A guide to growing your favorite flavorful plants
Herbs have been part of our kitchens and medicine chests since medieval times, when herbal wisdom was abundant in every community and home. Today the appreciation for herbs is rising again.
Herbs are wonderful additions to a landscape—rubbing your hand across rosemary or lavender as you walk by gives a momentary lift to your spirits. Adding herbs to a meal stimulates your digestive system and your appetite preparing you to eat. Herbs also provide a nutritional boost with the vitamins they contain.
Best of all—growing them requires very little effort.
Choosing the Right Spot
The first order of business is deciding where to plant your herbs. They need about five hours of sunlight a day to be their best. If they don’t get enough sun, they get long stalks and few leaves. This makes for an unattractive, unproductive plant.
Also, don’t plant your herbs in a windy environment. Planting near a brick or stone wall can provide both protection and a warm environment for your kitchen herbs. A spot between your driveway and sidewalk could be used for a wonderful raised kitchen garden. Alternatively, you could lay stone paths through the area and let herbs grow over them.
Helping Your Herbs Thrive
The next step to having a successful herb garden is making sure you’re using the right soil. If you don’t know what type of soil you have, you can do a simple test in a mason jar with a twist-on lid. Fill the jar halfway with soil then add water until the jar is full. Shake the jar well. If the water is distributed through the soil or leaves about a third of the water undistributed, it is acceptable. (You can see photos of the Mason Jar Soil Test online.) If needed, you can amend your soil with compost and/or sand to improve the texture.
Basil, chervil, coriander, dill, lovage and sage prefer rich, balanced soils. Sandier soils are preferred by lavender, thyme, tarragon and rosemary. Cultivation information can be found on seed packages, plant tags or from the nurserymen where you are purchasing. It is assumed that most herbs thrive in hot sun with well-draining soil. But some, like lemon balm, parsley and chamomile, need conditions to be a little bit cooler so they don’t wilt in the afternoon sun. The more you know about your plants’ growing conditions and habits, the more successful you’ll be.
Some herbs, such as mint and oregano, spread and get messy over time. You can contain them by planting these herbs in a grid pattern with pavers. Separating them like this also gives you a way to walk through for harvesting.
Herbs like to dry out between watering—none of them want to have wet feet constantly. To be sure it’s time to water again you can stick your index finger in the soil about an inch deep. If it’s dry, water. If it’s damp, wait.
Growing in Pots
One idea for those with limited space is to grow herbs in pots. This will allow you to give your herbs exactly what they need.
When choosing a pot, it is best if it drains into a saucer and is at least 6 inches in diameter. If you want to grow parsley or basil, your pot should be around 20 inches deep because they have long taproots. If your pots don’t have drainage holes, add a layer of stones or clay shards at least two inches deep in the bottom of the pot before planting. If you are buying your herbs from a nursery, make sure you buy, or have on hand, a pot that is twice as big as the pot you purchased them in. Re-pot your herbs quickly in the appropriate soil and give their roots plenty of room. It is better to have your pot too large rather than too small.
You can always combine herbs that require the same conditions in larger pots to simplify. Window boxes are also great choices for growing herbs. Watch for dry soil—potted plants need more water than those planted in the ground.
Herbs in the Off Season
Thyme, rosemary and lavender plants all do fairly well for me overwintering outside. If it’s mild, I sometimes will find mint and oregano still growing near the warm stone wall in my raised bed. What a treat to have fresh mint in hot tea on a cold day!
Other herbs such as parsley and basil will hang on by a thread until spring after I move them inside for the winter. Herbs should be ignored when brought in—give them only the minimum amount of water. For the best chance of survival, move these herbs out to your covered porch when temperatures are mild.
To overwinter your larger pots of herbs, pull them up close to your house and cover with mulch or wrap.
Harvesting and Storing Your Herbs
You can enjoy your herbs even after the growing season by planning ahead. Begin storing your herbs at their peak. And don’t rush. If done incorrectly, your herbs will quickly spoil. Here are a few harvesting tips:
• Their flavor is best when harvested on a dry day after the dew has evaporated and before the sun is hot. Also, keep your herbs from producing flowers, which ruins the taste, by pinching them back.
• Most herbs can be dried by hanging small bunches in a dry room out of the sun. Once they are brittle, you can run your fingers down the stem and store the leaves in a jar with a tight lid.
• Basil, dill and fennel can be frozen on the stalk when they are picked young, small and in perfect shape. Wash them and let them dry. Lay them on a towel on a cookie sheet, flash freeze and store in a freezer container. Fresh dill can be stored in a fridge for two weeks or more in a little water.
• Flowers like borage and calendula can be clipped off the plant leaving no stem and dried on a cookie cooling rack until they feel like tissue paper to the touch. These are also best stored in jars.
Place your herb jars out of direct sunlight to prolong freshness. Your herbs will store well for a year.
All of my favorite herbs are easily started from seeds so don’t be afraid of trying different herbs that can take you on a culinary journey! When you have grown your herbs yourself, you know they are fresh, pesticide-free and have optimal flavor.
My Favorite Performers
Check out a few of the herbs
I love to use in my kitchen.
• Lovage is a striking, perennial herb that tastes like celery. It can grow up to 6 feet tall!
• Rosemary is beautiful and hardy here when planted in a warm spot. It’s a very aromatic herb and it makes a great addition to poultry. It’s a food source for bees when flowering.
You can start new plants easily from cuttings or layering branches.
• Basils can add endless flavors to foods and vinegars because there are so many varieties to grow.
• Dill is beautiful, easy and like most herbs also draws beneficial insects. Keep the blooms “pinched back” to get the most production.
• Parsley adds a nice touch to salads. It will keep in a vase of water by your sink as you use it.
Caring for Cut Flowers
Before bringing those lovely blooms inside, learn the “dos and don’ts” of taking care of your bouquet
Surrounding ourselves with flowers can improve our physical and mental health. Flowers stimulate our dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin levels—the happy chemicals in our brain. They also remind us to slow down and enjoy them before they are gone. Because as we all know, cut flowers don’t last forever. While that’s part of their charm, there are a few things you should do (and not do) to make them last as long as possible.
Do give your flowers a “spa treatment” before arranging. This is commonly called “conditioning.” I use a Chrysalis floral conditioner during this step. Fill a bucket about a third of the way up with water, making sure every stem reaches the water. Put the bucket with flowers in a cool, dark room for about three hours and allow them to rest. This will lengthen vase life by maybe four days. Follow the directions on your flower food exactly.
Don’t use a dirty container. You should never reuse a vase without washing it first. A good rule is to add a few drops of bleach mixed in water to your vases after each use and let them soak before you wash and then put them away. If your glass vase gets “cloudy” over time you can clean it with vinegar, a dishwasher rinse aid, or a toilet bowl cleaner.
Do pay attention to the water temperature. The water in your vase should be tepid—something you would like to have your feet in! And a caution here to those using a water softener: the added salts in your water will sometimes kill the flowers. If your flowers always die quickly, this may be why.
Don’t obsess over floral “foods.” Using these for cut flowers is fine but not necessary. There are all kinds of tricks people use—a penny in the vase, a shot of gin or vodka, an aspirin, or floral food packs. The best food for your plants is simply keeping the water clean.
Do remove all the leaves that will be below the water line in your vase. Not only do they look ugly, they rot, smell and make your vase water look disgusting.
Don’t use dull clippers when cutting your stems. Stems that look “stringy” when cut show it’s time to sharpen your clippers. After this step do not get distracted by your kids, the phone or your dog. Move them into your prepared water quickly so the stems don’t close.
Do have some fun arranging your flowers. There is no right or wrong—place your flowers in the vase in a way that pleases you!
Don’t spray or mist your arranged flowers. This can cause fungal issues.
Do be prepared to troubleshoot problems. If you notice a flower either not opening or wilting, remove it from your vase. Re-cut the stem and place it in hot water from your tap. Leave it in the hot water until the water temperature has cooled. Also, place flowers out of the direct sun and/or away from heat ducts.
Don’t forget to do some maintenance. Every two to three days, re-cut your stems and change the water so your flowers stay hydrated.
Pro Tips on Some of Lynchburg’s Favorite Blooms:
• Hellebores are the first to bloom and we are anxious for flowers. Resist the urge to cut them too soon. Wait until a seed pod is formed in the center of the flower before you cut it.
• Harvest your peonies when they are soft like a marshmallow and not after they’ve blown open.
• Hydrangeas should feel like paper when you cut them. Strip all the leaves off the stem. Condition them up to their necks in water with a flower food. Cover their heads with damp paper towels and leave them to sit in your basement for a couple hours. Use care when arranging them as they drink water out of a vase much faster than you think.
• If those lilies or roses you bought just won’t open, trim the stems by about an inch and stick them in HOT water. Force the issue!
• Soft necked flowers, like a zinnia, that just won’t stand tall can be made to behave by sticking a toothpick deeply through the center of the flower into the stem. Stick it far enough in that the “trick” is invisible to others.