July/Aug. 2009 California Country magazine
By Pat Rubin
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. Here's how!
I love running my hand across the swags of rosemary that cascade carelessly down the rock wall in front of my house. I breathe deeply as the pungent scent fills the air.
I break off a stem of oregano when I walk through the vegetable garden, crush the leaves and hold them up to my face so I can enjoy the powerful, clean fragrance.
I often clip a few sprigs of mint to put in my pocket, so I can pull them out during the day for a scented reminder of the outdoors.
And there’s nothing like zipping out to the garden to snip a clump of chives or a few stems of parsley to add to a salad.
So for me, a garden isn’t a garden without herbs. While many herbs have medicinal qualities, I grow them strictly for the kitchen table. I can’t imagine sliced tomatoes without chives, chicken without rosemary, ribs without oregano, iced tea without mint.
Luckily, herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. They’re seldom bothered by pests or diseases. Most are tough sun-worshippers that are more aromatic and tastier when ignored and practically deprived of water. They don’t require any fertilizer; in fact, many herbs prefer poor soil and a healthy dose of benign neglect. Best of all, they respond well to constant harvesting: The more you cut them, the better they like it.
It’s no wonder, especially given the vagaries of the economy, that growing herbs is becoming wildly popular.
“People believe if they can eliminate one or two things they don’t have to buy, like basil or rosemary, then they have a little control over their budget. The savings add up,” said Rose Loveall-Sale, co-owner of Morningsun Herb Farm in Vacaville.
Even a tiny garden with a few herbs scattered among the ornamental plants can produce more fresh herbs than you can use. Herbs can mingle with perennials, double as ground covers and add spice to a vegetable garden. I have oregano growing alongside my poppies, thyme growing as a ground cover beneath roses and rosemary growing on a steep, rocky bank. My vegetable garden sports an entire bed of mint, as well as plenty of chives, parsley, basil and more tucked among the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
In addition, I have a pot of chives on the back deck and a hanging basket filled with sage, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary, with a dash of alyssum for color. I can step out the back door and grab a few snips of fresh herbs at a moment’s notice. True, they’ll probably outgrow the basket by season’s end, but meanwhile it’s a quick and easy way to have a selection of herbs close at hand.
Why grow herbs when it’s so easy to buy a jar of parsley flakes at the grocery store? Monetary savings aside, if you’ve ever grown and dried your own basil, oregano and parsley, you’ll never want to buy packaged herbs again.
Herbs fall into the same classifications as other garden plants: annuals, biennials and perennials.
The annuals grow, flower and produce seed all in one season, then die. Basil, cilantro and dill are annual herbs. Biennials take two years to mature. They flower and die the second year. Parsley falls into this category. Most culinary herbs are perennials. Some, like Greek oregano, need to be cut back every fall. Others, like sage and rosemary, develop woody stems and survive year to year.
Selecting a site
The best place for an herb garden is near the kitchen or along the pathway to the front door so you walk by them every day. That’s the surest way to guarantee they’ll find their way to your kitchen table.
Herbs love sunshine, so pick a spot that gets at least six hours of sunshine each day. No such thing? Put the herbs in containers you can move into the sun or in hanging baskets. Dress up the containers with a few edible flowers like borage, calendula, violets or nasturtiums.
Also consider drainage and soil fertility. The soil doesn’t have to be great. In fact, most herbs prefer poor soil, but it has to drain. Poor drainage is probably the most common killer of herbs. They don’t like wet feet. Bottom line: The soil shouldn’t be soggy hours and days after you water.
Of course, the best solution for all garden woes, including poor drainage, is compost. Add it every year, even during the growing season. Loveall-Sale suggests planting drought-tolerant herbs on a bit of a mound. “It makes it easier to add compost and helps with drainage in summer and winter so water doesn’t pool around the plants,” she said.
What to plant
Plant what you love, but be bold. Try something new. If you don’t like it, you can always take it out. After all, gardening is an experiment, a process. You learn along the way, have some fun and harvest herbs for your table.
The easiest herbs for beginners are, conveniently, some of the most common: parsley, rosemary, sage, oregano, basil, mint and thyme. Probably the most difficult herbs, especially for beginners, are dill and cilantro. Neither transplant well, Loveall-Sale said, so you have to really ease them into the ground, and the spring season for both is short. “They make better fall plants, so plant them again later in the season. You can have dill until Thanksgiving and cilantro at Christmas.”
When to plant
Some herbs, like rosemary, are available at any time of year. Others, like basil, are summer annuals so are available only in spring. And while seed racks boast a plentiful and varied supply of herb seeds, be aware, Loveall-Sale warned, that some can take a long time to germinate.
“Basil and parsley are pretty quick, but rosemary can take as long as 300 days,” she said. Read the packet to find out how long you’ll have to wait.
Where to buy herbs
Even grocery stores have delved into the nursery business and offer small herb plants each spring. A 4-inch pot can cost as little as $1.79. Nurseries offer a larger selection and many more varieties of each herb. Gallon plants generally run $5 to $6.
Having herbs from my garden—dried and packaged to use year-round—keeps the scents and tastes of summer alive. The best time to harvest most herbs for drying is just before flowering, and the best time of day to harvest is in the morning before essential oils are lost to the day.
For herbs like basil and sage, pluck off the leaves. For herbs like oregano, cut the entire stem to the ground. They’ll need to dry in a dark area, not in the sunshine. I strip off all the leaves and drop them in a paper bag. I put the bag on the counter in the kitchen, and each time I go by I pick it up and shake it so the leaves don’t clump together and get moldy. It only takes a few days to dry, and then I put them in plastic bags.
Now, get growing!
Whether you drop the “H” and call them “erbs” like most Americans or take your cue from the Brits and leave the “H,” have some fun and try a few herbs somewhere in your garden.
- Put your herb garden where you can see it daily—such as near the kitchen or where you’ll walk by each day.
- Herbs are more aromatic if starved just a bit. Don’t be quick to water and don’t fertilize.
- Provide plenty of sunshine.
- Herbs demand good drainage. Plant on a slight mound, especially in areas with poor drainage. Avoid planting where water stands.
- Pick leaves just before flowering. That’s when they’re at their peak of flavor. Morning is the best time to harvest.
- Keep harvesting. Herbs are happier when constantly clipped.
Need more information? There are plenty of great herb books available that will take you step by step through the process. Take a look at any bookstore and choose one you like.
You don’t need a green thumb to grow most herbs—just a sense of adventure! Here are a few favorites to get you started.
Usually grown as an annual. Sun. 12 inches tall. Regular water.
A finicky plant to grow from seed, so buy starts at the nursery. It comes with curly or flat leaves. Produces yellow flowers the second year, goes to seed and dies. Parsley is high in vitamins and iron, so don’t leave this popular garnish on your plate. Go ahead and eat it!
Sun to part shade. 1 to 3 feet tall. Regular water. Rich, well-drained soil.
Plant seeds when soil is warm or purchase nursery plants. Some varieties smell like cinnamon, lemon or licorice. Snip off any flower stalks to keep the plant producing leaves instead of going to seed. Delightful with fresh tomatoes and a must for pesto.
Sun to part shade. 12 inches tall. Regular water. Average to rich soil.
This herb does double duty. Harvest the leaves and you’ve got cilantro, a pungent herb great in salsa. Let the plant flower and go to seed, and you can harvest the spicy-sweet coriander seeds for pickling and curries. Tip: Hates to be transplanted, so if you buy nursery plants, ease into the ground.
Sun. 12 to 15 inches tall. Regular water. Average soil.
Part of the onion family, chives are dainty plants that grow in clumps. The more you cut, the better they respond. The pink, globe-shaped flowers are also edible or use them in floral arrangements. Chop leaves into a salad, over chili, in soup—wherever you’d like a hint of onion.
Sun. 1 to 2 feet tall. Easy on the water. Poor to average soil.
Greek, Mexican, Italian: Oregano comes in many nationalities. What they all have in common is that pungent, clean fragrance and flavor. Harvest from the Italian sorts throughout the year, but cut Greeks back at the end of the growing season. Use leaves to marinate ribs or sprinkle on pizza. Flowers are tasty, too.
Prefers afternoon shade. Average soil. Prefers ample water.
Anyone can grow mint, but be careful since it spreads by runners and can overtake everything in its way. Plant in a container or be ready to cut often and severely. Check local nurseries for some amazing varieties, including chocolate and apple. Two favorite uses for fresh mint: tabbouleh and mojitos.
Full sun. Easy on the water. Poor to average soil. Bee-friendly.
A handsome plant with slim, dark green, leather-like leaves and masses of cheery blue flowers, rosemary is quite pungent and a tough landscape plant. One plant will give you far more rosemary than you can use. Great for flavoring a roast chicken or for tossing on the grill for flavoring meats.
Sun. 1 to 2 feet tall. Easy on the water.
Produces beautiful gray leaves, although there are varieties with purple, even variegated leaves. Culinary sage sends up spires of blue flowers that look nice in floral arrangements and even taste great in a salad. A little sage goes a long way in cooking, so use sparingly until you know how much you like.
Full sun. 2 to 6 inches tall. Easy on the water. Loves being cut.
Thyme comes in many scents and leaf colors. A good landscape plant for the edges, for spilling over rock walls, for creeping between steppingstones and for crevices. In the kitchen, its classic use is in bouquet garni. Also used in gumbos, clam chowder, poultry stuffings and beef dishes. A salt substitute, too.
Half-hardy shrub. Afternoon shade. Average water. Average soil.
If you live where it freezes, your plant will need winter protection even though it goes dormant during winter. Breaks dormancy somewhere around tax time (mid-April). Harvest those heavenly lemon-scented leaves when plant is flowering. Can be used fresh or dried. Makes a great tea plant. Also gives vinegars and oils a lemony flavor.
Half-hardy perennial. Sun. Up to 5 feet tall. Average water. Average soil.
Evergreen in mild climates, lemon grass is a wonderful addition to soups and teas. Leaves reek of lemon when crushed or cut. Pick throughout the growing season. Younger leaves are best since they aren’t so tough. Dogs love lemon grass as much as cats love catnip, and it’s good for their digestion.
Pat Rubin is a long-time gardener and garden writer. Send questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fragrant and flavorful
Tucked away in a quiet Northern California valley, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, is a unique family-run business. Visitors to the Morningsun Herb Farm will discover a small farm that is bursting with color, wonderful smell and a huge variety of herbs and plants.
For the last 15 years, Rose Loveall-Sale and her husband, Dan, have been running the 3-acre farm outside Vacaville, but the land has been in their family for generations.
“This property was actually owned by my great-grandparents, who sold it to some friends and they sold it to my parents,” said Loveall-Sale. “My family has been here since the mid-teens of the last century and they’ve been farming the area ever since.”
Loveall-Sale studied forestry at the University of California, Berkeley, but realized she loved planting things. So together she and her husband decided to try herbs. Success soon followed and the farm is now one of the largest wholesale suppliers of herb and perennial plants to nurseries in California and Nevada, delivering to more than 50 retail outlets.
The farm has the feel and charm of a rustic garden. But make no mistake, like most farms the work is often 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Loveall-Sale says that planting 200 flats of one herb in a week is not unusual.
More than 600 types of plants are grown at the Morningsun Herb Farm. Some are native to California but others come from exotic places like Peru and South Africa and even Greece. Every plant sold on the farm is grown right on the land. About 70 percent come from cuttings and the rest are grown from seeds.
Loveall-Sale says that herbs add more color and fragrance to your garden than many flowers and also bring a bonus: wonderful smells that last for months. But be warned, once you start there’s a good chance that, like Loveall-Sale, you’ll soon become hooked on growing herbs.
“You just can’t help yourself,” she said. “You keep finding new varieties to grow and you just can’t stop. You do get a little crazy about it!”
For more information about the Morningsun Herb Farm, visit www.morningsunherbfarm.com.