University of Illinois Extension


Barbara Larson
Unit Educator, Horticulture
Winnebago & Boone counties

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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. It’s 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 the plant.

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 unusual herbs.

Herbs are low maintenance plants. Weed or mulch and water if rainfall is less than one inch per week. Insect and disease problems are rare.

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

Past Issues

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