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Growing Herbs at Home

Growing Herbs at Home

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Published by Calvin Leon Secrest
Herbs have long been revered for both their medicinal and culinary value. They may cure colds, help you sleep and add flavor and zest to dinner. Fortunately for home gardeners, growing herbs is relatively easy. They thrive in just about any type of soil, do not require much fertilizer, and are not often bothered by insect or disease pests.

Defined as a plant without a woody stem that dies back at the end of each growing season, herbs were once considered a gift of the gods. Elaborate ceremonies and rituals celebrated their growth, harvest and use. Today, herbs are popular in many home gardens, where their leaves are utilized for flavoring and an entire plant may be used for medicinal purposes. (Learn more about what makes an herb an herb here.)
Herbs have long been revered for both their medicinal and culinary value. They may cure colds, help you sleep and add flavor and zest to dinner. Fortunately for home gardeners, growing herbs is relatively easy. They thrive in just about any type of soil, do not require much fertilizer, and are not often bothered by insect or disease pests.

Defined as a plant without a woody stem that dies back at the end of each growing season, herbs were once considered a gift of the gods. Elaborate ceremonies and rituals celebrated their growth, harvest and use. Today, herbs are popular in many home gardens, where their leaves are utilized for flavoring and an entire plant may be used for medicinal purposes. (Learn more about what makes an herb an herb here.)

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Published by: Calvin Leon Secrest on Nov 03, 2010
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Growing Herbs at Home
by Ray R. RothenbergerDepartment of Horticulture,University of Missouri-Columbia
 
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I
n a botanical sense, an herb is a plant that does not produce a woody stem anddies back to the ground each winter to a perennial root system.Herbaceous plants in the landscape and garden normally includeannuals, perennials, biennials, bulbs and grasses.In the garden sense, herbs are plants that serve as a major source of seasonings in the preparation of foods. In an even broader sense, herbs includethose plants that are also useful for scents in cosmetics or for medicinal purposes.Some of them are woody and outstep the definition of a herbaceous plant.In the gardens of American pioneers, herbs were the major source of seasonings forfoods. They were also used for curing illnesses, storing with linens, strewing onfloors, covering the bad taste of meats before refrigeration was devised, dyeinghomespun fabrics and as fragrances.With the advent of the supermarket, growing herbs in the garden declined becausea wide range of dried herbs became available in stores. Now, however, with anincrease in the popularity of ethnic foods, combined with a realization that freshherbs have more distinctive tastes than some dried herbs, more gardeners aregrowing at least a few herbs for fresh use, drying or freezing.
 
General culture
Light
Most herbs are easy to grow, but you must select the proper location togrow them. Most herbs need a sunny location, and only a few, includingangelica, woodruff and sweet cicely, are better grown in partial shade.The oils, which account for the herbs¹ flavor, are produced in the greatest quantitywhen plants receive six to eight hours of full sunlight each day. If you don¹t have agood, sunny location, many herbs will tolerate light shade, but their growth andquality will not be as good.
Soil
Herbs will grow in any good garden soil. The soil should not be
 
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extremely acid or alkaline; a soil nearly neutral is best for most herbs. A pH readingbetween 6.5 and 7.0 produces the best herbs.Most herbs do not require a highly fertile soil. Highly fertile soils tend to produceexcessive foliage that is poor in flavor. Herbs grow best when soils have adequateorganic matter.In preparing average soils, add several bushels of peat moss or compost to each 100square feet of garden area to improve soil condition and help retain moisture.
Drainage
When selecting a site for an herb garden, you must consider drainage. None of theimportant herbs grow in wet soils, but a few, such as mint, angelica and lovage,thrive in fairly moist soils.If the only area available is poorly drained, you need to modify the area. Buildraised beds or install underground drainage tiles to grow herbs successfully.
Preparation
Once you select a site, cultivate the soil to a depth of 12 to 18inches, then level it. If only a shallow layer of topsoil exists abovehard subsoil, remove the topsoil temporarily. Break up the subsoil,adding organic matter. After improving the subsoil, put it back.Even though the topsoil may be better than the subsoil, the topsoil may also needadditional organic matter.
Pests
Few insects or diseases attack herbs. In some localities, rusts infect mints. In hot,dry weather, spider mites damage some herbs.Aphids attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel. Grasshoppers and certain caterpillarsattack herbs when conditions are right. Control is usually not necessary until younotice a problem.
Propagation Methods
Seeds
You can grow many herbs from seeds. If possible, sow the seeds in pots or flatsindoors in late winter. They need a sunny window and cool temperatures (60º F) forbest growth. Treat young plants for the garden just as you would treat young salviaor pepper plants.Because some plants take longer than others to develop, start those with smallerseeds first, preferably in February. You may later transplant them into individualpots and plant them in the garden after danger of frost is past. The finer the seeds,the shallower you should sow them.A few herbs do not transplant well. Sow them directly into the garden. Plant anise,coriander, dill and fennel directly in the garden and don¹t transplant them.For direct seeding outdoors, plant in spring after all danger of frost is past and thesoil is beginning to warm up. Make the soil into a fine, level seed bed. As a generalrule, sow seeds at a depth of twice their diameter.
Cutting, Division, Layering
Some established herbs multiply asexually by cutting, division or layering.
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Layering is suitable for many perennials with flexible branches. Division works wellfor tarragon, chives and mint. You can propagate lavender, lemon balm, scentedgeraniums, sage and rosemary from cuttings.You can take cuttings of herbs any time during late spring and summer fromhealthy, well-established plants. Those taken in fall take longer to root. Healthy tipgrowth makes the best cuttings. Cuttings of vigorous soft shoots or old woody stemsare less desirable.Cut just below a node to form a cutting that is 3 to 5 inches long. Most herbs shouldroot in two to four weeks. After rooting, overwinter them indoors in pots on a sunnywindow or in a coldframe. Plant them outdoors in a permanent location thefollowing spring.
Division
is useful for multiplying healthy, established plants that may be two tofour years old. Division allows modest increase for plants like chives, mints andFrench tarragon. Divide herbs in early spring before growth begins. Dig up the oldplant and cut or pull it apart into sections. Replant the sections and keep themmoist until the new plants are established.
Layering
is the simplest and most reliable method to increase perennial herbs suchas thyme, lemon balm, winter savory, sage, bay and rosemary. The basic principleis to produce roots on a stem while it is still attached to the parent plant. After youroot the stem, detach the new plant from the parent. Select a healthy branch thatis growing close to the ground and that is flexible enough to bend down to the soil.While holding the branch close to the soil, bend the top 6 to 10 inches of the steminto a vertical position. It may be helpful to scrape the bark on the underside of thebranch at the bend. Bury the bent, scraped portion 3 to 6 inches deep, and anchorit with a wire loop. Insert a small stake to hold the top upright. Water thoroughly.You can layer anytime from spring to late summer. Allow the rooted shoot toremain in place until the following spring. Then cut it from the parent plant andplant it into the desired location.
Winter protection.
Many herbs suffer winter damage in our climate, sosome winter protection for perennial herbs is advisable. Many herbs haveshallow roots that heave out during spring thawing and freezing of soil. Aloose mulch spread over the roots about 4 inches deep can provideadequate protection. Evergreen boughs, straw or oak leaves are goodmaterials for a mulch. Don¹t mulch until after the ground is frozen in earlywinter. Do not remove mulch until you see signs of new growth in the earlyspring. If the mulch compacts during the winter from heavy snows, fluff it up inearly spring before growth begins.
 
Harvesting herbs
Depending on the herb, harvest may include one or more plant parts.In most cases you harvest the leaves, but in some cases you pickflowers, seeds or roots. Handle blossoms just as you would handleleaves. Often, you harvest blossoms with the leaves and mix themtogether. Dried herbs lose quality in two to three years. Discard them if youhaven¹t used them in that time.
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