Learn About Growing & Harvesting Herbs with Maria Bertucci
Incorporating Herbs into Your Garden:
Herbs are a fascinating class of plants and one of the most useful. Most of them take up very little space and make an enormous difference in our kitchens.
For growing purposes, I like to think of herbs in two groups; the tough, drought tolerant, Mediterranean shrubs and subshrubs like thyme and rosemary and then the soft herbaceous herbs like basil and cilantro that need more water.
Many of the drought tolerant herbs are easy to incorporate into landscaping—hot dry corner with sandy soil? Rosemary is a beautiful evergreen, blue flowering shrub that comes in many heights and habits including prostrate and would love those particular conditions. Need a low growing plant that is fragrant and evergreen for the side of your walk but don’t want to mow? Thymes are a perfect choice, low maintenance, edible and providing pollinator forage as well.
The more common softer herbs are better grown in our vegetable gardens as they are usually annuals and we often like to grow a lot of them at once in the summer to make things like pesto and salsas.
Mint is an exception to this and needs it’s own special treatment. There are so many worthwhile mint varieties out there (try chocolate mint!) but they are thugs in the garden. They love moisture and have running roots that can quickly take over an area. They are best grown in their own individual pots with a saucer full of water at the base to keep them constantly moist. One trick to identifying plants in this family that generally have vigorous growth habits is their square stems.
All herbs can be grown in pots as most of them are not huge plants and they grow happily together. The best spot for them is right next to your kitchen door so you can easily run out to snip them while making dinner.
Perennial, shrubby types of herbs need good drainage and full sun. The largest common herb plants are bay, rosemary, lavender, sage, curry plant, santolina, horseradish and lemon verbena. These plants I would site in a permanent location in your garden or give them a pot of their very own. They are not heavy feeders at all, and I would just fertilize them once a year in the spring if you grow them in pots.
The smaller perennial shrubby herbs like thyme, oregano, savory, chamomile and tarragon do great in pots together or used as “shoes and socks” plants at the front of landscape beds, or at the edges of walkways and patios. Their spacing and depth vary but generally they are available as 4-inch plants and can be planted out about a foot apart.
The softer herbs like basil, parsley, cilantro, epazote, fennel, chives and chervil can also be tucked into pots together or grown in rows in the garden. They also need full sun but they like water and benefit from good compost or light fertilizer at planting time.
You can grow these plants easily from seed or start with transplants. If you are growing from seed, pay attention to what soil temperature the plant likes. I am most successful with basil, my very favorite herb to grow, when I direct seed very late in May or early June once the soil is truly warm. Fennel on the other hand is such a tough plant you can seed it in the fall and it will overwinter and spring up early in the year. Parsley is another extremely cold tolerant herb that can really get you through the winter.
Basil is worth growing in large quantities as it comes in so many flavors. I grow the traditional genovese types for pesto and pizza but I also grow lemon basil, which will transform your Green Goddess salad dressings, as well as Thai and cinnamon basil.
This is also true of mint; try apple mint, chocolate or berries and cream!
Harvesting herbs is simple, with perennial herbs you can really harvest them anytime during the year in small amounts as needed for cooking. Just snip some stems, paying attention to the overall shape of your plant and strip the leaves off once back inside. The best time to harvest perennial herbs in bulk for drying and for the most concentrated flavor is before the plant flowers. This ends up being springtime for most things and many folks harvest the amount they would like to dry for the winter at this time. One way to easily dry them is to put your stems into individual paper bags or mason jars top first while they dry. This cuts down on the mess, and you can strip your stem straight into the same jar for storage.
For the soft annual herbs, you can harvest in smaller amounts as needed throughout the summer by pinching the stems back to about 4 inches. You’ll want to do a big harvest before the nights get too cold in September to save as much of that summer goodness as you can. You can cut the whole plant and hang in bunches, or you can blend them up with a little oil and freeze in small amounts to use during the winter.