A little herb goes a long way when adding flavor to dinner dishes in and around Dothan. Many Alabama homeowners grow herbs so they can use the leaves and seeds for seasoning or scenting, while others use them for their bright flowers and foliage to add color and textures to outdoor gardens.
However Dothan homeowners choose to use them, herbs are easy to grow. They require only some sunshine, soil that drains well, regular watering and a little fertilizer or compost. While herbs can be grown in pots, the plants prefer to be in the ground where they can spread out, particularly those that grow quite large - 4 to 6 feet tall. Taller herbs’ growth can stunt and stress when bound by pots.
Only a few plants are needed to supple a family with herbs. Follow these tips to get started.
PREPARATION& PLANTING. To benefit from a plentiful supply of herbs, homeowners must grow them in the right place. Most herbs prefer full sun if the grower doesn't’t have regular summer temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Those with warm summers might consider planting herbs in places with morning sun and afternoon shade or in spots that receive filtered light in the summer - for instance, under a tree that allows some light through.
Before planting herbs in a desired spot, check the area a few times daily to make sure it receives at least four hours of sunlight, such as from 8 a.m. to noon, noon to 4 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4p.m., etc.
Herb type also can dictate garden placement. Dry herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, marjoram, lavender, thyme, tarragon and sages are better suited to dry, sunny Mediterranean conditions, while moist herbs, such as basils, mints, cilantro, dill, arugula and chives, are better suited to moist, cooler and afternoon shaded locations.
Installation timing is important. The best period to plant is not the same for everyone. Each person has to decide at what point his or her garden is ready for plants. To do this, first determine when the average last frost day will be in the area.
Next, determine whether or not the soil has dried out enough to loosen and add compost by picking up a handful of it and squeezing it between your fingers. If it feels muddy and moist, wait one more week of sunshine before digging. If it feels soft and moist, but not wet, the soil is ready to be worked.
Lastly, make sure additional bursts of cold weather are not on the horizon. A last minute snowstorm can kill tender seedlings and ruin new plantings and hard work. Most seed packets will indicate when to plant seeds based on USDA zone.
Once the area you’ve chosen is ready and the timing is right, prepare the soil. Digging with a large garden fork loosens soil that has been compacted over the years, allows adequate drainage and ensures that plant roots will reach down into the soil as they grow. Homeowners also can use a rototiller for this job, but they should be careful not to over rototill as this can cause problems with drainage. Taking shortcuts in this important step can prove disastrous to herbs later on.
To further encourage drainage and bring fertilizer into the garden, add some compost to the soil - about 1 inch on top - and then mix it in. This will add microorganisms and nutrient to the garden along with earthworms and good bacteria. The earthworms do most of the work in the garden to break down minerals and natural soil chemicals to allow plants to take them up in their roots.
Now that the soil is cared for, planning a garden layout before you plant can help uncover problems, such as shading and crowding, before they happen. When planning, always keep the lowest plants toward the south side and the taller ones to the north. Avoid overcrowding, but if you live in an area with lots of dry summer heat, you can plant herbs closer together to help shade the ground and protect against soil dry out. Many herbs can get very large - some as big as 6 feet across. In order to know where to plant them, determine the expected plant size three months after planting or three years after planting.
For herb planting, allow approximately 1 to 4 feet in diameter for each plant, depending on the herb type. Some guidelines for plant sizes include:
• Rosemary, sage, mints, oregano, marjoram - 3 to 4 feet
• Basils, thyme, tarragon, savory - 2 feet
• Cilantro, chives, dill, parsley - 1 foot
The final step is to plant healthy, strong plants and water them as they dry out. Most herbs like to be watered as soon as the soil is dry to the touch a couple of inches down. This will differ every week because of temperatures and humidity, so check them often. Some herbs, such as basil, like to be kept moist, while others, like lavender, like to have the soil dry out completely between watering. Be careful not to overwater - more water is not always better and can lead to diseases.
Traditionally, annual and biannual herbs can be grown from seeds as long as they are sewn in shallow rows. Homeowners can propagate perennial herbs by division or cuttings, which allows them to develop new plants from old ones. Most herbs are perennial, which means that they will either stay evergreen all winter or will go dormant over the winter season and come back again in the spring. Annual herbs will only live for one season - more specifically only one to four months, depending on the plant - before it will stop leaf production, make flowers and go to seed. An exception to the rule is parsley, which is biannual and lives for about one year before going to seed.
Divide perennial plants every three to four years in the early spring. Dig them up and cut them into several sections. Another method of propagation is to cut 4- to 6-inch sections of the stem and place the cuttings in moist sand in a shady area. Roots should form on these cuttings in four to eight weeks.
. Mulching after you plant is necessary whether you’re in hot, dry parts of the county or wet, moist regions. The reason being that mulches keep moisture in the soil, keep the ground cool and prevent fungus spores from splashing up onto plant leaves and causing disease. Some great mulches to use are pine needles, dead leaves, hay straw and even newspaper strips. Mulches also contribute to the following year’s growth by breaking down and adding organic material to the soil.
When plants are in place, fertilize them. Compost generally has some grass clippings in it, which provides enough nitrogen for the whole season. If yours does not, though, you can add manures or worm castings, which act as fertilizers, or store-bought fertilizers that have low numbers on the bag, such as 6-4-2.
When the time comes for controlling insects on your herbs, first know what you have and the best way to treat it. Sometimes this is as easy as clearing away a few weeds or adding mulch. When using pest control products, always read the instructions, or contact a professional to assist you.
Many herbs can remain outside during winter months. In areas with mild winters, nothing needs to be done except a light pruning, cutting about one-thirds of the plant to encourage a nice form for spring.
In cold winter areas, annual herbs will die when the first frost hits. Perennials can last if they are hardy to you zone. Prune rosemary, sage, lavender, marjoram, lemon verbena, pineapple sage and others, about one-third and then mulch around them to protect them from the cold. Cover lower stems and root systems with a thick layer of hay, leaves or pine needles to keep freezing wind from damaging the roots and stems.
Most herbs will keep their leaves during the winter months, but lemon verbena, pineapple sage, oregano, tarragon and mints will drop their leaves or die back completely but will sprout again next spring. Parsleys can actually continue their growth throughout the winter months in milder climates.
You can also take cuttings of your herbs and root them indoors to keep them moist and in humid environment until they are rooted and then put them in about 6- to 8- inch pots to grow over the winter in a sunny window. Another option is to dig up the herbs and put them in large pots to bring indoors for the winter.
. Generally, harvesting herbs is like giving them a haircut. Cutting off the tips down to the intersection of leaves when plants reach about 6- to 8- inches tall makes them branch out and regrow as fuller plants. Cut herbs regularly so they do not grow leggy and never cut off more than one-third of their growth at any one time during the Alabama growing season. Only cut off more if you are finishing the season for annual plants, such as basil, dill and cilantro. Chives should be cut completely across the plat base - never across the tips - so the will regrow. Cut less than one-third of rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme and other perennials during the growing season, except for fall when about one-third should be cut to encourage new growth in spring.
Typically, cut leaves from plants as they are needed. Most herbs reach peak flavor before flowering. At their peak during a col part of the day is the best time to harvest leaves or seeds for storage so they won’t wilt before you get them in the house. Herbs can be dried or frozen before storing, but remember that dried herbs are three to four times stronger than fresh plants.
The shelf life of many herbs is on to two years, but this period shortens when herbs are exposed to light, heat and open air. Herb leaves keep their flavor best when stored whole and crushed just before use. Herb seeds that will be used for cooking should be stored whole and ground up as needed.
Freezing generally works will for tender leafy herbs, such as basil, chives, parsley, cilantro, dill and mints. Three techniques work well and, depending upon the amount you preserve, you can choose between them.
The easiest freezing method is to paint the leaves with light olive or vegetable oil and place them in Ziploc bags. Some herbs may blacken when they freeze, but the flavor holds well and they taste almost fresh again when you take them out to use.
The other technique is to make a paste or “pesto” with oil and herbs in a blender or food processor. Then freeze the pesto in a Ziploc bag or on waxed paper. Once it is frozen, store the pesto in the freezer and cut off pieces as needed and thaw them in your hot recipes.
The other way to freeze herbs is to chop them coarsely, fill ice cube trays with various herbs, add water and freeze. Thaw them, drain well and chop finely to use in recipes.
Besides freezing, another herb preservation method is bag drying. Keep in mind, using this technique evaporates herb flavors quickly so drying then freezing or refrigerating herbs that you will not use in the near future is the better method.
Drying works well for rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram and savory. Use a microwave to speed the process. Just place the herbs in between paper towels and cook on high power for one minute at a time until they are crisp and dry. Food dehydrators work well for large quantities.
To prepare plants for drying, remove herb blossoms and rinse the leaves on the stem in cold water to remove soil. Allow plants to drain on absorbent towels until dry.
A final way to store herbs - and what some consider the best way - is to add them to vinegars, olive oil, fresh butter or sea salt. The herb flavors are infused into your favorite oils and vinegars and make wonderful gifts as well as cooking ingredients. To keep them fresh, refrigerate tightly closed containers.
By Cindy Martin
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