‘Gung ho’ is a phrase that describes many of us gardeners during the exciting spring planting season and this phrase actually points to one of my favorite places to plant, the herb garden.
In Chinese medicine, the flower spikes of Prunella vulgaris ( All Heal) were thought to be useful for the liver and gallbladder. The flower spikes are believed to be able to aid especially in the cooling of an over-heated liver, called “gan hao” or “liver fire”. This is where the phrase “gung-ho” is believed to have originated.
Herbs continue to be very popular to this day for many reasons. Herbs not only provide your kitchen a variety of flavors, but they also provide beauty in the garden and valuable food for pollinators.
Many herbs have ornamental value, so don’t be afraid to place them in flower beds, borders, rock gardens or anywhere in the landscape. Herbs are either annual (lasting one year only) or perennial (returning year after year). This publication from the University of Missouri has a nice list of herbs and their characteristics.
Herbs for pollinators
Many herbs are wonderful for supporting pollinators. In fact you can even plant an insectary strip in your garden comprised of flowering herbs such as basil, cilantro/coriander, dill, fennel or oregano. Oregano actually has one of the highest sugar concentrations-at up to 76% in its nectar. Pollinators will love you for including herbs and letting them go to flower in the garden.
Care for herbs
Many herbs can be established by simply planting the seed directly in the garden. Starting seeds indoors is another popular way to begin an herb garden. Many gardeners prefer to purchase their transplants and plant them at the correct time. Early to mid-May is a good time to plant many herb transplants into the garden.
Care for herbs is similar to that of vegetable gardens. A full sun location (6-8 hours of sunlight) with well draining soil is required for the most success. Avoid applying excessive fertilizer to herbs as this can actually reduce their quality. Most herbs originate in the middle east and are adapted to hotter/drier climates.
Water on a regular basis if rainfall isn’t received. In general, about an inch of water per week is needed. Any mints may require more watering since they generally prefer moist soils to grow in. Mulching with an organic mulch around your herbs can be a helpful way to conserve soil moisture.
When harvesting herbs gradually remove some of the leaves as you need them. Don’t remove too many at one time so that the plant will keep growing and producing. Harvest the leaves when they contain the optimum amount of essential oils. The best time to harvest herbs is in the morning after the dew has dried.
Parsley leaves are easy to cut and dry. Chives stems are typically cut 2 inches from the ground when harvested. On rosemary and thyme, clip the tops just before or as plants enter full bloom. The leaves and flowers can be harvest together if desired. On basil, fennel, mint, sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, tarragon, and winter savory harvest leaves just before the plants start to bloom.
Dry and store
To have an herb supply on hand, the cuttings need to be dried in a cool dark place (make sure there is no moisture left in the cutting) and then stored in airtight containers in a cool, dark location. Pulverize any stems before storage, but leaves may be stored whole or pulverized depending on the desired use.
Once the herbs are established, save the seeds they produce for the next year’s crop. Harvest the entire seed head after it has dried on the plant and allow the seeds to dry in a cool place. Once dry, you can thresh the seeds from the seed head and store them in a dark, cool, and dry location. Some seeds such as dill, anise, fennel, caraway, and coriander can even be used for flavoring.