How to grow herbs

CULTIVATING HERBS

Herbs are incredibly robust and versatile, making them some of the easiest plants to grow. You don’t need a garden to grow herbs; many herbs can be grown in containers on the patio, in pots on the windowsill or even in hanging baskets. A successful herb garden is one that is planned with due regard to the location, growing conditions, its purpose and planted accordingly. In other words, choose with care what herbs you want to grow, as not all herbs are suitable for growing domestically and trying to grow a tropical herb such as Ginger outside in northern Europe is doomed to failure.

The possibilities for growing herbs are endless, you might like to grow a “Tea Garden” that would include the aromatic Lemon Verbena ( Aloysia triphylla), Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) , Chamomile ( Matricaria recutita) and Sage (salvia officinalis). A chef’s garden might include Tarragon ( Artemesia dracunculus), Dill ( Anethum graveolens), Chives ( Allium schoenoprasum) as well as old favourites such as Rosemary ( Rosmarinus officinalis) and Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Kitchen herb gardens are always best near the house to avoid getting wet, in the rain, just to pick a bay leaf for the casserole!

Aromatic herb gardens planted with Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Bergamot (Monarda didyma), and Scented Geraniums (Pelargonium ‘Graveolens’) can be wonderfully evocative. However, herbs do not need to be planted in a segregated area, they can be incorporated into any flower border. Tall plants such as Yarrow ( Achillea millefolium) provide a focal point, whilst smaller plants such as Chamomile ( Matricaria recutita) and Nasturtium ( Tropaeolum majus) provide colour and culinary ingredients.

GETTING STARTED

Ideally you want to start planning your herb garden in the winter, drawing up a design and a list of herbs to plant. Although many container bought herbs can be planted all year, spring is usually the best season, when soil temperatures are warming and rainfall is regular. There are an enormous number of specialist nurseries and garden centres where you can buy a huge range of herb plants.

Buying Plants:

  • Always check plants for pests and diseases
  • Buy those that look healthy and vigorous, with new shoots and richly coloured.
  • Ensure plants are not pot bound
  • Follow instructions for Planting Directly in the Garden

Sowing Seeds:

  • First fill a plant pot or seed tray with fine soil or seed compost, firm down and water, allowing water to drain
  • Place seed on soil either on the surface or into the soil as directed on the seed packet.
  • Lightly cover with vermiculite or more compost and water again
  • Set the pot in a warm place and don’t allow the soil to dry out

NOTE: Not all plants can be grown from seed - Tarragon is one important herb that can only be grown from cuttings and division , shop bought seeds are always Russian Tarragon that has little if any flavour .

NOTE : Not all seed can be sown into seed trays or pots, some seeds are better sown directly into the garden, primarily because they have long tap roots and don’t like being moved – Coriander, Garlic, Dill, Borage, Caraway, Basil ( although Basil can be grown directly into a pot)

Transplanting

  • Once the seedlings have grown four or more true leaves transplant them to larger pots.
  • Always lift seedlings by their true leaves ,never by the stem
  • Make a hole in the pot and gently place seedling in. Firm down gently and water
  • Place pot in a warm place out of direct sunlight

Potting On

  • If you are going to continue to grow the herb in a pot, at some point it will need to be placed in a larger pot, usually one size larger
  • This process will need to be repeated as the plant outgrows its pot
  • Ensure the new pots are clean and free of disease
  • Remove plant from its old pot and place in new pot, that is half filled with compost
  • Add more compost and gently firm in plant and water well-

Planting Directly in the Garden

  • Plants bought from a nursery or garden centre should be planted out as soon as possible
  • Dig a generous hole, loosening the bottom soil, to make it easier for the roots to spread
  • Place the plant in the hole to the same level as it was in the pot
  • Backfill around the plant , firm gently and water well
  • Plants often look a bit droopy for a few days , so give them a chance to settle into their new surroundings

Plant Care

  • Herbs grown in pots will have a different care regime to those grown in the ground
  • Herbs in pots will require more regular watering, possibly even daily during the summer
  • NEVER water plants in full sunlight, this will burn the leaves and may permanently damage the plant
  • A number of herbs such as Basil and Tarragon do not like wet feet at night , so always water in the morning
  • Herbs in pots will need to be fed an organic liquid feed about every six weeks or so, during the growing season, don’t feed during the autumn or winter

NOTE: How to check if a plant needs watering – place a finger up to the first knuckle in the soil, if it comes out clean, then water the plant , if it comes out with bits of soil stuck to it, then it doesn’t.

PROPAGATION

There are numerous ways in which to increase the number of plants you have and to have extra in case of disease or for those that do not survive a harsh winter, a sort of plant insurance policy.

Cuttings

One of the most reliable methods of propagation is to take cuttings from mature plants. There are several types of cutting, depending upon the herb you wish to propagate:

Stem Cuttings

  • All cuttings should be taken from healthy non-flowering stems
  • Cut the stem at an angle just above a leaf node
  • Strip the lower leaves so just the top few are remaining ( this reduces the stress on the plant)
  • Place the cutting up to the lowest leaf ( never put leaves in the soil) in soil in a plant pot – placing cuttings around the edge, appears to work best. Depending on size 3-5 cuttings per pot
  • Water pot well and cover with plastic bag to retain moisture
  • Place pots in a warm place out of direct sun
  • Check that there isn’t too much excess condensation inside the plastic bag, if so turn bag inside out , as too much moisture can cause cuttings to damp off and rot
  • Always label your cuttings, it’s surprising how easy it is to forget what you’ve planted!
  • Rooting will normally take 2-4 weeks, the easiest way to check is to check the bottom of the pot
  • Once the cuttings have rooted, the plastic bag can be removed and the plants potted on into individual pots, water well
  • Keep plants protected either in a greenhouse or cold frame
  • After about 4-5 weeks, pinch out the growing tip , as this will make the plant much bushier as well as stronger

NOTE: Cuttings can be taken throughout the year depending upon the herb.

Softwood Cuttings

  • Taken from young , immature stems in Spring
  • Softwood cuttings can be taken from:
    Bergamot, Mint, Hyssop, Majoram, Rosemary, Thymes, Wormwood,

Semi-Ripe Cuttings

  • Taken from half ripened wood during the growing season in late summer
  • Semi-ripe cuttings can be taken from:
    Box, Artemesias, Myrtle, Rosemary, Thyme, Lemon Balm, Sage
  • Semi-ripe cuttings take a little longer to root, usually 4-6 weeks

Hardwood Cuttings

  • Taken from woody stems at the end of the season , mid - late autumn
  • Hardwood cuttings can be taken from:
    Elderflower, Rose,
  • Hardwood cuttings are slow to root and can take a year
  • Winter in a greenhouse, or cold frame and water sparingly

Root Cuttings

  • Taken from semi-mature or mature plants in spring or autumn
  • Lift the plant and cut a 5cm section of root – not the fibrous or immature roots
  • Using either pots or a seed tray, make holes with a dibber , plant the cutting vertically
  • Cover with more compost or vermiculite
  • Label and date as you will not be able to see what the cuttings are until they grow
  • Do not water until some top growth appears, then apply a liquid feed
  • Root cuttings take about 2-3 weeks to root
  • Once established pot into individual pots, water well and harden off – protect in a cold frame or greenhouse
  • After about 4-5 weeks, pinch out the growing tip , as this will make the plant much bushier as well as stronger
  • Root Cuttings can be taken from:
    Comfrey, Horseradish, lemon Balm, Bergamot

NOTE: These two types of propagation will account for the vast majority of your herbs. However there are a number of other methods that particular herbs require in order to increase their numbers.

Leaf Cuttings

  • Healthy mature leaves are taken from the plant during the growing season
  • The detached leaves are placed into the soil
  • Water and cover with plastic

Layering

  • A useful method to increase your plant stock particularly if you already have some mature plants
  • Layering encourages sections of the plant to take root while still attached to the parent plant
  • Take a shoot that is close to the ground and remove the leaves and any side shoots, leaving only the growing tip
  • The shoot should be roughened slightly on its lower side, to encourage rooting, then placed into the soil, with only the growing tip showing
  • The layered shoot should be secured , either by placing a stone on the shoot or by pegging it into the ground – this is to ensure the shoot does not lift above soil level
  • Water well and keep soil moist
  • Sever the layered stem in the autumn if it is well rooted
  • If the stem is well rooted, then after 3-4 weeks, pinch out the growing tip to encourage a bushier healthy plant
  • Check that the roots are well established before lifting the plant either into a pot or another place in your garden
  • Always water well whenever a plant is transplanted
  • Layering can be used with the following herbs:
    Sage, Thyme, Bay, Jasmine, Rosemary,

Division

  • Many Herbs form clumps over a number of years, that can become congested
  • Plants are best split from autumn to spring, choosing mild weather to avoid any frost damage
  • Lift plants and divide into smaller clumps, either by hand or using a spade
  • Replant clumps to the same level and water well.

PESTS & DISEASES

Most Herbs are generally free of pests and diseases, in part due to their aromatic nature. However, diseases will occasionally develop and the following actions should be taken:

  • Always deal with any disease quickly to prevent permanent damage
  • Never put diseased plants on the compost heap, always burn the offending material

NOTE: An All Purpose Insecticide can be made from equal quantities of chopped garlic, onion, lavender tops and stem steeped in sufficient water to cover for 24 hours. Strain the mixture and use in a spray on plants plagued by caterpillar, aphids or flea beetles.

NOTE: Take a good handful of chives and roughly chop, pour boiling water over them and allow to steep for at least an hour; when cool use as a spray against mildew

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