Enjoy fresh herbs from the garden this summer

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Wed., Jul. 13, 2011
- Contributed Photo

July is my favorite time to work in the herb garden. The summer heat intensifies the scent of lemon balm, winter savory, thyme, mint and basil, to name a few. Whether I am weeding, mulching, thinning or harvesting, I come out of the garden refreshed by the fragrances.

While it is both convenient and visually pleasing to create a garden dedicated to herbs, not all of us have the space or inclination to follow this route. Fortunately, herbs come in such a variety of shapes, colors, sizes and growth habits that they can easily compliment perennial and other ornamental plantings. Herbs are also welcome in the vegetable garden, and those lacking space can grow herbs in window boxes or containers.

The most desired culinary herbs like oregano, thyme, savory and basil grow best in a sunny site with well-drained soil. Organic matter can be added to the soil when planting or slowly over time, as a mulch. I prefer buckwheat hull mulch for the herb garden, as its fine texture combines handsomely with the plants. However, in recent years, buckwheat hull mulch had been more difficult to find, so I have been using cocoa hull mulch. I have heard that some dogs like to eat the chocolate-scented topdressing and get quite ill, so consider this a warning. Most herbs also enjoy near neutral soil, so add ground limestone to the soil every two or three years to maintain a soil pH close to 7.0.

Which herbs you decide to grow depends on your tastes and your intentions. I grow herbs that I use a lot in the kitchen, as well as decorative ones to keep the garden attractive. Summer wouldn’t be the same without basil for pesto, tarragon for chicken salads, oregano for pizza and tomato sauce, and lemon basil for rice. Decide which herbs you would make the most use of. Keep in mind that some of the more desirable herbs – like rosemary, bay and lemon verbena – are tender perennials that must be overwintered indoors.

Annual herbs like basil, summer savory and lemon verbena are generally very well-behaved in the garden. Some annuals – including chamomile, dill and coriander – can be annoying because they self-sow prolifically. Perennials such as lemon balm, chives and lovage also self-sow a bit too readily, so I do my best to deadhead them before the seeds set. I do want the flowers, as they are very attractive to bees and other pollinators, but as soon as they are spent, I clip them off to prevent serious seed formation.

Members of the mint family can be quite invasive, as can the larger artemesias like “Silver King.” Often the young sprouts look innocent enough in the spring, but about now you will have noticed they have laid claim to a sizeable portion of your bed. One option is to grow them in a separate area where they can spread. Another is to contain them in large bottomless pots sunk in the ground in the herb garden.

Herbs need regular trimming to keep productive. Each month from June through August, I go out, shears in hand, and clip off the top few inches of growth. To avoid specks of soil and insects from being collected with the leaves, hose them down with a fine mist a few hours before harvesting.

Leaves and stems can be spread out to dry on screens or in shirt boxes lined with paper towels. Place in a dark, airy, dry spot, stirring the leaves every few days. Longer-stemmed herbs can be tied in bunches and hung upside down to dry. You can also try microwaving the leaves dry. Place herbs between two paper towels and microwave on high for two minutes. If herbs need longer to dry, give them 30-second intervals until they are ready. Dried herbs keep best in airtight containers.

If you need tips for growing or harvesting herbs or with any other home and garden questions, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (toll-free) at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu, or get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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