History of Herbs
Herbs have played an important part in man's
life for countless years -- in his politics, romance, love, religion, health,
Ancient Greeks and Romans crowned their
heroes with dill and laurel. Dill also was used by the Romans to purify the air
in their banquet halls. Some herbs were given magical properties, probably
because of their medicinal uses. In France during the Middle Ages, babies were
rubbed with artemisia juices to protect them from the cold. Ancient Greeks used
sweet marjoram as a valuable tonic, and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments.
Rosemary was eaten for its tranquilizing effects and as a cure-all for
Early settlers brought herbs to America for
use as remedies for illnesses, flavoring, storing with linens, strewing on
floors, or burning for their pleasant fragrances. Some herbs were used to
improve the taste of meats in the days before preservation techniques were
developed. Other herbs were used to dye homespun fabrics.
Many herbs familiar to settlers from other
countries were found growing wild in the new country. These included parsley,
anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender.
Native Americans knew uses for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant, but they
used the plants chiefly for domestic purposes -- tanning and dyeing leather and
With the growth of allotropic medicine and
increased use of synthetics in pharmaceuticals, both home and professional use
of herbs has declined but never faded away. In the early part of the twentieth
century interest in herbs with kept alive by the likes of J.I. Rodale, Rudolph
Steiner and more recently the popular Euell Gibbons.
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Cultivation of Herbs
Site and Soil
When selecting the site for your herb
garden, consider drainage and soil fertility. Drainage is probably the most
important single factor in successful herb growing. None of the herbs will grow
well in wet soils. If the garden area is poorly drained, you will have to modify
the soil for any chance of success. A raised bed (with a base of crushed stone
in extreme circumstances) is an excellent solution to poor drainage.
The soil at the site does not have to be
especially fertile. Generally, highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive
amounts of foliage with poor flavor. Plants, such as chervil, fennel, lovage,
and summer savory, require moderate amounts of fertilizer. Adding several
bushels of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve
soil condition and retain needed moisture.
If possible, sow seeds in shallow boxes in
late winter and transplant seedlings outdoors in the spring. A light,
well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to
cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the
shallower it should be sown. Different varieties have specific germination
requirements - consult a good book or website.
Cutting and division also are useful in
propagating certain perennial herbs. Early spring just before or as you notice
the first signs of growth is the best time. Excessive woodiness or bald middles
in your herbs is usually a sign that it's time for rejuvenation. Once you lift
the plant out of the ground, it is usually clear the best way to divide the
plants. Bulbous roots can usually be pulled apart where others will need to be
cut. Discard any woody sections and replant and water as soon as possible.
Providing some shading for the first week or so can be helpful.
Layer is a fairly risk-free method that can
be practiced throughout the summer and works well on some of the woody,
Mediterranean-type plants that don't have a very extensive root system for
dividing. Select a branch(s) that can be bent to the ground and strip the lower
branches and leaves from the section that touches the ground. Loosen the soil
and bury the branch just below the surface - you made need secure it to keep it
in the ground. Let nature take its course. By the end of the growing season,
roots will have formed and the branch can be separated from the parent and moved
to a new location.
Taking rooting cuttings follows these same
principles. Cutting is a faster process but also more prone to failures since
the new section is completely removed from the parent plant and requires
controlled conditions and regular attention. Cuttings are taking in spring for
planting the same season or in late summer for over wintering. If you'd like to
try this method, I'd advise finding a good book on the subject.
Perennial and biennial herbs should be
winter protected. Many herbs are shallow-rooted, which makes them susceptible to
heaving during spring thaws. Mulch with straw, oak leaves, or evergreen boughs 4
inches deep to protect the plants. Avoid materials that will mat and smother the
plant or hold excessive water. Apply the mulch after the ground has frozen in
early winter. Do not remove the mulch until plants show signs of growth in early
spring. Early removal could result in some frost damage.
Herbs at the edge of their hardiness range
can also be brought indoors for the winter either for continued use (see Indoor
Herb Gardening below) or strictly for survival. To hold over plants indoors dig
and pot them several weeks before you plan to bring them in. Hold them in a
shady location and check them thoroughly for pests. If you don't plan on using
the herbs store them in a cool location (a basement or unheated garage) where
they will get moderate light. Water sparingly but don't let them dry out. When
moving the outdoors in the spring try to do this in stages.
Herbs can also be grown indoors for
year-round enjoyment. Growing herbs indoors is no more difficult than growing
them in the garden. Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as
herbs grown outdoors -- sunlight and a well-drained soil mix that is not too
rich. Different herbs have different light requirements, but most need a sunny
location - 5 hours per day or the artificial equivalent; in winter, "grow lamps"
or fluorescent lamps are helpful in supplementing light.
Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle
in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you place them
outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim, or keep it in
a protected location on the porch or patio. You can maintain an indoor herb
garden indefinitely by periodic light feeding, yearly repotting, renewing
annuals, seasonal moves outdoors for perennials, and occasional pruning. Water
plants as needed. Use several planters or a divided one to allow for different
moisture needs of plants.
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Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the
plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Most herbs are at their peak flavor
just before flowering, so this is a good time to collect them for drying and
storage. To be certain, check drying directions on specific herbs in a reliable
reference book. Cut off the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has
dried. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick the
seed heads as the color changes from green to brown or gray. Wash dirty leaves
and seed heads in cold water; drain thoroughly before drying.
Strip leaves off the stalks once plants have drained and dried, choose the best
leaves for drying - generally the top 6 inches. Remove all blossoms
Natural or Air
Herbs must be dried thoroughly before
storing. Herbs with high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid
drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark by
hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags. Hanging leaves down allows
essential oils to flow from stems to leaves. Tie whole stems very tightly in
small bunches. Individual stems will shrink and fall. Hang in a dark, warm (70o-80oF
[21.1o-26.7oC]), well-ventilated, dust-free area. Leaves
are ready when they feel dry and crumbly in about 1 to 2 weeks.
For quick oven drying, take care to prevent
loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or
shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven at low heat less than 180oF
(82.2oC) for about 2 to 4 hours.
Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves
quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs
in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds.
When completely dry, the leaves may be
screened to a powder or stored whole in airtight containers, such as canning
jars with tightly sealed lids. Seeds should be stored whole and ground as
needed. Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just
For a few days, it is very important to
examine the jars in which you have stored dried herbs. If you see any moisture
in the jars, remove the herbs and repeat the drying process. Herbs will mold
quickly in closed jars if not completely dry.
Once you are sure the herbs are completely
dry, place them in the airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place
away from light. Never use paper or cardboard containers for storage as they
will absorb the herbs' aromatic oils.
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The age-old suspicion that plants can effect
the growth and flavor of their neighbors is supported at least with a lot of
antidotal evidence. Controlled studies and experiments have had mixed results.
But then it's as much a matter of faith as science and, it just makes sense.
Creating more diversity in the garden makes for staggered maturity cycles and
therefore less competition at every stage of growth. By mixing up plants you
make it harder for plant specific insect to move from plant to plant for
breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A diversity of plants leads to a diversity of
insects - hopefully attracting beneficial insects. A mixture of plant textures
and odors may also confuse pests. The benefits of companion planting are not
limited to herbs. Planting perennials near your vegetable garden also adds to
the plant diversity and is particularly helpful in attracting predator insects.
There are several ways plants affect their
This is a hard one to put your finger on
since it is so subjective but, with so many people swearing by it, there must be
something to it. There are logical arguments that can be made - complimentary
nutrient requirements; shading effect; or, actual chemical changes in the soil
or the air. Dandelions are known to give off ethylene gas that encourages the
setting and ripening of fruits. Some of these companions are:
||Cabbage, carrot, strawberry, tomato
||Carrot, rose, tomato
||Cabbage, onion, lettuce
||Eggplant, potato, tomato
Insect must use their senses to find their
dinner be it taste, smell, or something more unfamiliar to us. Plants that give
off a contradictory message will obviously confuse. Generally the strongly
scented herbs work best - garlic and wormwood being the most universal.
Although proximity can work (my experience has been very close and lots of it)
you might try making a "tea" with the herb and using it as a spray. Here's a
limited list - again, there are many good books on the subject.
|| Mint, tansy,
||Garlic, hyssop, mints,
onion, pennyroyal, sage, southernwood, thyme
||Rosemary, sage, wormwood
||Catnip, nasturtium, onion,
mint, southernwood, tansy, wormwood
||Catnip, chives, garlic,
||Catnip, mints, tansy
||Dill, borage, basil
Peppermint, thyme, wormwood
Attracting Beneficial Insects
These fall into three categories - predators,
parasites, and pollinators - and they all need food and shelter. It is in
attracting these insects (and reptiles) that the diversity of your garden
environment plays its greatest role. Many predators such as ground beetles,
spiders, toads seek out the cool, dark, moist spots to both hide and reproduce.
While flying predators will also need refuge, they are most drawn to the nectar
and pollen that supplements their diet. Daisies and daisy-like flowers as well
as mints (of course be sure mints aren't too close to the garden since they can
take over an area) and catnip are some of the best. Many parasitic wasps and
other tiny parasites need tiny flowers for their nourishment. Remember that
insects aren't necessarily attracted by the large, showy flowers that attract
our attention. A mix border of perennials near the vegetable can be an
effective and attractive approach.
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