Getting Started With Herbs
For me, Spring means herbs – for their fragrance and taste, for the bees they attract, and especially for taking care of our bodies, both inside and out. If you don’t have a garden, that’s okay – many do quite well in containers on a porch or balcony, or even in a sunny window.
Good choices for container herbs include basil, parsley, rosemary, sage, mints, chives, lavender, catnip, calendula, oregano, pineapple sage, to name a few. You can start herbs from seeds or purchase small plants from a local nursery. Some herbs can take weeks to germinate, others (basil for example), take days. The longer the germination, the more likely I’ll buy a starter plant, and many of these happen to be perennial: plants return year after year and also tend to spread – think mint; or biennial: plants come up in the first year, bloom and set seed in the second year, which germinates in fall producing another first year plant for the next spring – mullein, lovage, parsley (and carrots!), and Angelica are all biennials.
Here’s the best beginner advice I have: start small and grow what you love and want to use. If you’re a pesto lover, then basil is for you. There are many varieties and basil is great for your health. If you want to focus on skin care, go for calendula (calendula officinalis), sometimes called pot marigold. For healthy teas/tinctures, my easy-to-grow favorites are holy basil (tulsi), lemon balm, Greek oregano, and some mint. I also love nettles but not in pots and not in the garden – somewhere out back in the brush pile please!
Not all seeds should be covered. Some need light to germinate, others are so tiny, too much soil will prevent germination. Purchase good quality, organic seeds and follow packet directions. Use organic seed starting mix or a fine grained potting soil. Seed-starting trays or peat/coir pots work, but anything small – even cardboard egg cartons – can make seed starters, as long as they drain and hold soil. Don’t let the soil dry out, and don’t overwater. I use a fine mist sprayer and create a greenhouse effect with clear plastic that is removed when the plants sprout. Your seedling is ready for a larger pot when it has grown about 3”, has a couple of sets of true leaves, and looks sturdy enough. (The seed-leaf or cotyledon comes first, before the true leaves). Try not to disturb the roots when transplanting!
Containers can be whatever you like, as long as they are big enough to give roots room and minimize watering, and you can handle them. Wet soil is heavy! Wood half-barrels are awesome and several herbs can be planted in each one. I love clay pots – they come in all sizes and are affordable. They’re porous though, so plants need to be watered more frequently – and do soak pots in water before planting. You can also repurpose anything that will hold soil. Just punch holes in the bottom for drainage!
Choose high quality, organic potting soil, and follow directions on the bag for moistening and filling your pots. Some have fertilizer added but you will need to supplement towards the middle of summer. Try liquid fish emulsion or an organic granular fertilizer. Don’t plant too close together. A good rule of thumb is 8” of pot per plant. Once the soil is ready and a hole has been created for each plant, carefully remove herbs from their nursery pots. If it’s root bound, gently loosen the roots then set plants at the same level as in the nursery pot, maybe a tad deeper, and gently press soil around each plant. I like to mist after planting to remove dirt from the outside of the pot as well as from the plants. Most herbs want sun though will tolerate some shade. Pay attention to watering especially in mid-summer. Heavy downpours can decimate tender plants so if that’s predicted, move to a sheltered location if possible.
Regular clipping will keep your herbs from becoming leggy, and clipping budding stems from herbs like basil and mints will keep them producing longer. Use clippings in cooking or teas. Sit back and enjoy your herbs – and the bees they attract!
Susan Meeker-Lowry lives and gardens in Fryeburg. She is the owner of Gaia’s Garden Herbals, a home-based business offering high quality, made-in-small-batches herbal creams, salves, and balms using many of the herbs she grows. Contact her or Gaia’s Garden Herbals at firstname.lastname@example.org.