By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant.
“Not difficult to plan, not at all difficult to maintain, a garden of herbs gives more months of garden pleasure and more kinds of pleasure than any other. Its interest is independent of flowers, its fragrances are given from the first leaf to the last, its uses make it a part of the amenities of the whole year, and its history and traditions touch all nations and all times.” ~ Henry Beston, 1935
Tina Podboy Laughner, Senior Services’ Trailside Center Director, puts it more simply: “It’s a blast! Once you get started, you’re going to be hooked!” She should know. Her first career was as a horticulturist for Dow Gardens and Hidden Lake Gardens.
“Herb gardens are cool because they’re easy,” says Tina. “They’re something that anyone can do. They don’t need a lot of care. In fact, if you take too good care of them, you’re not going to get a good herb garden.”
The other thing Tina likes about herbs is that their scent evokes memories. “I did an activity once where I put dried herbs in bags and had people smell them, and they’d say things like, ‘Oh, I remember my mom used to make something with this.’ ‘I remember that my grandmother always grew chamomile.’”
Herbs need well drained soil and plenty of sunlight. You do have to water them, but not nearly as much as you’d water your vegetable garden. You want to make your herbs a bit “stressed”, so that they make more of their essential oils. “If you baby your herbs by giving them lots of water and fertilizer,” says Tina, “you’ll end up with some beautiful, lush plants, but they won’t have much flavor.”
What are Tina’s favorite herbs to grow? Rosemary, basil, lavender, thyme (especially lemon thyme), tarragon, sage, and chives. She also likes lemon grass and salad burnet, a hard-to-find herb with a nice crispy cucumber-like flavor. Mint and oregano are nice but you have to keep these plants contained, or they’ll take over your garden.
Should you buy your herbs in plant form, or start them from seeds? “If you’re just starting out, I would suggest buying your herbs in plant form. If you’re starting your herbs from seeds indoors, you have to make sure you have a table and plenty of grow lights. Some people enjoy starting their herbs from seeds, but there’s a lot more effort involved. It’s relatively easy, though, to find the herbs you want in most garden centers.”
When should you plant your herbs? Tina suggests that you wait until mid-to-late May, to make sure your plants don’t get zapped by the frost. Basil, in particular, is very sensitive to cold.
Tina likes growing her herbs in pots, in soil-less media, which is usually a mixture of peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. If you plant your herbs in the ground, you need to make sure that you don’t place them in low spots, because herbs must be in soil that is well drained.
If you really get into herb gardening, the Valley Herb Society is a local organization that’s been meeting for years and years.
So… thinking about starting an herb garden? “Start small,” suggests Tina. “Plant maybe three or four herbs and see what happens. It’ll be fun!”