How do I grow herbs?

Follow these guidelines for strong plants with superior flavor and insect/disease resistance:

  • Choose high-quality plants that are…
    • locally propagated and grown so they are better adapted to our Lowcountry climate.
    • named varieties, e.g., Genova Basil, Salem Rosemary, Sicilian Oregano—these are tried and true!
    • grown from cuttings or division— not seed! This is especially important for woody perennials such as lavender, thyme and rosemary. Annuals grown from seed are ok, but choose a named variety to ensure quality.
  • Plant them in the right location. Most herbs need…
    • a minimum of five or more hours of strong sunlight.
    • great drainage. Plant them in big pots or raised beds.
    • great air circulation around and through the plant.
    • soil pH near neutral. Slightly alkaline is fine— add compost to the planting soil.
  • Water herbs when the soil begins to feel dry.
    1. Feel the soil with your finger.
    2. When soil gets to the dry side of moist, then water until wet, but not soggy!
    3. Ideally, herbs should stay just moist; not soaked, and not bone dry.
  • Fertilize herbs at half-strength.
    • Herbs can grow faster than they can produce flavor/scent, and too much fertilizer makes them grow too fast, rendering them flavorless and making them more susceptible to pests.
    • When using chemical fertilizer, follow directions except use half-strength.
    • If using an organic fertilizer, full strength is fine (organics are milder).
  • Prune/harvest frequently.
    • Pruning promotes vigorous plants that are more compact and attractive.
    • Head (cut off tips) in spring to make bushy.
    • Thin (cut whole inside branches) in summer to help air circulation (important for woody herbs).

[ Back to Top ]

Where Should I Plant My Herbs?

One of the most frequent questions we hear is, “Where should I plant my herbs?” Many people are intimidated by growing herbs. They think there is some special method involving intricate designs and formal borders. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Herbs are as accommodating as any other garden plant, and sometimes more so. They do beautifully mixed into your perennial or annual borders, grow wonderfully in pots or window boxes, and can even do well inside on a sunny window sill. How is that for versatility?

Preparation. Most herbs require about 5–6 hours of sun to really do well. Most also require well-drained soil. If you plan on putting them in the ground, choose an open sunny spot that is slightly elevated (to promote drainage) or raise the bed a few inches before planting. Before you begin, do yourself (and your herbs) a favor and add some compost to the soil. This will improve the health of the soil by increasing the nutrients and microorganisms as well as the soil’s capacity to hold moisture—all of which are vital to a healthy garden.

Next, take a few minutes to ask yourself what you are expecting out of your herbs. Do you want a functional herb garden that you will harvest from frequently? If so, make sure you have access to them. Add a few stepping stones to the bed, or place your herbs in easy-to-reach planters or pots. Nothing is more frustrating than wading around your dew soaked garden looking for a single sprig of parsley to add as a last minute garnish.

Growing requirements. Just as you would with any other plant, think about the growing conditions your herbs prefer. If you don’t know, ask one of our sales people, check out our website (www.petesherbs.com), or look in any good herb book (see “Recommended Reading”). Herbs come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and most will grow just about anywhere, but to do their best, give them what they want! The creeping thyme you just bought may look adorable next to the mint, but aside from having vastly different water requirements, it will get smothered by the mint in no time. Instead, place the thyme between stones in your walk way, or plant it at the base of a topiary or near your rosemary. You may have visions of your lavender blooming profusely from the center of your garden, surrounded by beautiful flowers. This won’t happen. Lavender needs great air circulation and will thrive on the edge of your border or in a pot. And wouldn’t all of those basils look cute together in a pot? Not necessarily. The Genova basil can reach four feet and will probably overshadow the rest of them—give it its own pot, or plant it in the ground. Other varieties such as Thai, lemon or lime basil, or a compact Genova basil will gladly share with others.

Watering requirements. Basil is a thirsty plant—especially in the summer. Rosemary is not a thirsty plant; too much water is one of the few things that will kill it. So avoid putting these two in a pot together, or too close to each other in the garden. As a general rule, the greater the leaf surface, the more water it will need (think basil and mint). The smaller leaved, woodier plants, such as thyme, oregano and rosemary, (and those with silvery leaves) require less water and very well drained soil. (See “Plants That Do Well Together.”)

The best advice however, is just get out there and plant. What is the worst that can happen? You might kill something. Plants die—sometimes without any help from you at all! There are few hard and fast rules. If you are determined to plant basil in the shade, because that is all you have, do it. See what happens—you just never know. If your plants consistently die in one spot, try them in another. If you have great luck with one thing, plant more of it! Go with what works. A garden is a process, not something you have. Sometimes it takes a little work to get things going, but in the end, you will be glad you tried.

[ Back to Top ]

What is eating my basil?

Basil predators are usually snails and slugs, caterpillars, or grasshoppers. All can cause large holes in the leaves of your plants. Slug damage is easy to identify from the silvery trails left on the plants. Handpicking, setting beer traps, or a little diatomaceous earth sprinkled at the base of the plant should help. Also, water only in the morning. The less moisture you have at night for these critters to travel around in, the better!

The caterpillars are harder to identify, because they are generally on the underside of the leaf or in the soil, and can be the same shade of green as the plant. Use an organic control such as Dipel (which contains Bt, a bacteria that feeds only on caterpillars) to control these pests.

There is not much you can do about the grasshoppers other than pick them off when you see them. If you use enough pesticide to kill them, you may not want to eat your basil…

[ Back to Top ]

Why did my thyme die?

The biggest killer of thyme in our jungle-like climate is moisture. It is imperative to keep thyme in the full sun with well-drained soil. The next biggest killer of thyme is webworms. They spin little webs that trap moisture, which leads to mildew, rot and certain death. These are easily treated with Bt (Dipel, see above, in “what’s eating my basil”). Products containing Bt are readily available at your local garden shop. Also important, be sure to cut the flowers off after your thyme blooms.

[ Back to Top ]

Why do my dill and cilantro die every summer?

Because they are cool season annuals, which means they thrive in cool weather. While it is possible to coax them along through the summer heat, it can be very difficult. Both herbs will produce flowers instead of the flavorful leaves that we want for our cooking when the temperatures rise above 80 degrees. Providing some shade in the afternoons will help prolong the life of these herbs, as will growing them inside on a sunny windowsill (they like the A/C!) You can also keep reseeding crops so that you will have a continuous supply of young plants. The best bet is to grow these herbs in the cooler months when they will really excel! If you let your cilantro flower you can harvest the seeds, which are called coriander (often used in Mexican and Indian cuisines).

You can also try growing Vietnamese Coriander (Polygonum odoratum) as an alternative to cilantro. It is a heat loving tender perennial in our climate, and thrives during the summer. Also known as rau ram, it is used frequently in Asian dishes, but serves as a great cilantro substitute in salsa and guacamole. The leaves are used fresh, generally chopped and added at the end of any cooking to avoid muting the flavor.

[ Back to Top ]

How do I use herbs?

Unlike many vegetables, there is no one time to harvest herbs—you can “harvest” them all year. In the spring when you pinch the tips to promote plant vigor and new growth; in the summer when you thin out branches to promote air circulation and prevent disease; in the fall when you cut the last of your basil before frost; and even in the winter, since many classic herbs such as rosemary and oregano are evergreen in the Lowcountry. Every time you snip, you can add new flavors to your food!

There are several fundamental ways to use and/or preserve herbs: use fresh, by snipping and adding to your food; freezing them; making pesto; adding to olive oil or vinegar; or drying them.

An easy way to preserve herbs is to chop them in your food processor or blender, place them in ice cube trays, cover with water and freeze. You can store the cubes in a plastic bag in the freezer, pulling out a few at a time to add to soups, stews, roasting pans, pots of vegetables, etc. The water protects the herbs from drying out, freezer burn, and from losing flavor, but can cause certain herbs to darken.

Making herb-flavored vinegars is another quick and easy way to preserve your herbal harvest. Use a good quality cider or wine vinegar as a base. Bruise freshly picked herbs and loosely fill a clean jar. Pour warm (not boiling) vinegar to fill the jar, cap with an acid proof lid, then let it sit for about two weeks. If you would like a stronger flavor, strain the vinegar and repeat the process. You can store it as is, or strain it through cheesecloth and rebottle, adding a fresh sprig for decoration. You can use flavored vinegars in salad dressings, marinades, sauces, etc.

Good Herbs for Vinegars
Basil, bay, chervil, dill, fennel, garlic, lemon balm, marjoram, mint, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme.

Olive Oil
Loosely fill a clear jar with fresh, chopped herbs and cover with unheated oil and close the jar tightly. If you rinse your herbs before you use them, make sure they are dry before you add them to the oil, or you will get a cloudy oil. You can start using the oil the next day to sauté foods, in salad dressings, marinades etc. Be sure to use quickly, as it can start to get rancid within a few weeks after opening.

Good Herbs for Oils
Basil, fennel, marjoram, mint, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and thyme.

Drying is no longer the preferred method of preserving herbs. During the drying process the volatile essential oils that give an herb its flavor quickly evaporate and are lost. If you must dry them, hang them in loose bunches in a cool, darkened room with a little air circulation until the leaves crumble easily and completely. Then store whole leaves in a dark, airtight, glass (not plastic) container in a cool place. Take out a few leaves as needed and crumble into recipes.

[ Back to Top ]

When is the best time to plant herbs?

In our climate, you can plant herbs year round, keeping in mind that summer can be hard on any plant if they are not given proper care and water. Some do better at different times however. For instance, dill, cilantro, chervil, and most greens (such as arugula and mustard) are cool season plants and do best when planted in fall, winter, or early spring. They will not tolerate the heat of our summers.

Other plants such as basil, lemon grass, patchouli and Mexican tarragon need the heat to thrive, and will really shine when planted from late spring to early fall.

There are many herbs that can be planted any time, such as rosemary, oregano, and lavender, and remain evergreen and tolerant of temperatures.

If in doubt, ask before you buy, or check our list of plants to see what is seasonally available.

[ Back to Top ]

Why did my rosemary or (lavender) die?

The primary cause of death to woody perennials such as these is over watering. This is not say that these plants don’t need water, but they won’t require as much as the rest of your garden. They should be kept on the dry side, watering thoroughly just when they begin to wilt. They need as much sun as you can give them, well drained soil, and good air circulation around each plant. Lavender in particular, can be susceptible to fungus during our humid summers. If you do see branches beginning to turn brown, prune them out, and spray with a commercial fungicide, or a mixture of baking soda and water.

[ Back to Top ]

Can I grow herbs inside?

Yes, you can grow herbs inside. Just follow the above rules for growing herbs: 1) provide them with bright light, 5 hours minimum; 2) water carefully (it is easy to over water herbs inside since they aren’t exposed to full sun and wind, which can dry them out faster); 3) fertilize using a half-strength commercial, or full strength organic fertilizer—once every two weeks in spring and summer, once a month in the fall and winter.

[ Back to Top ]

Charleston Web Design