A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

Article by: Jessica Warren, ANR Agent – Camden County

Herb gardening is popular amongst gardeners, and even those who don’t consider themselves gardeners often enjoy dabbling in herb gardening. Herbs can be grown indoors or out, in pots or beds, at any skill level. Fresh herbs can add bursts of flavor to food or beverages, be used in teas, used medicinally or used as home decoration and potpourri. Herbs are non-tropical plants of which leaves or stems are used as flavoring, medicine or fragrance. They can be distinguished from spices, which are usually the products of roots, seeds, bark or fruits of tropical plants. Herbs prefer well drained, loamy to sandy soil with a pH range of about 6 to 7.5, and only require moderate fertilization. A soil test is best to amend properly for pH and nutrient needs. Herbs generally require at least six hours of sunlight, and you will find that raised beds and natural mulch help herbs to flourish by improving drainage and soil temperatures.

Herbs are propagated from seed, stem cuttings, division and layering. Direct seeding in the spring can be successful, but seeding is more successful if begun indoors in late winter. It’s important to use clean flats which are deep enough to give the root area a proper amount of space for growth. Fill the container with moistened mix and firm the surface. Make shallow indentations, and sow the seed evenly at the same depth given on the package; most seeds are planted at a depth approximately twice their diameter. Very small seeds should be simply pressed gently into the surface of the soil and barely covered. After planting, lightly water the surface and place the container in a warm, well-lighted area or under fluorescent lights, not in direct sunlight. When the seedlings have two or three leaves, they may be transplanted into small pots or, if the frost-free date has passed, into the garden. “Harden-off” transplants by putting their containers outside in light shade for a few days before planting them in the garden. Water the transplants well initially and for the first week after planting.

Herbs such as lavender, rosemary and lemon balm can be propagated through cuttings. In spring or summer cut 3 to 5 inches of new growth containing two or more nodes. Make the cut just below a node where a leaf joins a stem, remove the lower leaves, dip the cut end in rooting compound and insert the cuttings into the potting medium past the first leaf node. The medium should be kept slightly warm and moist until cuttings have rooted, usually about three to six weeks.

Herbs that form clumps with many fibrous roots can be divided. Simply slice through a section of the mass with a shovel, or dig up the entire plant, split the mass and replant the divisions. Water well after transplanting to promote root to soil contact for quick re-establishment. Herbs that can be propagated by division generally benefit from being dug up and divided every few years.

Layering is another simple method of propagation. To propagate by layering bend a portion of a stem to contact the soil, pinning it in place until rooted, then removing and planting the rooted portion. Layering can be done in the spring or summer. If done in late summer, the plant can be left over the winter and transplanted the following spring.

Herbs can be grown indoors if the right amounts of sun and moisture are provided. Herbs need to receive at least four to six hours of sunlight each day. Don’t assume that herbs near windows automatically receive enough light for growth. Herbs will grow tall and spindly in inadequate light. Rotate the plants periodically so that all sides receive enough light and pinch them back to promote bushiness. Plants grown indoors will generally not grow as fast as those grown outdoors and there will not be as many leaves to harvest. Water herbs only when they are dry. If the soil feels at all moist 1 inch below the surface, do not water the plant. Over-watering increases the chance of disease and may eventually block necessary oxygen to the roots.

Herbs grow well in urns, hanging baskets, strawberry pots and other containers as long as the light, moisture and fertility requirements are met. Use a good lightweight, well-drained artificial soil mix, not garden soil, for container-grown herbs. Since container-grown herbs do not have access to surrounding soils they are more likely to dry out quickly. They must be watered regularly, sometimes daily. Containers should have drainage holes so excess water can escape. Regularly empty any water in the saucers under containers to prevent roots from deteriorating. Uniform monthly fertilizing keeps herbs lush, but be careful to avoid fertilizer salts build-up.

Herbs grown for foliage may be harvested at any time, though the essential oils are most concentrated just prior to blooming. The seedheads of herbs grown for their seeds, such as fennel and dill, may be collected soon after seeds have reached maturity. Herbs are best collected in the late morning, rinsed quickly and air dried. Drying or freezing will preserve them.

The ideal conditions for drying herbs is a warm, dry, dark, well-ventilated place. The simplest method is to tie herb stems together in small bunches and hang the bunches upside down from a rod or rafter. The bunches should not touch so that air can freely circulate around them. Herbs to be dried for seed collection can be enclosed in large paper bags with holes cut into the sides for air circulation. Herbs may be dried in a gas oven at very low temperature, about 100 degrees F (electric ovens cannot usually be set at this temperature). Strip the leaves from the stems and place them in a single layer on a wide, flat sheet or pan. With the door of the oven ajar, the herbs should dry sufficiently in about three to five hours. Stir herbs gently every 30 minutes during the drying process. Store herbs away from heat out of direct light. If moisture forms on the inside of the storage container, re-dry the herbs.

Herbs are prepared for freezing by a quick rinsing, then by shaking off the excess moisture and patting the leaves dry. Remove the leaves from the stems, put in labeled freezer bags, and store in the freezer. An alternative method is to drop the leaves into ice trays, fill with water and freeze. The quality of frozen herbs will usually begin to deteriorate after about three to six months, and strong-flavored herbs, such as chives and rosemary, may affect other foods in the freezer and should be stored in freezer jars.

Herbs don’t have to have their own containers or beds (except anything in the mint family including lemon balm – these plants will take over your landscape if not controlled), they can easily and beautifully integrate into your landscape and flower beds. Herbs can add scent, texture and bloom variety to the landscape, and many can make attractive edging plants. Many of our common herbs are also strong pollinator attractants. Luckily some of our herbs that are easiest for beginners are also some of the most beloved. This list includes mints, basil, oregano, sage and chives.