Playing in the dust: growing herbs for a beautiful and tasty garden
By Meg Molloy and Deborah Pollard
Spring in North Carolina is always inspiring to get out and play in the dirt!
Herbs are one of the easiest and most rewarding categories of plants to grow. What’s better than cutting up something you’ve grown to make salsa, pesto, or maybe infused oils and vinegars? Or how about adding your fresh cut herbs to a stir-fry, salad, dessert or cocktail? Because they’re aromatic, herbs are usually left alone by rabbits and deer, and they don’t need a lot of stirring to work well.
Herbs need two things: sun and well-drained soil. So a first step is to choose places where you have six or more hours of sun. Next, decide whether you want to plant in containers or planters to place on your patio, patio, or driveway, or plant in a raised bed, or among ornamental flowers and shrubs in a well-landscaped, sunny garden.
Groupings of jars are beautiful and can be located where you can enjoy their aroma and use them often in your culinary creations. Choose pots or containers with drainage holes so plants can “dry out” between waterings. Contrary to popular belief, adding gravel or stones to the bottom of the pot does not facilitate drainage. Gravel can actually create an environment for root rot. Many herbs grow in semi-dry soil similar to the Mediterranean climate of their origin, and overwatering can lead to root rot – they don’t like wet feet! If you put your finger in an inch or two near the base of the plant and it’s dry, it’s time to water. Others, like basil, mint, and cilantro, love humidity. It’s best to plant individual herbs in their own pots to meet their unique watering needs.
If you’ve amended your soil to drain well, you can plant anywhere you have a sunny spot. If you want to plant in the ground and your spade finds red clay from Piedmont, you will need to modify your soil. Break up the top few inches of clay and add compost, pine bark soil conditioner or “pine fines” and work it into the top eight inches of your garden bed. If you have a lot of clay, raised beds will come in handy.
Here are eight herbs that are easy to grow, beautiful in the garden, and will add flavor to your menu:
- Basil is a very easy to grow annual herb. There are many varieties and flavors – sweet basil, Thai, Genoese, Greek, cinnamon and many more. Select and plant basil plants at a garden center, or order organic basil seeds and plant seeds every three to four weeks until frost for a bountiful harvest of basil to savor, freeze and still have plenty to share. Basil needs an 8-10 inch deep, two gallon pot. In the ground, plant basil seeds 10 to 12 inches apart.
- Coriander It is best to plant in March for a spring harvest and again in August for harvest in the fall. It doesn’t grow well during the hot North Carolina summers; it will fly away – or go to seed – quickly, and the leaves will taste bitter. So plan your summer bolt-on planting and harvest the coriander seeds. If grown in a pot, choose a pot 8 to 10 inches deep.
These four perennial herbs are easier to grow from small plants found in garden centers rather than from seeds.
- Rosemary and lavender are Mediterranean woody herbs that add beautiful structure and color all year round to your garden and grow well on sunny slopes where excess water drains, or in flower beds where the clay has been amended to drain well. Rosemary upright and “Phenomenal” lavender (Phenomenal French Lavender) is cold hardy, so it won’t die off during the winter and will outlast our hot and humid North Carolina summers. If it’s grown in a pot, choose one that’s at least 12 inches deep.
- Mint is a must-have herb, but it spreads quickly and can take over your garden, so it’s best to plant it in a nice, tall pot that is at least 12 inches deep. You can leave the pot outside during the winter. Mint may die, but it will reappear each spring. Mint does not like to dry out and does not require as much sun as Mediterranean woody herbs. New condition “Kentucky Colonel” is a variety of spearmint that is delicious in desserts, teas and mojitos, and is the classic ingredient in mint juleps.
- Pineapple sage is an incredibly elegant red pollinator that blooms from late summer to early fall and attracts hummingbirds and butterflies. Plant it in an 18-inch deep pot. It will overwinter in the pot or in the ground if it is protected by mulch. The crushed leaves are slightly sweet and have a pineapple smell and taste. If you don’t see this one in your garden center, ask when it’ll arrive or if they’ll order it for you.
The North Carolina Botanical Garden is a great place to view these and other herbs in a garden. For more information on growing herbs, visit these resources:
For more gardening tips from Orange County Master Gardener volunteers, visit the Orange Gardener website and follow us on Facebook.
97.9 The Hill and Chapelboro.com have teamed up with Orange County Master Gardeners for “Playing in the Dirt,” a monthly column exploring the fertile ground of home gardening in our community and intended to provide the information and inspiration that gardeners from all levels need to flourish! Check back to Chapelboro every month for a new topic – from our gardens to yours!
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