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Grow your own herbs

Herb gardening is easy and you are sure to have an unlimited supply of really natural flavorings.

Grow your own herbs and you will cook with the freshest herbs possible.

Getting started

The beginning gardener will find herbs a great choice for those early experiments. Herbs are very forgiving, doing well in poor soil and requiring little or no fertilizer. They're insect resistant in many cases, and don't require constant pruning.

Once you've selected the types you want to grow and tend, make sure you have the tools to do it.

A small shovel or spade will be adequate for most planting. Herbs don't require a large hole when planted from cuttings, and seeds are sown very near the surface. A spike or fork will be helpful for aerating compacted soil, especially for new seeds. Herbs like good drainage.

Though they require it only rarely, if you want to optimize your herbs occasional pruning is helpful. That means a pair of pruning shears is a must. Ordinary scissors have their uses in the garden - cutting twine, snipping small stems and so forth. But, a pair of sharp pruning shears is essential for trimming those thicker stems and other tasks.

Depending on your arrangements a good watering can may be helpful. Some just pour water out a one inch opening. That's great for some plants, but herbs require less water and one of the most common mistakes is overwatering. The type with a series of small holes will make it easier to control the amount given.

Watering cans are great for container-grown herbs and small areas. But for larger gardens you'll want some kind of watering system. Unless you have lots of time on your hands, an automatic system will be best. Fortunately, a simple drip or soaker hose system is easy to set up and inexpensive. Some will require replacement every couple of years depending on your climate.

Unless you pull them up before winter and re-lay the following spring, winter is hard on those hoses. A couple of years of snow and low temperatures will rot and plug them. But even a 20 ft x 30 ft garden can be completely covered with soaker hose in less than an hour. All that's required is to make a pattern close to the plants and shove down a few plastic or metal spikes to keep it in place.

A wheelbarrow is handy for transporting those container-started plants to the garden for transplanting. You may also find it handy for carting away weeds that have gotten out of hand. It's much easier to toss them into the wheelbarrow, then roll it away for bagging or dispersal, than to pick them off the ground when you're done. That also helps minimize re-seeding.

Laying down a 3-4 inch layer of mulch after you plant can help minimize the need for weeding later. It also helps with soil composition. Mulch can be made from wood chips, bark, gravel or even shredded newspapers - or all of them combined. Just leave about an inch in diameter of space around the base of the plant when you mulch. That will avoid any excess buildup of moisture and heat.

Some simple quality tools, a few packets of fine seeds, a bit of space with good earth and you are on your way to a great herb garden.

Herb gardening

Most herbs will get along fine if they have about a foot of space between major sections. Chives, for example, look great and grow well in a bunch. But the roots still need a certain amount of nutrient and water. Other plants nearby compete for those.

Also, in order for adequate sunlight to reach the plants, they'll need a certain amount of area, alongside them and within them. Planting too many within a confined space will make that difficult. Thinning may be required later as more plants than you expected develop.

Soil preparation is minimal for herbs, but minimal doesn't mean non-existent. A good compost or mix of sandy loam and clay will support a wide range of herbs. You'll want to make sure it has adequate drainage. Many herbs are originally natives of the Mediterranean, so they'll do well in rocky, relatively dry soil. They evolved in conditions of good drainage. But all herbs need some water. It should be moist, but not wet.

Lavender and sage, just to pick two, can get by in most areas with no manual watering at all. The occasional rainfall is enough. Peppermint will want a little more, which can easily be supplied by an automatic drip system.

You'll want to minimize weeds, possibly by laying down some landscape fabric. You'll want to avoid having to dig weeds up later or deal with the problem by using herbicides. That can kill the herbs along with the weeds (many are biologically similar). It also means you're spraying chemicals onto plants that you may later plan to eat.

Herbs resist insects well, but you may want to help by being prepared to sacrifice some for the sake of preserving others. Dill will make for a good 'trap crop', this is one which attracts pests away from other plants such as tomatoes. If your goal is growing Dill, a small amount of insecticide will take care of the problem, but use the minimum possible.

Planning your herb garden

Herbs require very little care compared to many plants. How many times have you had to spray your roses or trim your orchids? Herbs, by comparison, do well in poor soil, require little fertilizer and only modest watering. If they get lots of sun and a bit of water, they usually do well all on their own.

But you'll still want to do some planning before just throwing down seeds and walking away.

For one thing, since herbs thrive well in relatively poor conditions, they can become overgrown. Lavender will spread, Yarrow can take over large areas. Even Chives can get bushy and packed. Make sure you start with adequate space in your pot or garden for the number of plants you have in mind.

Plan when you want to plant by judging which herbs will do well by beginning at various times of year. Some can be sown anytime, others should be planted at intervals of four weeks, still others should begin as early as possible after the snows melt.

Plan ahead and you'll find your herb garden easy to care for and thriving with very little effort.