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The seasons and your herb garden

Your herb garden changes with the seasons and different gardening tasks.

Wintering your herb garden and prepare it for the spring is only a part.

Winter and your herb garden

Winterizing your herb garden isn't difficult, but the actions you take will differ depending on the type of herbs you have planted. Just as with other plants and flowers, some are annual others perennials. That means they either die off with the cold weather or simply become dormant, to rise again the following spring.

Basil, for example, doesn't do well in colder climates and will often not survive the winter. They can be grown indoors, or simply planted again next early spring. Sage and Thyme winter well on the other hand, though their leaves may wither and the stalks may appear dead. Try scraping the side of a sample and look for green material. That's a sign that the plant is still alive and will blossom later in the season.

Most herbs require little or no fertilizer, since they do well in what would be considered poor soil for other plants. If you do fertilize, avoid adding any after early August. You don't want to encourage a spurt of new growth that won't have time to mature before winter sets in. That will leave the new growth vulnerable, making it hard to survive the snow or frost.

As growth slows, the plants prepare themselves for winter. Many lose their leaves. In some cases the stalks may actually harden and die. But, in the case of perennials, the roots are still alive even though dormant. As the snow clears and the ground warms, they'll sprout again, rest assured.

A similar warning applies to pruning. Trimming back in August or September will stimulate new growth, those new shoots don't have time to mature before winter, and often will not survive. That doesn't help the herb's chances the following spring, since that dead growth has to be cleared before new growth can takes its place.

Good drainage is important for almost all herbs, since most prefer slightly dryer soil. Peppermint prefers it slightly moister, but even there the key word is 'moist', not 'wet'. Rosemary, Lavender, Thyme and others are Mediterranean natives so they're used to rocky, dry soil and lots of hot sunshine. The coming of winter makes this point even more important.

Wet soil draws more heat out of the plant than dry. When it becomes cold enough, of course, it freezes. That can crack roots, cause frost heaving as the ground alternately freezes and thaws over winter, and other ill effects.

Adequate drainage is encouraged by the right mix of sandy loam and clay soil. The clay retains moisture that is later released to plants as the surrounding soil dries. Sandy loam provides lots of spaces for air to move around, while allowing excess water to pass through easily.

A good mulch will help the surface enormously. A mixture of pine bark and needles or a commercial mixture is great. Sawdust is helpful. In special cases, it can be helpful to build a small wire cage around the plant to help retain the mulch and (if lined with plastic) block excess cold wind.

Prepare for winter and you'll find your herbs eager to sprout at the earliest opportunity in the spring.

Prepare your herbs for spring

When spring is just around the corner be sure your herbs get the news.

As the snows melt, or the frosts ease, plants receive a number of signals. The ground will warm, the soil will become more porous and let in more air, and the number of hours per day of sunshine will increase. All these help signal the plants to germinate and sprout.

Indoor plants may get mixed signals, depending on where you place them and how you treat them over winter. If they're near a window, that bright winter sunshine can feel like spring to them. If they're in a corner, they may not get enough until mid-summer. Plan your placements to give sun-loving herbs -which is most of them- the maximum per day.

As the snow clears, those dead stalks and leaves will become visible. For perennial types, such as chives, it's a good time to trim them down to near ground level. Avoid pulling so you don't accidentally pull up the roots. Instead, just take some pruning shears and snip off the stalks about an inch above the surface. Sample one or two before you proceed, though. Sometimes, they're green inside and should just be left alone.

Most herbs don't require fertilizer, growing happily in soil that would be considered poor for other plants. But for those that can use a little extra help, early spring is a good time to apply it. If there's still a bit of frost or snow on the ground, fertilizer beads can be drawn into the soil as it melts. Don't overdo it, however.

Now is the time to ensure that the soil is right. Winter snows can compact the earth, but most herbs like good drainage. Many, like lavender, are Mediterranean natives and evolved in rocky, well draining soil.

If the dirt has become hard, a little aeration is in order. Just use a common spike to create small holes for air and water to flow into. Take care not to stab the plant, especially as the roots may have spread out rather than down. Once loosened, you can add a little topsoil or sandy loam to ensure adequate nutrition and good drainage.

The majority of herbs combat insect invasions well. But this is the time of year when grubs will soon start to become active and feed on roots or leaves near the ground. A bit of spray will solve the problem before it becomes pronounced. Liquid sea-kelp is a safe and easy to use solution in these cases.

If you have indoor herbs, February is your friend as the days become longer. Let your plants enjoy the sun, and soon you will too.