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Starting a Kitchen Herb Garden

By Charles Hopkins Published 05/2/2006 | Gardening
Herbs to Know and Grow: Meet the Families

The herb garden is home to five major families of plants. While these families comprise literally thousands of species, a relatively small number are familiar as herbs. The five families are listed here with small sub lists of some of their more commonly known members.

Note that in the menthe or mint family, youll find not only all the mints, but the rosemary, lavender, oregano, sage and thyme!

1. The Parsley Family includes chervil, fennel, parsley, dill, anise, cumin, coriander, caraway, fennel and carrot not to mention that most famous of plants, hemlock. This family is made up of plants with umbrella shaped flower heads.

2. The Mint Family includes all the mints, pennyroyal, lavender, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, thyme and basil Look for the squared stem, opposing leaves and often wrinkly or hairy leaf type.

3. The Aster Family (also known as the Sunflower Family) includes daisy, thistle, calendula, dahlia, dandelion, chrysanthemums and zinnia. This family is recognizable by its daisy shaped flowers.

4 The Lily Family (recently this group has undergone a good deal of change, however, historically, this group included onion, garlic, asparagus, jonquil/daffodil, amaryllis The lily family has long then tapered leaves and a bulbous body stalk.

5. The Mustard Family includes cabbages, kale, mustard, broccoli, brussel sprouts, Chinese kale, rape seed, mustard seed, rutabaga, turnip, horseradish, wasabi.

A Few Important Things to Know About Herbs

Herbs have three different types of life cycles. They are evergreen, herbaceous or annual. The specifics of these life cycles and how to care for plants in each life cycle are given below.

Herbs grow in two phases each season: leaf producing phase and flower producing phase. Most culinary herbs are grown for their leaves or foliage. Once flower production begins, leaf production ceases. Therefore, in annuals and herbaceous varieties, harvesting the foliage consistently before the plant flowers can extend leaf production somewhat if care is taken to cut consistently.

Three types of herbs Evergreens, Herbaceous and Annuals

EVERGREEN HERBS

The evergreen varieties of herb, for example, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, do not die back over the winter, but remain green year round. They will still require pruning to maximize their production of new tender and flavorful growth, and should be pruned at least once a year.

HERBACEOUS HERBS

The herbaceous herbs include oregano, mints, tarragon, chives bee and lemon balm, winter savory and many others. These plants will die back to the ground at wintertime. There is no need to prune these plants with care, as they can be chopped right to the ground and will come back strong and healthy. In fact, for some, an annual mowing is an easy solution.

ANNUALS

Annuals, unlike evergreens and herbaceous herbs, do not live more than one season. While evergreens and herbaceous herbs are perennials, and grow for two years or longer, annuals produce flowers and then seeds before dieing off at the end of each growing season. Therefore, annuals require new plantings each spring.

Examples of annual herbs are cilantro, basil and chervil.

Planting the Herb Garden

There are three main ingredients to a healthy and successful herb garden sunlight, soil and pruning. It simply is not true that herbs will grow anywhere in any soil. Herbs require healthy well drained soil to grow, and poor soil or poor drainage lead to failed gardens.

Sunlight is a major factor in a successful herb garden. Full sun is a must if what you want are healthy full lush herbs. Shade or lack of sun leads to leggy or long stemmed plants with poor foliage and little flavor. To get the full lush foliage, fragrance and flavor of exceptional herbs you need plenty of sunlight.

Soil should be loose, have a good base of composted matter, leaves or mulch to create plenty of air space for the roots and nutrients for the growing plants. Herbs need well drained soil to avoid drowning and root rot.

Pruning is the final ingredient for your healthy herb garden. Follow the guidelines according to the plant type (evergreen, herbaceous or annual) above to ensure your plants remain strong and healthy throughout the growing season.

At the very least, at the end of each growing season all herbaceous plants should be cut back completely, evergreens should be well pruned to remove older non productive woody growth and annual seeds should be collected.

Selecting The Herbs to Start Your Garden

For a simple start, consider choosing from the following selection:

1. Basil 3 to 6 plants, depending on your taste for it. For a constant supply of fresh leaves, plant consecutively over the growing season. For fresh basil and tomato salads youll need at least two cups of fresh leaves to serve 4 people.

2. Greek Oregano this hardy easy to grow herbaceous seasoning will flavor almost everything. Plan on 2 plants to start if you enjoy Italian cooking.

3. Chives 2 to 3 plants can be found in various flavors. Delicious in fresh salads, on potatoes and in a variety of dishes

4. Parsley 4 to 6 plants, or try a few plants of cilantro as a variation

5. Rosemary 1 to 2 plants will get your garden started and as they grow youll have plenty of this pungent evergreen each year. If you live where Rosemary cannot winter over, consider using a container, or plan to harvest and dry for the winter. Delicious in rosemary garlic roasted potatoes, or place a few springs inside poultry before roasting!

6. Marjoram 1 to 2 plants will provide plenty of this tasty herbaceous plant for your seasoning needs. Use the leave fresh and harvest the soft seed heads for winter flavoring.

7. Bay 1 plant which can be taken indoors in winter if needed will provide you with a bay tree. Use Bay leaves in soups. Savory stews, meat dishes and a host of other ways. Add a bay leaf to stored grains and flours to repel weevils

8. Mint 1 plant at least, in a container so as not to take over the garden. Personally, I keep one peppermint and one spearmint, and use them both prolifically.

9. Dill 2 to 4 plants. Like Basil, dill will need to be planted consecutively during the growing season to keep a fresh supply of leaves.


Some Tips to Success with Your Kitchen Herb Garden

1. Finding a sunny spot near the kitchen means youll use the herbs more often! Herb gardens far from the house or kitchen tend to be used much less often. Out of sight is out of mind, so keep it as close as you can to the kitchen door.

2. Consider using outdoor containers or raised beds. Many garden supply stores now carry old wine barrels cut in two, as well as extensive lines of prefabricated containers. Raised containers or beds mean you dont have to get down on your hands and knees to work the garden.

3. While the idea of indoor herb gardens is quite popular, the practical truth is that unless you have plenty of indoor sunlight, your herbs simply wont grow. A patio, porch or even a picnic table placed in the sun will serve perfectly to hold your kitchen herb garden containers.

4. Mix it up! While it is recommended that individual containers be used for each type of herb, if youre working in an outdoor garden theres no reason not to pretty things up: plant marigolds, zinnias, calendula or other clumping flowering plants around your borders. If youre looking for protection from pests and animals, use wormwood and tansy as an outer border to the garden.

5. Take the time to enjoy your new herb garden! Nothing perks up a dull moment like a whiff of fresh basil or rosemary crushed between the fingers. Feeling mentally sluggish? Basil is known as the mind clearing herb and its surprising how just inhaling a few deep breaths of this pungent plant can bring your mental faculties back on line!

6. If youre new to cooking with fresh herbs, start slowly. A great chef recommends you begin with one herb at a time: choose the herb and use it in your cooking in different ways until you get familiar with its qualities. Then try another. If you try to use too many different herbs at once youll end up with a muddle of flavors and it will be harder to learn the individual tastes and complimentary characteristics of different herbs.

7. Have fun! After all, the heart and soul of great food is its ability to bring pleasure and joy to the table! If youre getting frustrated or overwhelmed by your kitchen herb garden project, take a break, find a spot in the sunshine for yourself and sip a cool drink. There is no point in stressing out over your kitchen herb garden!