Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Mistakes New Herb Gardeners Make

So you're thinking of herb gardening, or maybe you tried it last year and it was an utter disaster? Have no fear. There are a few simple mistakes that many herb newbies make (and I know, because I made most myself). Master these simple and practical tips for herb gardening and you'll be using your own fresh herbs in no time.

Fresh herbs are one of the greatest ways to increase the taste of your food healthfully. I often toss whatever leafy herbs are at hand liberally into a salad to add unexpected variations in flavor (basil, oregano and dill are all great choices). Fresh herbs can add punch to sauces or create intensely flavorful crusts for roasted meats. While fresh herbs are now regularly available at grocery stores year-round, growing your own herbs is a great way to master flavors you like and control the origins of your food. Growing herbs at home can be easy whether you live in a house in the suburbs or an apartment in the city.

Let it be known that one of the reasons I started to grow herbs was because they are much more resistant to diseases and infestations, but that still means you need to avoid a few mistakes to be able to enjoy them to the fullest. 
Don’t worry I am not going into soil pH, chemical make up of the soil or any of that.  Those discussions are for those who want to increase a harvest, not enjoy a few herbs in the backyard.  I have only tested my soil once or twice and once was because I was afraid it may have changed after a horrendous flood.

Mistake 1: Growing from seed. Many herbs are perennials rather than annuals (dill, cilantro and basil being exceptions) which means they take forever to mature and impatience can set in.  When you first start out trying to grow fresh herbs, I recommend you begin by trying to grow from seedlings rather than planting your own seeds. You can even grab a small plant at the grocery store to get you started.  Seeds grow slowly; some take weeks to germinate; others need precise conditions to sprout and grow.  All of these can be a headache for a new herb gardener, so skip it dive right in with plants.

Mistake 2: Starting with the wrong varieties. Choose herbs you enjoy eating, those that enjoy the weather where you live.  Don’t try something that says it likes cool weather if you, like me, live in Chicago.  Those hot days in late June will kill it.  Some plants can help you grow others.  Basil wilts if it does not get enough water, you can use it to gauge if you are watering all your plants enough.  Or choose scented geraniums, which love dry soil and will endure being forgotten rather well.
scented geranium
Mistake 3: Watering potted herbs like houseplants. It is better to water herbs daily only a moderate amount than to water once a week like a houseplant and let them dry out.  Houseplants love this, herbs require moderate and regular watering. This is particularly true during hot summer months. Make sure the soil drains well and that your containers have a drainage holes and it will be difficult to water herbs too much.

Mistake 4: Not cutting early and often. As a novice gardener, it may seem like your puny little plant just isn't ready for a trip to the barber, but then you will find yourself sitting there wishing for leaves without much success. Basil is a great herb to practice pruning. Basil, like many herbs, if you don’t trim aggressively it will continue to grow straight up, and become too tall and top-heavy. Clipping or pruning makes herbs bushy and causes them to produce more leaves.  It also keeps them from flowering.  You rarely, if ever, want your herbs to flower.  Flowering herbs lose flavor in the leaf when they produce flowers, giving you even more reasons to prune your herbs.

To prune you cut the herb just above a set of growing leaves. With basil, when you cut the plant that way, the originally trimmed stem will no longer grow. However, two new stems will grow around the original cutting, creating a “V” shape. 

Making your first trim approximately 3-4” above the soil produces a nice sturdy plant. Of course you want to be sure you are always leaving a few good sturdy leaves on the plant.

As it continues to grow, continue to prune it approximately every 3-4" for a nice solid plant. Your clippings make great bits of herb to experiment and cook with and result in more leaves to use later.

Mistake 5: Taking the leaves from the wrong place. When you are just starting out it seems to make so much sense to pick off a few big leaves around the bottom of the plant, and let those tender little guys at the top keep growing. Wrong. Leave those large tough old guys at the bottom alone. They are the solar panels that power your herb's growth. Once your plant is big enough to sustain a decent harvest, keep on taking from the top, as you have been when pruning. That way you get all those tender new herbs that are so tasty, and your plant gets to keep its well-developed solar power system in place. Plus, if you pluck from the base and leave the top intact, you get a tall skinny plant that will flop over from its own weight. (See rule above!)
Mistake 6: Growing the wrong variety. When choosing herbs, read the label carefully. For example, there are two main varieties of oregano: Mediterranean and Mexican. Mediterranean oregano is the more common variety, and what you likely own if you have conventional dried oregano in your cupboard. I have Mexican oregano growing in my personal garden. I love Mexican oregano in spicy dishes, for making beans from scratch, and often use it in tomato dishes where I don't want the flavor to seem too much like marinara. Similarly, there are several types of tarragon, French Tarragon and Russian Tarragon are the most common, however if you want a culinary tarragon then you want French which cannot be grown from seed and must be cultivated from root.  The first year it grows slowly then after that it springs from the root and gets more than 3 feet tall (see next rule).  The Russian variety is easy to propagate, drought tolerant and very often substituted for French, but the scent is not nearly as strong and the flavor for cooking is very limited.

Mistake 7: Being unaware of final size! If you are planting in soil instead of pots, take care that your cute little herb seedling doesn't become a giant plant that takes over your garden. A word of warning for oregano and mint: both can be voracious growers. If you are planting outside in a garden, rather than in pots, you may want to consider potting these herbs and then burying the pots in the ground. This will add a measure of control to the root systems of these herbs, which can otherwise take over a garden and strangle nearby neighbors. 
spreading spearmint
Mistake 8: Give yourself Rewards. There is an element to passion about herb gardening. To want to continue you need to feel rewarded. With herbs, finding uses and experimenting with new herbs and new uses can be that reward.  So don't stick too long with one or two herbs just because they work. Branch out to a few other basic herbs that you will use regularly in your kitchen. There are few things more rewarding than being able to pop out to garden to clip fresh herbs to use in my cooking. Once you have become comfortable with your first plant, I recommend moving on to try growing oregano, mint, rosemary and thyme. All are regularly useful herbs in the kitchen, and all are relatively easy to grow. 
Cuban oregano (with pansies)

A young woman in a Garden center near Burlington, WI introduced me to this year’s new herb. Cuban Oregano Plectranthus amboinicus, a semi-succulent perennial plant in the family Lamiaceae with a pungent oregano-like flavor and odor. It is native to Southern and Eastern Africa. It is widely cultivated and naturalized elsewhere in the tropics where it is used as a traditional medicine, spice, and ornamental plant. I love the scent and cannot wait to try cooking with it.

Basil Perpetuo

I was also at a garden center and found a variegated Basil that I have wanted to try since I first wrote about it, Basil Perpetuo a beautiful basil with a great flavor for Pesto that I have been looking to buy as a plant since 2014, because I hate growing basil from seed!  You can read about this and other Pesto Basil in this post from 2014

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