and grow a single plant in each one, you will likely not get the space for growth and expansion.
As well, plants in a garden have their roots tucked underground therefore do not have them exposed to daily and seasonal climate changes, so there is less likelihood of winter damage.
Container grown perennial herbs can suffer root kill, especially if grown in thin pots that do not offer protection from wind-burn or sun damage. Be prepared for replacement when growing herbs in pots.
A wooden container with some insulation might just do the trick to help the plants cope with extreme temperature change throughout the seasons, however, I have great success growing thyme and chives in small containers on my south-facing patio: Two that I planted over a decade ago still service me faithfully every year!
Some herbs such as mint and lemon balm are best in confined spaces or in pots, to avoid massive spread by underground root systems. It can literally become a weed and take over an entire garden or creep into the lawn. Grow these herbs in a large container on your deck or patio for best control. Should you choose to plant directly into a garden, consider digging a large, deep hole. Insert a heavy plastic pot that has several generously sized drainage holes. Add a layer of small rocks for additional drainage then cover with porous landscape fabric. Top up with quality soil and add the plant! There are no guarantees for success, however this method might do the trick for controlling an invasive root system.
The best way to tackle this new hands-on gardening project is to throw yourself whole-heartedly into the experience. Follow a few general rules; understand that there will be some trial and error but most importantly – have fun! Nothing ventured – nothing gained!
A little reading and research will provide you with the right knowledge to be on your way to Gardening for Self-Sufficiency and living a healthier, ‘Herbalicious’ life!
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Sherry Hayes is an Award Winning Landscape Designer in Hamilton, Ontario. Along with her design and consulting business Sherry is a landscape and garden writer as well as a community host for Cable 14 television in Hamilton. To contact Sherry for further info: 905-574-7606 or www.landscapingwithstyle.on.ca