Herbal gardens are hot and trendy topics these days, but many novice gardeners veer away from them for fear that they will not be able to master the "art" of growing herbs. And then, there are a few souls who view herb gardens as too holistic and "natural," but they are not. Herb gardens are a continual source of production, splendor, and creativity, and the novice gardener or the "expert" can easily manipulate them.
The start an outdoor herb garden all you really need is a sunny spot, some initiative, and a creative streak. Ten basic herbs to start your herbal streak are Basil, Thyme, Sage, Lavender, Dill, Cilantro, Tarragon, Coriander, Rosemary, and Mint. Each of these comes in a few varieties, and I suggest starting out with the common ones-each of these will be labeled common or garden. These are some of the most versatile herbs, their growth is bountiful, and they can easily be dried for freeze dried. When purchasing these herbs, buy ones that are already started is an excellent choice.
Obtaining already started plants will enable the novice gardener to develop the skill and knack of knowing how to handle these items. Already started plants are available in most gardening stores and departments, and they can even be ordered via the internet. The only exception to this rule is finding the Lavender. Most gardening books will tell you that this herb is grown from seedlings, but your local gardening store can order a started plant for you (if they do not have it in stock). A pre-started lavender bush is particularly important because this herb is difficult to cultivate. Many schooled gardeners will tell you their stories of tryst and difficulty in trying to get lavender to grow past the infancy stage.
These herbs also create delicate flowers, when in full bloom. These flowers can often be used in floral displays or they can be candied and eaten as a delicacy. Additionally, all of these herbs can be used to create unique and useful bouquets for friends and family. They provide and excellent "just because" gift, and the best part is that the receiver can use the product instead of just having it wither and die. When herbs wither they are not dead . . . they are now dried and ready for storing for use at a later date.
After purchasing these plants, designate a sunny area of your yard (or a gardening plot for city dwellers) for your garden. Here, there is really no rhyme or reason as to how you plant these. While some herb gardens show a distinct flare for design and beauty (i.e. the National Herb Garden in Washington D.C. is one example), but most home herbal gardens look a little whimsical, open, and undesigned. This ad hoc flare of your garden will give your yard a rustic flare-invoking notions of rural French gardens. When planting these plants placing the Lavender and Rosemary bushes next to one another (about a foot apart) in the center, or back center, will give your herbal plot a nice focal point. Some ambitious gardeners even plant a Lavender bush on each side of their Rosemary bush-to frame the deep, lush green of the Rosemary with the grayish leaves of the Lavender. Next, plant the other herbs (except for the mint) in front of and to the sides of the Lavender and Rosemary.
Do not plant the smaller herbs behind these bushes because the shade will stunt and hinder their growth.
These smaller plants should be six to eight inches apart, from one another and the bushes. Planting perpendicular rows, creating a circular structure, or a pure ad hoc design is truly up to you-just let your imagination flow and plant accordingly because there is no "bad" design to an herb garden.
After planting all of your herbs, sow your mint in a pot. Mint must be potted because it is a highly aggressive plant that will quickly overtake your garden, stunting growth, melding with other herbs, and in the end you might have some strange versions of mint develop. For instance, a few recipes call for basil and mint, but you would not want to use a basil/mint crossbreed herb. Instead of getting the distinct flavors of each, you will get a truly foul concoction that is not meant for human consumption. So, remember to plant the mint in a pot-no matter what variety of mint you choose to grow, and do not plant different versions of mint in the same pot. Plant them in separate containers. Then place your mint container with your herb garden so that when a cool breeze floats by you will have the mixture of the scents floating your way. The wonderful scents of an herbal garden are truly unique, and each breeze will entice your senses with a new sensation.
Once you have planted your herbs water and weed themregularly, but do not over water them. When you press your finger against the dirt if it comes away with dry dirt attached then you need to water. Wet or damp dirt means that your plants have enough water. Remember to prune/harvest your herbs regularly, and the best leaves will be found when the blooms form. Continually harvesting your herbs will force new growth, and herbs like basil and mint grow freely and rapidly. But, when harvesting remember to never cut more than one-third of the plant-you don't want to massacre your plant.
Furthermore, try to keep a natural shape to your herbs when harvesting-i.e. don't take all of your trimmings from the same side. After harvesting, gently wash your fruits under cold tap water and pat or lie flat to dry. Rinsing off your product should be done even if you do not use chemicals on your plants because animals and other droppings may have gotten on your foliage. If you are using fresh herbs, only cut enough for what you are cooking-do not cut enough for two or three days. Since your herbs are literally right outside your door, you do not need to worry about stock age, but if you are harvesting to dry your herbs then by all means do.
Drying herbs is simple-lie them flat on a drying rack (like a wire kitchen rack) or bundle them and hang them to dry. Once the leaves are dry and somewhat brittle place your herbs in dark glass canisters, or clear glass if you are storing them in cabinets. You will want to store your harvest out of direct light because prolonged light exposure will break down the oils in the herbs-causing a diminished taste and aroma.
These simple steps will permit you to grow a bountiful andbeautiful herb garden this season, and as you get surer of yourself you can even pot some of your herbs-so that they may be taken indoors during the winter months. When potting herbs, as when designing your garden, be creative.
Specialty pots can be ordered online, or found at local gardening and craft stores, or you can use traditional pots. Also, these pots can be used outdoors, for the entire season, so that you can just bring in the plants come fall. Either way, have fun and enjoy the fruits of your harvest.