Herbs Like It Lean

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Many herbs are native to the eroded hillsides around the Mediterranean, so it's not surprising that they like lean, well-drained soil. You don't have to give herbs a starvation diet, though, to get good results. Ordinary garden soil with average fertility is fine if you leave off the fertilizer. Lots of nitrogen produces lush-looking herb leaves, but it reduces the concentration of the essential oils that give herbs their aroma and flavor (and some of their medicinal properties). If yoti want your herbs to taste good, hold the nitrogen.

Most herbs aren't fussy about soil acidity and grow well in slightly acidic to slightly alkaline soil. A pH of 6.5 to 6.8 is ideal. If your soil produces good vegetables, you shouldn't need to adjust the pH.

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  • Integrate your annual herbs into your vegetable beds.
  • Perennial herbs are easier to manage if treated like asparagus or rhubarb. Grow perennials together in their own bed to simplify soil care in the vegetable bed.

Feeding with Compost

For many herbs, an inch or so of compost supplies all the nutrients they need. Those herbs that like a slightly richer diet are listed in the box on the facing page. Feed them compost or well-rotted manure twice as often or use twice as much. If you supplement with a standard, balanced fertilizer, spread in spring using only one-fourth the amount recommended for vegetables. If growth isn't lush, give plants another boost in midsummer using an equally low dose.

Herbs that you harvest more than once will benefit from a boost, too. Instead of waiting until midsummer, feed them each time you cut them back to encourage regrowth. Basil, cilantro, arugula, and mints appreciate such treatment. Half-strength fish emulsion (or a fish emulsion/licjuid seaweed blend) is a great way to give harvested annual herbs a boost.

► A slight slope is a great spot for a few herbs because it offers good drainage; terrace it or design an herbal rock garden.


Providing Good Drainage

Good drainage is the niosi imp«>n:mi requirement for herbs. In all but the driest climates and the sandiest soils, they thrive in raised beds. Improve the drainage of heavy soils and the moisture retention of sandy soils with — you guessed it — organic matter. Lean doesn't mean low in organic matter; herbs grow best in bumusv loam. Give them an inch of compost or leaf mold every spring after the soil warms to maintain adequate levels of humus. WlV

If your soil is very well drained or tends to be dry, herbs will appreciate organic mulch to keep the soil somewhat moist. In humid climates mulch can encourage rot, so spread it thinly and keep it an inch or two away from plant stems. Where winters are wet, remove organic mulch in fall or replace it with gravel mulch. Cold, wet winter soil kills perennial herbs more often than extreme temperatures. Gravel mulch helps water drain quickly away from the base of plants, reducing humidity and increasing chances of winter survival. Where extremely cold temperatures are also a problem, add a loose winter cover mulch such as evergreen branches or straw.

Herbs That Are Moderately Heavy Feeders

These plants like a richer soil than other herbs. Give them more organic matter. Be prepared to supplement this with compost tea or dilute liquid fertilizer if growth isn't as lush as you'd like. Some of these herbs really need just a bit more moisture, which is guaranteed when soils are rich in humus. Even herbs that prefer partial shade can be grown in full sun if given rich, evenly moist soil. (Mints and lemon balm are good examples.)

Angelicas (Angelica archangelica, A. atropurpúreo) Anise hyssop (.Agastache foeniculum) Arugula (Eruca vesicaria subsp. sativa) Basil (Ocimum basil i cum) Bee balm (Monarda didyrna) Chervil (Anihriscus cerefolium) Cilantro/curiander (Conundrum sativum) Feni>el (Foeniculum vulgarc) Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) French sorrel (Rumex scutatus) Garlic (Allium sativum) Horseradish (Armoraaa rusticana)

Lady s-mantle (Akhemilla mollis) Lemon balm (Melissa offuinalis) Lemon verbena (Aloysiu triphylla) Lovage (Levisticum officinale) Orrisroot (Iris germamca wnr.florentim) Parsley (Pctrosclinum erispuin) Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegtum) Perilla ("beefsteak planD (& riQa fruLscem) Saffron (Crocus salivas) Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)


Growing Perennial Vegetables and Fruits

Crops that last more than one year need a different soil strategy from that of most other vegetables. These include asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish as well as bush fruits. Some people grow any or all of these a. edge of the vegetable bed. It may be better to grow them in their own spot; then you won't bump into thorns ( damage roots while working in your vegetable beds.

Use organic mulch and topdressing or sidedressing to provide a maintenance diet of nutrients and organic matter. If you use long-lasting mulches such as wood chips, you won't have to replenish often. For strawberries, use pine needles or straw so you can eventually dig them into the soil.

Preparing the Soil

Prepare the soil well before planting. Ideally, start a year ahead. Test the soil, amend if needed, and grow a season's worth of green manures to build good tilth and fertility. The buckwheat-rye combination will really reduce your weeding chores the following season. If you can't work that far ahead, try to test soil and adjust pH at least six months before planting. Your plants will grow better and faster.

If you have any reason to suspect heavy soil or poor drainage, double-dig the soil and plant in raised beds. Before planting, dig in lots of organic matter and some rock phosphate to stimulate good root growth and increase frost resistance. Other nutrients can be scratched into the surface now or later.

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