How to Grow Specialty Herbs

Overview

Among the hundreds of culinary and medicinal herbs are some that, while less commonly found in stores, are regarded as essential ingredients in some recipes or preparations. These include tarragon, St. John's wort, borage, echinacea, chamomile, and lovage. These are just a few of the dozens of specialty herbs eagerly sought by many cooks and natural healers.

Good Herbs Need Good Soil

Step 1

Get a soil test. The often intense flavors and aromas of herbs depend on healthy plants, so rich well-drained soil is essential. Your County Cooperative Extension office, listed in the local phone book, will help you find a reputable soil testing laboratory and give instructions on how to take a soil test. Amend your soil with plenty of compost and any substances recommended by the soil test report.

Step 2

Find a reliable source for seeds or transplants (baby plants) of the varieties you want to grow. Most mail-order seed catalogs and local garden centers offer a wide range of herbs, and some companies specialize in herbs. If you are new to herb growing, reference books such as The Big Book of Herbs, by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio (Interweave Press, 2000) or Medicinal Herbs, by Lee Sturdivant and Tim Blakley (San Juan Naturals, 1999) provide lots of wonderful information. Sow seeds or transplants at the correct time for your area. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. Fertilize sparingly, because herbs that grow too fast can put out lots of leafy growth that lacks the full flavor or aroma you want.

Step 3

Learn the peculiarities of your herbs. For example, there are two types of tarragon, Russian and French. If you buy seeds, they will produce the Russian variety. French tarragon is propagated only by cuttings or divisions. The medicinal herb St. John's wort is toxic to cattle if eaten in large quantities, so in the western United States the Klamath beetle was introduced to feed on the plant; it is now a serious pest. Many herbs have interesting stories.

Step 4

Harvest herbs at their peak flavor or aroma. Every herb is an individual, and you need to learn the special requirements of each one. Many herbs can be dried by hanging them upside down in small bunches, in a dark airy place. Bright light robs herbs of their vibrant colors, and good air circulation is needed to prevent mold formation as the plants dry.

Step 5

Store thoroughly dried herbs in airtight containers, such as screw-top glass jars or freezer grade ziplock plastic bags. Some culinary herbs can be frozen in small quantities, and herb preparations such as basil pesto can be frozen for later use. Whatever storage method you use, always make sure the container is labeled with its contents and dated.

Tips and Warnings

  • Be careful when making herb teas and infusions to follow directions from a reputable source. Some mixtures can be mildly toxic, or may cause unwanted side effects.

Things You'll Need

  • Soil test kit
  • Trowel
  • Garden fork
  • Steel rake

References

  • West Virginia University: Growing Herbs in the Home Garden
  • Purdue University: Growing Herbs

Who Can Help

  • Richters Herb Specialists
  • Thyme Garden Herb Company
Keywords: medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, herb teas, herbal infusions

About this Author

Peter Garnham has been a garden writer since 1989. Garnham is a Master Gardener and a Contributing Editor for "Horticulture" magazine. He speaks at conferences on vegetable, herb, and fruit growing, soil science, grafting, propagation, seeds, and composting. Garnham runs a 42-acre community farm on Long Island, NY.