Herb Gardening 2 – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

In my last article I gave you a brief description on how you can grow herbs and spices in your garden. That article included steps you needed to take in soil preparation, site selection, growing in containers, and growing for color. Some of the sections included ideas of how to lay out your herb garden to suit your individual needs. This week I want to continue my discussion in more detail of the propagation techniques you can use to grow your own herbs and spices. I will also talk about specific herbs many of us use in the garden with emphasis on the more commonly used herbs which I have had experience growing. Let us get started.  

            Propagating your own herbs from either seed or from existing plants is easy to do and can save you money. However, some herbs should not be grown from seed, rather from cuttings from mature plants. Cuttings root very easily and can quickly give you an established plant that you can transplant into the garden. Herbs such as Mint, Oregano, and Tarragon can be propagated through division. Dividing existing plants should be done in the early spring when plants are setting out new growth. All of these methods of propagation require additional explanation if you want to grow quality plants.  

            Growing from seed sounds easy and I am sure all of us have grown plants from seed in the past however; growing herbs from seed is a little different. Although you do not need much room to grow your seedlings you will need to place your seeds near a window that receives at least seven hours of indirect light from a southern exposure. I usually put a table on the inside of the window that can hold the four inch clay pots I have chosen to root my seedlings. Clay pots help distribute water more efficiently than plastic pots or even the biodegradable pots, so they are my first choice for starting new seedlings. If you already have ordered your seeds or picked them up at the local nursery then you are ready to begin planting.

            If you plan on starting Chives, Parsley, Dill, Fennel, Thyme, or Sweet Marjoram, you will need to evenly space the seeds across the top of the pot. You need at least fifteen to twenty seeds of either the marjoram or thyme per four inch pot. Unlike vegetable gardening, where you are careful not to put too many seeds per pot, herbs like to be crowed as this helps in support of the new seedlings and makes them easier to transplant into the garden. Another benefit is that because these plants do not grow as fast as vegetable seeds, the additional plants will produce more cuttings you can use in the kitchen.

             If you are planting chives, you need to increase the seed count per four inch pot up to thirty seeds. Because chive seeds are much larger than thyme or marjoram, you should be able to space the seeds easily. However, if you have an unsteady hand and you want to plant your seeds like a professional, you can order a hand seed sower from any of the seed catalogs. These sowers are easy to use and can handle even the smallest seeds. Those of you planting both dill and fennel should be aware that these plants will cross pollinate rendering the plants unusable and bitter. If you plan on growing both of these herbs, please plant them in different areas of the garden.

            I use my standard growing mix that I explained in my last article but when rooting herb seeds I do not cover the new seeds with this mix rather I use sand (Play sand is best because it is sterilized and has no weed seeds) to cover the seeds lightly after planting. Sand holds the seeds in place and allows water to pass by the seed into the planting medium. Just a light dusting of sand will suffice to hold the seeds in place. Next you will need to put the plants in indirect sunlight and use a misting bottle to water the new seedlings. Do not use a watering can as the stream of water will dislodge the seeds and cause them to clump together. This can also harm their tender roots which need time to grow into the rooting medium. After about two to three weeks your plants will be ready for some liquid fertilizer. I mix up either Miracle Grow or Peter’s soluble fertilizer at half strength and add this mixture to my misting bottle then mist the new plants. I do this once every two weeks. In five weeks your plants should be ready to put into the garden. 

            Some herb seeds like Basil and Coriander are different and need additional steps to produce healthy plants. For these herbs you only need to use four to six seeds per pot. Once the new plants emerge you will need to remove all of the weakest seedlings leaving only one per pot so make sure you start several pots. Be sure to label all your pots so you have a way to remember what you have. I like to wait until the plants are about seven to nine inches tall before transplanting them into the garden. Once a plant has achieved this height, the root system should be capable of the minor shock of moving them into the garden. Keep watering the plants regularly and you will be able to fertilize the plants with a granular fertilizer such as Osmacote once a month.

            Although I would like to grow all of my herbs from seed there are several herbs that should be propagated by either division or by rooting cuttings from the mother plant. The best time to take cuttings from the tips of plants or divisions from the base of the plant is in early spring as the plants send up new shoots and growth. You will find these cuttings or divisions will root much quicker than if you had cultivated them later in the year. Remember, propagation is all in the planning and you must think carefully about when you need to start this process. 

            Mint should not be grown from seed as the seeds mint produce do not come true like the mother plant and you could come up with a bitter tasting plant. If you have a friend or neighbor currently growing mint you should ask them for a cutting or if possible a division of the mother plant. Mints grow rapidly and reach heights of over two feet and can be easily identified by its square stem and menthol scent. If you find a large plant, you can divide the plant by lifting the mother plant and choosing some average sized healthy roots (rhizomes) and removing them with a sharp knife. Sometimes you may be able to remove a portion of the plant that is already rooted. Place rhizomes or divisions into a pot with potting soil and place in a morning sun location. Roots will form in a few weeks. Cuttings from the top of the plant should be of good size and the lower leaves removed before placing them in a cup of water. New roots will form in a few weeks.

            Oregano is widely used and a common herb in many gardens. Like mint, oregano is more often started from cuttings or root division rather from seed. Oregano seed is slow to grow and cuttings or divisions will give you a much bigger plant quicker and easier than starting from seed. Follow the same instructions for mint to start this herb in your garden. Plan on several plants as you will find this herb is widely used in preparing your meals and you will need several plants to keep up with your needs.

            I can not finish this article without mentioning one of my favorite herbs, Rosemary. Rosemary is best propagated from cuttings so find a friend with an established plant and harvest several cuttings of the new growth. You need the new growth at the top of the plant that is still green and soft. Hardened growth that is not tender will not germinate as fast as the tender green sprouts and you will be disappointed when they do not root. I suggest taking five or six cuttings at least four to six inches long and stick them into a small container of potting mix about halfway. Mist daily in the morning with water. Rooting takes about two to three weeks. When you see new growth emerging you will need to pinch the tips to promote branching. I hate seeing leggy plants that are open with long stems. Pinching helps the plant produce more tender stems you can use in the kitchen.   

            I hope you have enjoyed this section on Herb gardening. Look for my next article in “Today’s Senior” which will be Part III on the cultivation and storage of your spices. Do not forget that if you would like more information on herb gardening, pick up the new book “Herb Gardening from the ground up” by Sal Gilbertie and Larry Sheehan. Keep gardening and remember, without plants we would not be here!

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