Growing Herbs

Herbs are hands down the most utilised and important plants of the garden. To leave them out of the patch is like leaving your 8-year-old son, Kevin, home alone while you go on holiday to France. Sure, the consequences are outrageous and hilarious, but who forgets their son and catches a plane to Paris? Probably the same kind of people who don’t plant herbs in the veggie patch.

Nothing breaks our heart more than having to buy herbs from the supermarket. They are easy to grow and most will produce year-round, so if you have the right sort of foresight there should be a little of everything in your patch at all times (the exception being basil). They will also provide a range of scents and colours when in flower to attract beneficial insects into the patch. If you build a mini ecosystem of plants and good insects, the veggie patch will always operate with greater ease and efficiency.

Rather than head to the supermarket with heads bowed – shaming ourselves into buying fresh herbs for the meal that wouldn’t be the same without them – our first course of action is always to scout the neighbourhood. We know there are entire nature strips full of rosemary less than a block away from my house. Parsley protrudes from our next-door neighbour’s fence, as does sage. Of
course you should always ask your neighbour first, but as you do remind them that growth of the plant is stimulated by a small haircut. What you take will quickly regenerate on the plant, so everyone is a winner.

While winter is a perfectly happy time for nearly every herb in the garden - particularly for coriander, despite what most people would assume - it really isn’t the best time for planting. Early spring is that moment. Since we’re absolute optimists, and see that as being not too far off, it’s time to take stock of what you have and then what you have to do in the new season.

All plants have an preferred soil temperature to stimulate optimal growth. For most herbs, particularly the perennial varieties such as oregano, sage, thyme and rosemary, this is in the range of 18 - 21 degrees. This will give you some idea as to the best time to plant new seedlings. Early spring combines balmy soil temperatures with the most consistent rain of the year, so this is the time that nearly every herb will want to enter the veggie patch.

Before planting, prepare the soil with a healthy dose of compost and slow release fertiliser, and ensure it is free draining. No plants like to have their roots sitting in stagnant water, but some herbs - in particular thyme and oregano - have very thinly matted roots that are particularly susceptible to rotting. When planting ensure you break free this excess root matter.

If you decide to plant very early in the spring piece, you will need to provide some form of overnight protection from the frosty nights. A large plastic drink bottle, with the bottom cut out, can sit over the plants to do this job, as well as providing a shield from hungry possums and rats. Even some fine insect netting over the garden will help break the cold and keep damaging cold dew off the
young plants.

No doubt everyone will be impatient to grow basil - rightly known by the French as l’herb royal (or King of Herbs) - however this is one best planted very late in the spring piece. We time our basil to match the planting date of our tomatoes, if not a bit later. There’s no benefit from rushing, if anything, only heartache.

Herbs will perform better, and for much longer, if they are given sufficient space in the soil, so do your best to allocate them their own part of the patch. This is particularly important with perennial herbs that you hope will become the mainstays of the garden. When planting in pots choose an appropriately sized vessel that will allow room to move. Like when buying your 10 year old kid a
pair of sneakers a couple of sizes too big, you want a pot that will look ridiculous at first but then quickly fill out.

If there’s one thing we rush it’s collecting our herbs. It is something that requires a little more time and care if you want to get most out of the plants. The biggest mistakes we see are over enthusiastic haircuts and premature harvests, leaving plants naked and unable to reproduce at a rate they would otherwise.

First it’s worth noting that not all herbs are made the same and each group has its own particular style of harvest. With herbs such as basil and sage, cut down the stem at a junction of leaves rather than randomly picking off the leaves that you fancy. This allows the plant to recover most efficiently at one point where new growth will come, rather than having to deal with a number of smaller wounds.

Parsley and coriander on the other hand can be picked much like any leafy green. Take from the outer more mature stems (and their leaves) first, leaving the younger growth to become the next generation. This is much more effective than only picking the leaves, leaving the stems to sit idle on the plant. Stems are also part of the produce with these plants.

The perennial herbs, such as oregano, rosemary, thyme and sage will grow hard and stemmy at the base, and be young and tasty on their tops. For these varieties, tip pruning is recommended, which is harvesting the younger, more tender tops. This then encourages the plant to fill out with new growth again and is the best method for perpetual harvesting throughout the warmer times of
the year and even through the earlier parts of winter. But as herbs become woody and go dormant later in the cold season, a severe cutback is required.

Seasonal Cutback
As temperatures change, so do your herb plants. The change is probably most noticed in basil, which starts to develop hard, dark stems as the autumn temperatures drop. The plants quickly flower and go to seed, and being an annual (much like coriander) there is little to do but save the seeds and remove the plants. Parsley, a bi-annual, will take two years before its ultimate decline. It
usually enters a state of dormancy in the colder months of the first year, but then will recover, only to flower and seed in the second year.

Perennial herbs harden up too and you will notice them becoming woodier at their bases as we move through winter. The drop in temperature makes the plant unable to process moisture and energy through its stems, and they become harder as a result. Plants then enter a stage of dormancy, will flower around the same time, and production comes to a grinding halt.

At the end of winter a hard (and somewhat brutal) cut back of these plants is required to free them up, allowing for new spring growth.

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