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Virginia Cooperative Extension

Herb Supplement - A Guide to Growing and Using Herbs
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Spring in the Herb Garden

A Time for Planting
Welcome HERB gardeners! This quarterly supplement to the monthly post, Between the Rows - A Guide to Vegetable Gardening, provides additional information on growing and using garden herbs. VCE supports local gardeners with a host of resources, including free classes, plant clinics and this newsletter. Want to know more? Subscribe here to receive future issues. Missed out on past issues? You can get them all here.
Herb Supplement
Spring To Do List
  • Test soil drainage and consider adding gravely amendments, such as pine bark, wood chips, pea gravel, sand, poultry grit or other coarse compost materials
  • Determine if you need a soil test
  • Depending on the weather and herb, continue to grow plants from seed indoors
  • Start pepper plants from seed indoors but wait to plant outside until temperatures rise
  • Bring out perennials overwintered indoors
  • Some herbs may be transplanted outdoors (or directly sown) in early-late Spring: bergamot, catnip, chamomile, chervil, chives, dill, fennel, lemon balm, lovage, marjoram, mint, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme (check growing schedules) 
  • Pinch out the tips of new plants to force them to branch and become full
  • Harvest garlic scapes while still tender
  • Some tender annuals, such as basil, and other warm weather herbs should not be transplanted or sown outdoors until well after the last Spring frost; other less heat tolerant herbs, such as cilantro and dill, prefer cooler temperatures
  • Propagate by dividing and layering hardy perennial herbs that may have survived the Winter, such as chives, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, mints, oregano, sage, thyme, tarragon, and Winter savory
  • Divide/plant horseradish crowns, preferably in pots since plant can tend to spread
Plant, Pest or Other Garden Questions?

Contact the VCE Horticulture Help Desk 

Knowledgeable Virginia Cooperative Extension volunteers are available to answer questions Monday-Friday from 9am to noon.
General information covered in Between the Rows vegetable garden posts on testing your garden's soil and drainage, starting plants from seed indoors, crop rotation and companion planting are similar to those for an herb garden. (See posts for January and February.)

As discussed in the previous Herb Supplement, most herbs are adapted to areas with ample sun, well-drained rocky soils, and dry summers, and growing herbs in Virginia can be challenging. To increase your success of growing herbs in our area, growing herbs in raised beds and using a gravely mulch can help improve soil drainage. Drainage may be improved by adding pine bark, wood chips, pea gravel, sand, poultry grit or coarse compost (such as pistachio shells) to soils. For information on how to test your soil's drainage, see here and here. Herbs prefer a mostly neutral soil with a pH of 6.5 to 7.5. Consider if you need a soil test. In general, add lime if pH falls below 6.5, and add sulfur if pH is greater than 7.3. 

The general rule of gardening regarding "RIGHT PLANT/ RIGHT PLACE" still applies in the case of culinary herbs. When planning an herb garden, remember that most herbs need at least six hours of sun daily. Few herbs prefer partial shade or shade. Some shade-tolerant herbs include: anise hyssop, angelica, bay, comfrey, chervil, lemon balm, parsley, pennyroyal, mints, shiso/perilla, spicebush, sweet woodruff, and some varieties of ginger. Also, when choosing plants, try to buy from suppliers that may be more knowledgeable about which cultivars are more tolerant of our area's climate and conditions. 
Some herbs, such as mints, lemon balm, lemongrass, and horseradish, may spread aggressively and may need to be grown in a separate area or container. 

Herbs may be propagated from seed, stem cuttings, division and layering. Most annual herbs are grown from seeds. Some herbs (e.g., basil, coriander/cilantro, dill) may be directly sown outdoors. Some cold-hardy herbs (e.g., parsley) may grow from seed sown in the Fall, while some tender annuals (e.g., basil) need to be sown well after the last Spring frost. Perennial herbs may be planted in Fall (if hardy) or in the Spring. Some hardy perennials may be dug up and divided in the Spring to generate new plants. Propagate by dividing and layering hardy perennial herbs that may have survived the Winter. Divide and transplant mints, thyme, hyssop, oregano, chives, lemon balm, and tarragon. Layer woody-stemmed herbs, such as lavender, sage, winter savory, and certain thymes, and separate once plants re-root and become established. Other propagation methods, such as stem and root cuttings, are best done later in the year. For information, see VCE's publication on plant propagation. 

For Sping planting, harden-off tender transplants before planting outdoors (including any rooting plants such as ginger or turmeric started indoors over the winter). Avoid common gardening mistakes caused by rushing to put some plants in the ground too early. Some herbs can only be sown directly outdoors after the last Spring frost,
and require a soil temperature of 60-70ºF. In particular, delay transplanting or sowing basil outdoors until the daytime temperature reaches 70ºF and the nighttime temperature is above 50ºF. Also delay setting out chili pepper transplants until soil has warmed (start peppers from seed indoors 8-10 weeks before the last Spring frost date). Peppers generally need a long growing season and may suffer slow growth during cool periods. 

See VCE's guidance on herb cultivation and other useful herb planting schedules. When putting in new plants, pinch out the tips of new plants to force them to branch and become full. 

Generally, herbs have relatively few insect and disease pests but may be susceptible to common garden pests. Companion planting—planting herbs alongside with vegetables—may help minimize pest and disease issues in your garden. Phyllis Shaudys' books lists some herb-vegetable pairings. In general, lovage, marjoram, tarragon, thyme, and yarrow are thought to improve the flavor and health of vegetables. Avoid pairing strong aromatic herbs with cucumbers, and separate dill and carrots, and rue and basil. Other listings of some noted herb-vegetable planting combinations can be found here and here.

Fun Ways to Use Herbs

Candied Ginger and Simple Syrup for Ginger Ale
Peel one cup of ginger and slice into rounds. Mix 3 cups of sugar (or less depending on taste) with equal parts water and bring to a boil. When sugar is dissolved, add ginger and boil for about 45 minutes until ginger is sweet and tender. Strain out ginger and separate out syrup. Place ginger on a rack to dry for 30 minutes, and toss ginger with sugar to coat (store in airtight container). Continue to boil remaining syrup to further reduce down until it is the consistency of honey. Add soda or sparkling water to simple syrup (amount depending on taste) to make ginger ale.

Jamaican Ginger Beer (non-alcoholic)
Bring to a boil 5 quarts of water. Add boiling water to a pot with 1.5 pounds of ginger (roughly cut into slices, peeling root is optional) and allspice (to flavor). Let sit overnight. The next day, drain out ginger and allspice and add juice from one lime and sugar to flavor. 

Pineapple Sage Tea
1 quart water (spring or bottled often recommended)
1 cup packed fresh pineapple sage leaves
3 tablespoons honey
1 lemon or lime
Bring water just to a boil and pour over sage leaves. Stir in honey and lemon or lime juice to taste. Steep tea for approximately 20 minutes. Bring to a boil and strain into mugs.

Chive Vinegar
1 cup chive blossoms
1 cup white vinegar
Spices (e.g., bay leaf, black peppercorns, whole cloves, allspice berries)

Harvest chive blossoms and wash thoroughly. Drain or spin in a salad spinner, and place blossoms inside a clean, glass jar. Cover with vinegar to more than cover blossoms. Add spices. Seal the jar and place it in a warm, dark location.Shake jar every couple of days to regularly dunk blossoms that might float to top. After about two weeks, strain mixture and discard blossoms and spices. Use in savory recipes as you would any other vinegar (Source: theherbgardener.blogspot.com).
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