In your herb garden in March 2014
After months of torrential rains, our herbs are likely to be longing for sunshine. Be prepared to lose some plants if they prefer dryer growing conditions. Thyme and rosemary especially can suffer in prolonged wet.But spring is just around the corner. And it’s time to get sowing and growing again. The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a stupendous range of seeds and plants. So indulge yourself, and get those herbs off to a flying start. And remember, no need for a dedicated herb garden. Herbs mingle happily with ornamental plants, or in pots.
- If your herbs are growing in heavy, water-retaining soil, lightly fork in some horticultural grit over the whole area, to improve drainage. Many herbs will have detested this winter’s unending rain. Sun-loving plants, such as rosemary, lavender and thyme, may well fail to thrive this season.
- Dig up herbs that fail to thrive when new growth starts, and put them in pots. Cut top growth back so water-damaged roots are less stressed. Add grit (1 part) to the potting compost (4 parts), support the pot on ‘feet’ to ensure good drainage, and wait.
Cut back shrubby herbs, such as thyme, sage, lavender and santolina, to where new growth is sprouting. Don’t cut into old, bare wood, as plants won’t re-grow.
Grow in pots for good drainage
Cut out woody and damaged stems
- Be ready with fleece to cover tender new shoots if icy winds and freezing weather is forecast.
- Divide congested clumps of chives and mint as plants start to emerge from the soil.
- For an early ‘cut’, pot up a clump of chives, and bring into a cold greenhouse, cool conservatory, or porch.
- Don’t retain or replant mint if there are signs of mint rust. Dig out and discard infected plants, and start again with fresh stock.
- If shrubby herbs have suffered in winter weather, cut out damaged twigs and branches.
- Refresh herbs growing in large containers. Scrape off the top 4cm (2ins) of potting compost. Replace with fresh material mixed with a couple of handfuls of garden compost. Top with a layer of horticultural grit which will retain moisture and look good.
- If pots are small enough to handle easily, re-pot completely into a slightly larger size, using a peat-free compost. Tip out plants. Shake slightly to loosen and remove some compost around the roots, then pot with fresh potting mix. Add a couple of handfuls of garden compost to improve long-term fertility. Water in well. Use the old compost on the garden where it will do most good.
- Don’t use last year’s potting compost when sowing new seeds. It deteriorates over winter in the bag. Buy fresh, peat-free, material from your preferred supplier. Or make your own from basic garden ingredients. Go to our ‘I don’t dig peat’ website for d-i-y recipes, and ideas for buying peat free composts.
- Start seed sowing. See below for information about herbs to sow
- Divide large clumps of perennial herbs such as lovage (Levisticum officinale), catnep (Nepeta racemosa), thyme (Thymus spp.), marjoram and oregano (Origanum spp.).
- Check cuttings taken last autumn, such as Balm of Gilead (Cedronella canariensis) and scented geranium.
- Pinch out growing tips to prevent leggy growth.
- Keep tender herbs under cover until all danger of frost has passed.
- Trying some new herbs this year? Choose the right location for your new plants. Herbs requiring sun and poor, well-drained soil: rosemary, thyme, dill, hyssop, sweet marjoram, oregano, summer and winter savoury. Herbs requiring sun/part-shade and rich, moist, free-draining soil: chervil, lovage, and sorrel.
- Grow bee-loving herbs this summer. The Organic Gardening Catalogue has a collection of six bee-friendly herbs. Ideal for your organic herb plot, or even just grown around the garden.
Sage in flower
Tasty thyme comes in many flavours
Bay - an important herb for flavouring
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
- Hyssop is an excellent attractant plant for butterflies. Sage-mint flavoured leaves can be added to pulses and salads all year round. Attractive purple flowers develop in the summer. Hyssop is also an excellent attractant plant for butterflies.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis)
There are around 500 sage cultivars available from specialists. The distinctive flavouring obtained from the leaves can be used in cooking and medicine.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- The variegated form of this perennial (Melissa officinalis'Aurea') is particularly attractive. The leaves make a delicious soporific tea
This plant can be invasive, seeding readily around the garden. Cut down soon after flowering and fresh young shoots will soon re-grow.
Organic lemon balm seed available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
There are many varieties of thyme. Lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus. has a highly aromatic lemony flavour and bright yellow leaves all year round.The golden yellow leaves are prone to revert to green. Cut away any reverted leaves as soon as seen.
Bay (Laurus nobilis)
Sweet bay looks wonderful in containers and its evergreen leaves can be harvested all year round. Use leaves within a few days of drying for optimum flavour as old leaves rapidly lose their pungency.
Bay has two main pests, bay sucker and scale insects.
- Bay sucker causes leaves to curl over then shrivel, and shoots to die. At this time of year affected foliage should be very visible, so prune out all distorted leaves, and gather up fallen leaves around the plant’s base. This will remove many overwintering adults. At the end of the month, start to check for newly curled leaves. This is where eggs have been laid by adults. Pick off and destroy when see.
Scale insects are sap suckers.They excrete honeydew, a sweet liquid, which falls on foliage and causes the build up of sooty mould. This will affect photosynthesis, as well as being unsightly. Wipe off the pests by hand (wear rubber gloves if squeamish) or use an insecticidal soap spray early in the year. Stop using once beneficial insects appear.
- Mint (Mentha sp)
There are many mints to choose from. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (Mentha piperita) are very popular flavours used in chocolate, icecream and other sweet foods. Leaves can also be infused in hot water to make a refreshing tea.
Mint is very invasive. Plant into a pot, with drainage holes, which is then sunk into the ground. Repot each year, trimming roots if necessary. Alternatively, grow in its own, free-standing pot. It can also be under-planted with bulbs for early spring interest.
- Mint rust is a serious disease. If your mint had orange then black pustules on the leaves last season, remove it this year as infective spores will overwinter in soil surrounding plants. Start again with new plants in a different location. If plants were grown in a pot, clear out all the old potting compost, and scrub the pot before re-using. Always use new season’s potting compost.
- Horseradish (Armoracia rusticana)
Grate roots and add to coleslaw, cream cheese and mayonnaise. Young leaves can also be added to salads or sandwiches. The long, branched taproots of horseradish are difficult to eradicate. Grow in pots or in a large, deep container sunk to the rim in the soil to keep it manageable.
- Sorrel (Rumex scutatus)
Also known as French or buckler-leaved sorrel. Sorrel is available early in the season and grows well in containers.
- Winter savory (Satureja montana)
A tasty evergreen shrub that originates from southern Europe. Regular picking will produce fresh leaves all year. Flavour is particularly pronounced just before flowering.
- Summer savory (Satureja hortensis) is a half hardy annual that can be sown under cover now. Also known as A half hardy annual that can be sown under cover now. Also known as the ‘bean herb’, it is popular in Europe and North America as an addition to bean dishes to help prevent flatulence.
Variegated ginger mint
Grow mint in a pot to keep
it under control
Organic peppermint seeds are available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue
Grow invasive horseradish
in a pot
Both Broad and Buckler-leaved sorrel (Rumex spp.) seeds are available from the Organic Gardening Catalogue
Make sure your herbs are truly organic. Most herbs can be easily raised from seed and a packet of seed often costs the same as one single plant from a shop. Seed sowing is the perfect way to raise large numbers of annual and biennial herbs. It also enables you to use peat-free potting compost.
Perennials such as chives (Allium schoenoprasum), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), lovage (Levisticum officinale), salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor) and sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) are also easily grown from seed.
Herbs to start off inside in pots.
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Wait until the end of this month before sowing basil. Seedlings tend to be prone to damping off so ensure that they are adequately ventilated. Seeds require a minimum temperature of 13°C (55°F) to germinate. Basil adores warmth and sunshine so unless you have a heated greenhouse, start seeds off on a sunny windowsill.
- Parsley (Petroselenium crispum)
Seeds can take 3-6 weeks to germinate. Sow seeds, then water well with boiling water. This often kick starts germination. Once seedlings appear, pot on in small clumps. Gentle heat is recommended if possible. Or grow indoors until weather warms up. Plant out when the last risk of frost has passed.
Other herbs to start off in pots include marjoram (Origanum onites), borage(Borago officinalis), camomile (Chamaemelum nobile), cornflower(Centaurea scabiosa), fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) and nasturtium(Tropaeolum majus).
Herbs for direct sowing include:
Feathery dill – lovely with fish
- Dill (Anethum graveolens)
Make succesional sowings every 3-4 weeks during summer for a regular supply of leaves. Do not grow near to fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) as the two will hybridise freely.
- Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) needs rich, light, moisture-retentive soil in partial shade. Will bolt (flower early) if in hot, dry and sunny sites.
Both chervil and dill will tend to bolt if their roots are disturbed, so are best sown in-situ.
- Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)
Plants bolt if allowed to dry out at seedling stage. If growing the plant for its leaves, plant in a partially shady spot. Can also be started off in a pot and transplanted. Wait until the soil begins to warm, in early to mid spring, before sowing seeds directly into the soil. Warmer soil = better germination, so cover the prepared seedbed with a cloche, or a sheet of clear plastic, for a couple of weeks before sowing.
Herbs from cuttings
By the end of the month, many perennial herbs will be putting out fresh new shoots, perfect for taking cuttings. Cuttings can be a better way to propagate some plants as named cultivars, especially variegated types, don’t always come ‘true’ from seed.
- Suitable plants include rosemary, curry plants, and lavender.
- For ideal drainage, use a 50/50 potting compost/horticultural grit mix.
- Cut just below a leaf joint. Cutting should be around 10cm (4”) long, and from fresh spring growth.
Cuttings like to touch the pot’s side
- Insert several cuttings in each pot. They often succeed better if they touch the side of the pot. Insert deeply, up to the remaining leaves.
- Keep out of full sun until new growth is seen, and keep compost moist, not wet.
- Don’t cover grey leaved or furry leaved plants with plastic bags. They usually rot.
It is generally assumed that herbs need full sun, but this is not always the case. And if you’ve got a slightly shady corner in your garden, why not try herbs there this year?
For dappled or partial shade
Miners’ lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) – mildly bitter leaves, great in salads.
Mint varieties (Mentha spp)
Borage (Borago officinalis) – brilliant bee attractant
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Yellow-leaved lemon balm (Melissa officinalis‘Aurea’)
Golden oregano (Oreganum vulgare ‘Aureum’) – trim after flowering to keep bushy
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) – very tolerant of partial shade
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum) – keep moist and sow frequently as it tends to run to seed