Herbs perk up not only your cooking, but also your garden. They add zest and flavor to simple dishes, are believed to be beneficial to your health, and have none of the health hazards associated with salt or fat-laden sauces. In the garden, herbs look and smell lovely. They are remarkably easy to grow and require little maintenance. You can't go wrong by adding some herbs to your garden.
Choosing Your Herbs
If you're new to herb gardening, you might want to choose one or two herbs to start with. Pick something you use a lot for cooking. People who make spaghetti or other Italian dishes frequently might want to start with basil. Thyme is good in many meat dishes, and rosemary adds life to chicken, soups and vegetables.
Herbs are easy to grow, but as with any gardening project, it's better to start small and be successful than to overdo it and get discouraged.
When purchasing your plants, look for green, healthy-looking specimens. Avoid plants with spots on the leaves or spindly looking leaves or stems.
Preparing to Plant
Herbs like a lot of sunshine, so the area where you plant them should get six to eight hours of sun. They prefer soil that's neither too acid nor too alkaline; the ideal pH reading is between 6.5 and 7. You can purchase a simple soil test kit at some nurseries, or send a sample to your local extension service. This isn't necessary, however; herbs are generally quite easy to grow.
The area should be well-drained, not a spot that tends to get a lot of standing water. Plant when all danger of frost is past. With a spade or garden fork, dig down 12 to 18 inches and turn the soil; mix in compost or peat.
Planting and Upkeep
Plant the herbs according to the directions on the package. They will need space to spread out, so avoid the temptation to plant them too close together. After planting, water thoroughly. Add organic mulch to help your plants retain moisture and prevent weed growth. Be sure to label your herbs so you remember what they are, especially if you're planting several different kinds.
Herbs benefit from a little fertilizing, especially early on, but go light. They don't need much. Nor do they need too much watering. If you get a fair amount of rain in the summer, you might not need to water them at all. Keep watch over them; if the leaves look at all wilted, water them right away, but try not to let them get to that point.
Harvesting Your Herbs
You can use your herbs throughout the growing season by pinching off a sprig whenever you need it. The ideal time to harvest them is when they are forming buds and before they flower; their flavor is at its peak then. It's best to harvest your herbs in the morning after the dew has evaporated, preferably on a dry day that follows two or more sunny days.
When fall rolls around, it's time for the final harvest. Pick your herbs as stated above. Wash them with cool water and spread them on a towel to dry. Hang them in a cool, dry place. Pick the leaves and store in airtight containers, or leave them hanging and pick them when you want to use them.
Using Herbs: Not Just for Cooking
Herbs spice up so many dishes, and many people find homegrown herbs taste better than store-bought. Cooking, however, is just one of many uses for herbs. You can place dried herbs, such as lavender or rosemary, in a muslin bag and hang it under the faucet to scent your bathwater. Lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary, sage and other herbs can be used to make potpourri. You can use herbs to create wreaths and garlands. Some Native Americans believe burning sage purifies the home and banishes negativity. These are just a few ways for using the herbs you grow at home.