Gardening with Herbs - Part 1
What is by definition a "useful plant?" The answer is the hundreds
of plants classified as herbs. Charlemagne described herbs as "friend
of the physician and pride of cooks." Herbs are used as flavorings,
dyes, fragrances, cosmetics, cleansers, and medicines throughout
the world. Although many herbs are perennials, some are annuals,
biennials, or trees and shrubs. Herbs will grow in a wide variety
of conditions and many are easy to raise.
Herbs are the oldest cultivated garden plants. The first known
writings on the cultivation and use of herbs by Chinese emperor
Seng Nung are 5000 years old. Several other ancient writings, also
known as herbals, have been found including Sumerian tablets from
2200 BC and Egyptian papyrus scrolls from 2800 BC. The most influential
of the medicinal herbals was De Materia Medica written by
a Greek physician living in Rome in 1st Century CE. Most herbal
writing for the next 1600 years was based on this. De Materia Medica
promoted the Doctrine of Signatures which proposed the healing powers
of plants were related to their shape and color. For example Hepatica
leaves are shaped like a liver so they are good for liver ailments.
Of course there is no scientific basis to this idea and the Doctrine
of Signatures should not be followed.
Herbs spread with explorers and conquering armies. In the Dark
Ages, European monasteries kept herbal traditions alive by growing
plants and documenting information on herbs. Popular use of herbs
peaked in Europe in 15th and 16th centuries. The printing press
made herbals available to greater numbers. People rarely bathed
so herb based perfumes for the body and home reduced offensive odors
and lessened vermin. Exploration of the New World expanded the choice
of herbs. The 17th century saw the development of the formal herb
or knot garden. Toward the end of the century botany and medicine
began to split away from each other. Medicinal herbs came to be
considered pharmacology and other herbs a part of botany.
Every gardener should try growing at least a few herbs. The added
flavor of fresh herbs in your cooking and reduced cost versus buying
them is worth the small effort of growing them. If you are not a
cook, herbs can be used for fragrance, color, and texture in potpourri
and crafts. Whether you plant a separate herb garden or incorporate
them into your flower or vegetable garden, you will not be disappointed.
The University of Illinois does not recommend the use of medicinal
herbs because some herbs can cause illness or death.
The size and style of an herb garden is as individual as you are.
Start with herbs you already use in cooking or crafting. Its
a good idea to plant culinary herbs with easy access to the kitchen.
For example, I have a thyme plant within four feet of my back door
so I harvest small amounts all winter except when heavy snow covers
Like any plant, growing location and plant preferences must be
kept in mind. In general most herbs thrive in full sun but will
grow if they receive four to six hours of sun per day. They will
not grow in wet, poorly drained soil but are not finicky about other
soil conditions like soil type and pH. The notable exceptions are
sage, rosemary, and thyme, which must have moist well-drained soil.
If your soil is too wet, consider raised beds, containers, or pots.
One advantage of herbs is their preference for low to medium fertility
soils. Over-fertilizing reduces the quality and quantity of the
oils and essences that make herbs so desirable.
Some herbs, such as basil, dill, and parsley, are easy to grow
from seed. Carefully read and follow seed packet directions. You
can start rosemary, thyme, and mint from seed, but it much easier
to obtain these as plants or rooted cuttings. French tarragon can
only be brought as a plant because it does not form viable seeds.
One or two plants of most herbs are adequate for many families.
The more common herbs are available in many catalogs and local garden
centers. Specialty herb catalogs and growers are good sources for
Herbs are low maintenance plants. Weed or mulch and water if rainfall
is less than one inch per week. Insect and disease problems are
Start thinking about what herbs you might want to grow. Then watch
for the next issue of this newsletter when we will look at the culture
and use of some specific herbs.
April - May 2000: Gardening
with Hebs - Part 1 | Discouraging Canada
Geese | Needle Evergreen Diseases |
May Insect Problems