Ed. — This originally appeared in the Sunday, April 11, print edition.
BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
VIRGINIA BEACH — Herb gardening has become increasingly popular, and some garden centers devote whole sections to it and offer a variety of culinary and ornamental herbs. Rosemary, lemon balm, mints and lavender are enticing, but before you buy them, it’s best to learn about them. Herbs do have a few quirks, and different cultivars have different growing needs and uses.
First, what defines a plant as an herb? The Virginia Cooperative Extension says most botanists define an herb as a plant that “dies back to the ground each year without forming woody stem tissue.” Perdue University Cooperative Extension defines herbs as “plants used whole or in part for flavor,” although it notes that many are also used for fragrance, healing or ornamental purposes.
I find both definitions problematic.
Rosemary and lavender do form woody stems after a few years, and not all herbs die back each fall and return in the spring. In this area, some may only live as annuals while others, such as parsley and even dill, may keep going through our milder winters if they’re kept in a sheltered location.
Rosemary is also an evergreen and frequently blooms during the winter. Not all herbs are edible. You might not like the odor, but some, such as tansy and pennyroyal, can repel insects.
Rather than quibble about terms, it’s probably best to learn preferred growing conditions of herbs, decide where to grow them and know the time and space you have.
Most herbs prefer very dry growing conditions and rocky or sandy soil. If you live along Pungo Ridge, your soil is probably well suited. However, in most areas of Virginia Beach, you need to mitigate soil with perlite, vermiculite or other coarse, dry materials. It’s best to create a raised bed. And go easy on the fertilizer. They require few nutrients, and once they’re established, you usually don’t need to feed them at all.
Secondly, consider the space you have and how much work you want to do. Many herbs, including tansy, mints, and lemon balm, spread like wildfire. Others, such as parsley and dill, do well planted alongside vegetables and flowers in a potager-style garden. Many herbs grow well in containers, and the added advantage is you can control moisture and sunlight and cover the more tender perennials during the winter.
Third, decide what you want to do with them. Culinary herbs, including basil, rosemary, parsley, sage and thyme, are the most commonly grown and can be used fresh or dried in a variety of foods. If you want to repel insects, tansy, mints, pennyroyal, citronella and lemon grass are also useful. Lavender, lemon verbena, mints and lemon balm are delightful in teas, and lavender and lemon verbena can also be used in baking or in making potpourri. Many flowering herbs also attract pollinators, and dill and parsley serve as hosts for butterfly caterpillars.
It’s best to become familiar with the needs of the species you’re growing, too. Lavender and rosemary, in particular, like very dry conditions, while basil can tolerate more moisture. While most herbs adore full sun, pennyroyal likes shade, and dill usually grows only as a cool weather plant.
Lemon verbena is my favorite herb. It has a delightful, delicate lemon fragrance, and I’ve used it in everything from salad dressings to teas to hair rinses. It is very cold sensitive, and I’ve found that it’s best grown in containers in a very sheltered location. Even with protection, it might die back and take awhile to return in the spring. I keep mine covered on the coldest nights.
Remember that good drainage is the most important thing. Consider where you want to put the herbs, but also put some thought into what first attracted you to herb gardening. You might want to stick to the common culinary herbs such as basil and parsley. If you’re drawn to herbs for aesthetic reasons, experiment with different varieties. If you love fragrance, consider lemon verbena.
The author is a contributor to The Independent News. Her journalism has also appeared in The Virginian-Pilot.
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