Now that I’ve reached the age of wisdom I’ve concluded that there are two things everybody should do – grow herbs and practice Yoga. Take up these hobbies and you’ll have a healthier, happier life. Rich or poor, these two practices are readily available to everyone and they are flexible enough to suit any age, personal, cultural or spiritual inclination. And how many things can you say that about?
I’ve been growing herbs now for 40 years – about as long as I’ve been practicing Yoga. I’ve grown them in large herb gardens and small window boxes. I’ve grown them for sale and I’ve grown them just for my own use. Looking back, I can think of few interests that have given me more all-round pleasure and satisfaction.
There is something essentially satisfying about growing herbs. Humans have an ancient association with those plants we have chosen to designate as having culinary and/or medicinal value and I think those who still get pleasure from planting and harvesting our crops of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme like to feel a continuing part of this tradition. Also, growing herbs is easy. Vegetables and fruit demand a lot from the gardener whereas herbs are cheap to buy, either from seed or in pots, and need very little attention.
Recently, I put all my knowledge into a book entitled Grow Herbs – Make Money. I did this because growing herbs is one of the few hobbies where you really can make a profit, without too much expenditure of time and capital investment. Writing the book, which is the latest in my GardenEzi series, was a lot of fun. It also made me think hard about what are the REAL essentials of successful herb-growing for ordinary people – by which I mean those who are not mad keen growers or New Agers dropping out of the mainstream.
So, for those who have never grown herbs before, here are ten simple but essential points:
1. Keep it simple and grow just a few herbs really well. The Top Ten culinary herbs are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, dill, coriander (cilantro), mint and chives. Other herbs worth growing are tarragon, fennel and chervil.
2. Grow those that suit your climate. You can grow SOME herbs just about anywhere except Antarctica or the North Pole (yes, even the desert!) though unless you live in the tropics you will be limited to summer. A few traditional culinary herbs don’t do well in the tropics so grow warm climate substitutes. If you live in a cold climate don’t bother with hot climate herbs that need a long growing season.
3. If you don’t have a large garden, grow your herbs in pots and tubs. Most of our common culinary herbs do better in pots anyway because they can be moved around as needed, to take advantage of sun and shade.
4. Make sure you have the right soil. Herbs do best in sandy loams that are on the light side – they don’t like heavy clay or very acid soils. Soil acidity and alkalinity is measured on a scale (called the pH scale) of 1 – 14 with acidity at the lower end and alkalinity at the higher end of the scale. Most herbs will thrive in a neutral soil of around 5.5 – 6.5. Chives, oregano and mint like a slightly more alkaline soil whereas basil does well in a slightly acid to neutral (5 – 6.5) soil. Parsley and thyme tolerate a wider range of soil pH. It’s worth testing your soil with a kit from a garden center. One of the advantages of growing herbs in pots is that a good potting mix is balanced for a range of herbs. And it’s easy to add a bit of lime to the mix for those that need a more alkaline soil.
5. Good drainage is essential for successful herb-growing. Don’t plant your herbs in low-lying swampy areas where they will become water-logged and succumb to root-rot. Rockeries are the ideal herb environment because their soil drains freely.
6. Common culinary herbs need at least six hours sun a day for good growth. Mint, parsley and coriander will take some light shade but basil and rosemary need full sun and plenty of it. In cold climates, a bed or pot position against a sun-facing wall will give additional warmth. In very hot climates some protection may be required for young leafy herbs during the middle of the day.
7. Don’t over-water herbs. Most herbs do very well with only small amounts of water, especially dry-zone herbs such as thyme and rosemary. Mint, chives and parsley need more watering, especially in hot weather. Fine out the watering needs of each herb you grow and establish a regime so that your plants get enough water but are never water-logged. Don’t over-feed your herbs, either. I only feed my herbs in pots, and then sparingly. As a general rule, those that need the most water need the most feeding too – so basil, parsley and chives benefit from regular dosages of liquid fertilisers. Slow-release fertilisers are mostly a waste of money for herbs, especially annuals. What you want is quick action feeding to bring them on for the growing season. In-ground, I don’t fertilize any of my herbs except basil – I just make sure I have good soil which is regularly composted and mulched.
8. Don’t ever spray herbs against insects – remember, you are going to eat them! (The herbs, not the insects!). Plant-munching insects rarely attack the common culinary herbs which have their own biological defence systems. Basil can suffer from grasshopper or caterpillar attack; pick them off or use an organic spray that doesn’t harm humans.
9. Seed bought in packets from garden centers is the easiest and cheapest way of growing herbs. You can of course buy them in pots and almost ready to eat but this costs more. Harvesting your own seed is fun and cost-effective but it requires hard work to do this, and to store it safely and for the correct period so it retains viability.
10. Herbs are best picked between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a warm, sunny day. At this time the flavoursome oils are rich and well-developed, drawn out by the warmth of the sun.
Of course, there are more things to know about growing herbs if you plan to use your hobby to earn some extra income – but for that information you’ll have to read the book! This is available from Amazon as a Kindle e-book or it can be downloaded to a computer – details and preview are on my website and gardening blog at www.wix.com/jrlakemedia/ezibooks
But if, like most of us, what interests you is growing herbs for your own pleasure then please do give it a try because you’ll find this hobby just so rewarding. I only grow culinary herbs nowadays and limit these to my top ten favorites, which are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, dill, mint, coriander (cilantro) and chives – plus fennel, chervil and so-called Vietnamese mint as seasonal changes.
Not only are these herbs essential for flavouring the meals I love to cook, they also contain lots of vitamins and minerals as well as the free-radicals and anti-oxidants that so many of today’s health gurus tell us are essential for our wellbeing. I just love to go out on a sunny morning and pick a handful of basil to put into a rich Italian sauce, or some rosemary to rub into a joint of lamb . I adore the taste of dill and use it at the slightest excuse – lavishly with eggs and fish for example – while coriander (cilantro), used sparingly, makes an Indian curry or Mexican dish into a taste of heaven.
Follow my simple ten points for good herb-growing and you’ll find you’ve got an absorbing hobby which will enchant your life in all sorts of ways. And if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me via my website – I’m always happy to help fellow herb-lovers!