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Growing Herbs — an introduction

All over the world people grow herbs — in vegetable and perennials gardens, in containers, or on windowsills. And with good reason!

Herbs are perhaps the most useful plants. They add flavour to our foods, and provide us with cures when used in medicines. Herbs are also attractive and add colour, interesting textures and forms, and rich or subtle fragrances to the home and garden.

One frequently asked question — what is the difference between herbs and spices. Well, both groups of plants are used in medicine, cooking, perfume, and commerce. Herbs are often grouped together and frequently confused, but there is a fundamental difference between the two which will enable the gardener to distinguish very quickly. Herbs are those plants whose roots, stems, leaves and flower seeds and pods are used in some form, and they grow in a temperate zone. Spices are plants used in a similar way, but they grow in the topics as they need continuous heat and moisture.

Uses for Herbs
The most popular use for herbs is in cooking, and nearly every recipe can be enhanced with the addition of appropriate herbs. Can you imagine tomato-based pasta sauce without oregano? Chicken stuffing without sage? Some dishes are defined by the herbs they contain — pesto without basil just isn’t pesto!

Mediterranean herbs are some of the most rewarding plants you can grow. Their leaves flavour everything from meats, soups, and stews to pizza and spaghetti. And the plants add beauty to kitchen gardens — some are evergreen in temperate climates. Most tolerate drought and less than perfect soil (though they prefer excellent drainage).

Herbs have many uses beyond food flavouring. Many types make wonderful teas, either as individuals or combined in blends. Chamomile makes a soothing tea for unwinding after a hard day. Bee balm (Monarda) makes a tangy tea with citrus overtones. And in addition to being tasty, mint teas aid in digestion.

Many herbs are also believed to have medicinal properties. The Echinacea that has become popular as a cold remedy is extracted from the purple coneflower, a common garden perennial.

Of course many gardeners grow herbs simply because they are attractive and durable plants. Bee balm not only makes a tasty tea, it is also a reliable perennial with lovely red, pink, or white flowers. And chamomile’s daisy-like blooms brighten up any sunny border.

A word of caution — even though herbs give us delicious food flavourings, powerful fragrances and remedies for various ills, even familiar herbs, such as thyme or rosemary, can have unpleasant effects if taken in excess. The oils are poisonous if taken in large volumes. In small amounts they contribute to our health. Herbs are not a cure-all for serious diseases for which medical treatment must be sought.

Selecting a site
Plant herbs where you can get to them easily for frequent harvesting, especially if you plan to use them in cooking. Consider planting a special kitchen garden near the house, so you can readily harvest herbs, greens, and other frequently-used crops. You can also grow herbs in containers or even window boxes.

Most herbs prefer full sun — at least 6 hours per day. Herbs that will tolerate some light shade include chives, cilantro, dill, and mint. Remember that if you plant perennial herbs in the vegetable garden, keep them in a separate section so you’ll be sure to avoid them during spring and fall tilling.

Types of Herbs
Like all garden plants, herbs can be categorised as annual, perennial, or biennial. Annual plants grow for only one season and so must be planted each spring. Perennials live for several years. Their foliage dies back in the fall, but the roots overwinter and resume growth the following spring. And biennials grow for two years, growing foliage the first season, overwintering, then forming seeds and dying back at the end of the second season.

Some annual herbs
• basil
• chamomile
• cilantro
• cumin
• dill
• fennel

Some perennial herbs

There is so much appeal in the growing of herbs

There is so much appeal in the growing of herbs

• chives
• lavender
• lemon balm
• marjoram
• mint
• oregano
• rosemary
• sage
• tarragon
• thyme

Parsley is one of the few common herbs that is a biennial. However, unless you want to harvest the seed, you can treat it like an annual and plant new plants each season.

Many aromatic herbs, such as mint, parsley, sage, rosemary and garlic, tend to repel certain insect pests and are thus valuable garden companions for vulnerable plants. Hyssop, balm, dill and thyme, on the other hand, are among the herbs that attract bees — which serve to pollinate other plants. Also, the leaves or roots of several herbs exude substances that tend to promote, or sometimes to inhibit, the development of various nearby plants. Green beans, for example, are improved by the proximity of summer savory but are inhibited by garlic, chives or any other allium. Dill is said to be a good companion to members of the cabbage family; but if it is allowed to flower close to carrots, it releases a substance into the soil that may reduce the size of the carrot crop.

Many herbs can be grown indoors summer and winter, in pots or boxes near a sunny window. Grow such perennials as marjoram, chives, mint and winter savory from divisions or cuttings taken in the fall. Basil, dill, parsley and other annuals can be started from seeds sown in pots outdoors in late summer and brought inside in autumn. Use light, freely draining potting soil and water as needed.

Planned with thought and care, your herb garden, whether it be a large and traditional one or a window box on a balcony, will become a priceless treasure, ever fascinating and ever changing.

I am currently working on plant profiles for a whole range of popular herbs that I will be adding to this site, along with some features on designing your herb garden. Come back soon.