Herbs in the garden
Herbs in the garden
Last month I had some health issues that provided another layer of appreciation for my garden. Some plants that I don’t primarily use for food but that I like having in my garden came to my rescue and helped me heal. With several herbalist friends and growing public interest in herbs for health, I have been thinking more about the importance of herbs. Now that it is full spring but too wet to be doing much in the soil, this might be a good time to consider adding more herbs to your garden.
What is an herb? For me, an herb is a plant or plant part with particular potency for humans and/or other animals. I’ve stopped making a distinction between culinary and medicinal herbs, as everything we eat or put in or on our bodies affects our health. Herbs have something special that has a more significant affect, even when used in small quantities, than most other plants. Whether is it the scent of lavender refreshing you at the end of a long day, the oregano packed with antioxidants zesting up your tomato sauce, or young dandelion leaves helping clear the liver of toxins in spring, these plants graciously and generously offer us their gifts.
And many of them are also some of the easiest, most rewarding and multipurpose plants in the landscape. The Mediterranean perennial herbs – lavender, rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme and others - are well adapted to our California Mediterranean climate. They have beautiful flowers, provide homes and habitat to beneficial insects, look good most, if not all of the year, smell great and have a myriad of uses for cooking and health. They do best in well drained “average” garden soil but benefit by the addition of oyster shell so the soil is not too acid. Provide with at least a half day of full sun and most of these need only occasional to moderate amounts of water during the dry season, once plants are established. If using drip (recommended), it is best for the emitters to be a few inches away from the base of the plants. A yearly mulch of compost, perhaps covered with wood chips or straw, will provide adequate nutrients in most soils, but take care not to put any mulch close to the base of the plant, as this could hold in too much moisture. Chives and garlic chives are 2 other easy perennial herbs that no garden should be without. Chives are easy to start from divisions from friends, though of course you can buy plants or seeds (seeds must be fresh).
We are so lucky to have some of the best resources for herbs in the country locally! California School of Herbal Studies in Forestville is one of the oldest herb schools in North America www.cshs.com. Sonoma County Herb Association puts on several events each year and has great resources on their web site, www.sonomaherbs.org.
They sponsor the Herb Exchange where local herb growers sell products to herbalists and other health professionals. And there are a number of great nurseries offering plants and information.
I am also very grateful for perennial vegetables in my garden now. I’ve been eating wonderful asparagus almost every day and watching as my first artichoke erupts from the center of its giant thistle plant. There are still plenty of greens and beets in the ground and I’ve been using my canned and frozen fruits and vegetables in late winter, but these new crops are hallmarks of spring and treats to celebrate the joy of renewal.
Although our weather seems to be getting more erratic all the time, April is almost always our transition month with big temperature swings, from very warm to frosty, through the end of the month. Many people will be tempted to start planting warm season crops and these plants will be available in the nurseries, but it really is too early. Even if you live in a frost free site, the overall temperatures are usually too low for good growth, and plants started later will grow so much faster that they will catch up with the early ones. Once the soil dries out enough, April is a good month to put in “all season” vegetables such as beets, carrots, chard, leeks and onions. You can still get in a quick crop of radishes or arugula if started soon and April is good for planting potatoes. Make sure your strawberry plants have enough nutrients now, as fruit will be starting to set. If you have figs or citrus, pay attention to frost forecasts and cover plants with “row cover”, sheets or light blankets on very cold nights. Plastic only helps if it is supported above the foliage. Make sure to take off any covers except “row cover” (the light, spun-bonded white material), during the day.