With the wonderful early spring weather arriving, it is time to start thinking about planting an herb garden full of wonderful plants to make your own teas, medicines and delicious culinary treats. To help get you started we have described some of our favourites that grow well in our area and have a multitude of uses.
What is an herb garden without lavender?! This woody perennial adds colour and fragrance to your garden and the flowers are wonderful for making herbal sachets to freshen drawers and closets as well as for making sleep pillows to lull you off to sleep at night. It is also a lovely tea herb on its own or combined with herbs like mint, roses and borage for a blend that will calm the nervous system, reduce inflammation in the body and even help fight off colds. To grow this plant start the seed early and place the seed tray on a heat mat or in a warm location so that your seeds germinate well. Make sure to use a very light potting mix or fine vermiculite that drains very quickly. The seedlings will germinate in about two weeks and will take a while to look like lavender. Transplant to pots or out to the garden after the slow-growing seedlings produce 4 or 5 leaves. Lavender prefers a moderate supply of nutrients, lime and a well-drained soil. It is very drought tolerant, so don’t over-water it.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Chamomile is another one of our classic herbs, and it was made famous in the Peter Rabbit books by author, Beatrix Potter. Anytime Peter needed calming down Mrs. Rabbit knew just what to give him! Chamomile is a wonderful herb to calm the nervous system, ease nausea and upset stomach and even reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis. There are two types of chamomile, the German annual variety that is a prolific self-seeder and the Roman variety (Chamomilla nobilis) which is a low-growing perennial. Either type can be started from seed and it is best if you cold stratify seeds in freezer for a week before planting. The seeds are very tiny, so you would be best to mix them with fine sand or sugar and spread them that way. The seed requires light to germinate therefore cover very lightly with soil or simply broadcast scatter and tamp down firmly before watering. The seed will germinate in 1-2 weeks. Thin seedlings to stand about 15cm apart. Plant out in full sun wen all chance of frost is past.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis)
This cheery orange or gold daisy-like flower is one of the premier healing herbs. The healing properties of the flowering heads are made into healing salves, teas, and tinctures for a range of health issues including skin conditions, fungal infections, and women’s health complaints. It is a self-seeding annual and will proliferate fast and easily. You can direct seed in April in warm soil and full sun and, as they are a light dependent germinator, you only have to lightly tamp the seeds into the soil to get them to germinate. The plants will begin to flower in June, and continue flowering until the frost kills them. They will increase from year to year if allowed to seed themselves. The seeds ripen in August and September, and if permitted to scatter will furnish a supply of young plants in the spring.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)
Known more for the confectionery marshmallow, which adopted this classical botanical’s namesake, Marshmallow has been a widely used medicinal for centuries. The botanical name of Marsh Mallow, Althea officinalis, is from the Greek “altho”, which means “to cure”, underscoring the significance of this lovely herb to Greek healers. Traditionally, Marsh Mallow has been used to soothe coughs, sore throats, indigestion, and as a topical agent it is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing. This tall perennial (grows about 5ft. tall) can be direct sown in late summer or early fall. If starting in the spring, a 3 or 4 week period of cold stratification is recommended. Seeds can be sown in flats and placed into the refrigerator. Keep moist and check regularly. If seeds start to germinate, transplant immediately. If you do not have adequate space to refrigerate an entire flat, mix seeds with moist but well drained starting medium in a large ziploc baggie and place in fridge. After stratification, seeds are best started indoors for a few weeks before transplanting outside in mid to late spring. Keep germinating seeds moist, and transplant to larger containers, gradually acclimating to outdoor conditions. Transplant outdoors in mid to late spring.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm is a highly-scented herb, best known for its use in tea, but this fantastic herb has a number other uses. The leaves of lemon balm have the scent of lemon with a hint of mint. It is refreshing served in summer drinks such lemonade, or use to flavour fruit salad, sorbets and desserts or with a green salad. For cooking, lemon balm is a pleasant accent for fish or chicken and vegetables. Medicinally it is used to calm the nervous system, ease digestive upset and break fevers. It is best grown in pots or a contained area of the garden as this plant spreads. To start the seeds, barely cover the tiny seeds and keep watering to an absolute minimum – just enough to keep the potting soil from drying out. Germination takes about 10-14 days and once the seedlings are large enough to handle, transplant at a spacing of 45cm (18″) into the garden. Choose a shady spot or a location where plants can be protected from midday sun. Lemon balm prefers a fertile, moist soil in a cooler part of the garden. Plants grown in partial shade will be larger and more succulent than those exposed to full sun.
Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)
Hyssop is a beautiful bushy evergreen herb, that grows 1 to 2 feet high with a square stem that is woody at the base, and produces spikes of small bright purple blue fragrant flowers. It is a perfect addition to a rock garden as it favours dry rocky areas and dry soil. Hyssop grows easily from seed planted in spring and it grows very quickly, requiring very few special conditions. Its only real requirement is plenty of sunshine, without which it will not flower. Hyssop is a good expectorant and antiviral herb commonly used to treat respiratory conditions such as influenza, sinus infections, colds, and bronchitis. It also has antiviral properties that help with cold sores and shingles.
Basil (Ocimum spp.)
We love basil! Whether it is the regular pesto basil or the more medicinal holy basil, it is definitely on our top ten list of must have herbs. All basils are tender annuals and they originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East, so it definitely prefers warm weather. They can be grown best in zones 4-10 and prefer warm soils that are light, slightly acidic well-drained and nutrient rich having lots of humus and minerals. The best way to grow basil is to first plant the seeds in pots indoors, this is usually done approximately six weeks before the last spring frost date. You can grow basil in containers or directly in the ground, either way you just want to make sure that you don’t put them out until all danger of frost is past. The key to growing this herb is to make sure they get full sun at least half the day or more and that you keep the soil moist but not wet and water from the ground not overhead. You don’t want to get the leaves wet if you can avoid it as this can cause fungal growth and spots. Medicinally basil has an antidepressant action, boosts your immune system, supports your adrenal function and supports healthy blood sugar levels.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Wood betony has a long reputation in herbal medicine for treat head-related afflictions (including migraines, toothaches, anxiety and sleeping troubles). It is also a great herb to substitute for black tea as it has a similar taste (with a hint of a mint undertone) This herbaceous perennial is very easy to start from seed and needs no special treatment to get it to germinate. This moisture-loving plant prefers part sun or shade and normal garden soil. It takes 2 years to flower, but it is well worth the wait as it has beautiful purple flowering spikes that attract bees.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
If you were stuck on a desert island this is one plant you would want to have growing there! It can be used for everything from strains and sprains to colds, fevers, arthritis, cuts, infections, circulatory issues and much, much more. Yarrow is a short-lived perennial and is an excellent, drought tolerant, plant for locations with poor soil and good drainage. It is great as a clump or to cover problem areas. Sow the seeds into cells or pots containing good quality seed compost. Sow on the surface and do not cover, as light aids germination of seeds. Water from the base of the tray, place in a warm place, ideally at 18 to 25°C (62 to 75°F). Keep the compost moist but not wet and germination generally happens in 5 to 10 days.
Thyme (Thymus vulgare)
Thyme leaves may be small, but they pack a powerful punch. It retains its flavour well in long slow cooking and is one of the most popular culinary herbs in the world. It is one of the savoury herbs, which are main course herbs used to flavour hardy meals, warming soups, and piquant sauces. Medicinally it is a great herb for colds and coughs, and is excellent for killing fungal infections. Thyme is an attractive edging plant or a spreading plant among and over rocks, growing best in light, well-drained soil. They also make interesting plants for the windowsill or in hanging baskets. Sow seed on the surface of lightly firmed, moist seed soil in pots or trays. Do not cover as they need light to germinate. Cover the seed container with a piece of glass or clear plastic and leave in a position which receives diffused light. Once some of the seeds have germinated air should be admitted gradually.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary leaves are like soft pine needles, and finely chopped they can be used to flavour a variety of dishes, especially stuffing. Many cooks simply cut sprigs of rosemary and place with roasted meats, particularly lamb, pork, chicken and turkey with great results. Rosemary is a wonderful herb for headaches and muscle pain and is excellent for improving circulation throughout the body especially to the brain. In growing rosemary one great advantage of is that it is a perennial and will last for twenty years or more with only minimal pruning once a year. Rosemary can be tough to grow from seed, with very low germination rates so it is best to propagate them from cuttings. In our climate rosemary won’t likely survive outside over the winter but it can be easily moved indoors for the winter months. Rosemary is fairly hardy but can get fungal infection if you keep it too wet, so make sure you let it dry out between watering and that it has good air circulation around it.
Mint (Mentha spp.)
Probably one of the most widely used herbs in the world, mint is found in so many products of everyday life. Its refreshing scent and delicious flavour make it a favourite of tea drinkers and it is widely used in cooking and for its medicinal properties as well. It is cooling to the tissues and helps to ease sore aching muscles and feet, it is great for indigestion and headaches and good to help break a fever. Mint grows best in moist soils, and peppermint and spearmint seem to thrive best in full sunlight, but can also do well even in partially shaded areas. In terms of propagation although peppermint can be grown from stocked seed; the majority of mints do not grow well from seed. The best way to propagate the different cultivated mints is by using stem cuttings which are taken from well-established plants just before these plants bloom, or the cutting can be taken by dividing existing plants into many parts (this must be done for optimal results during the early spring). Mint grows well once the roots are established, but you should be warned, mint spreads amazingly! You need to plant it where you can let it take over or you need to contain it. There are several ways you can prevent the mints from expanding their area of growth. You can try digging up unwanted runners every spring, or you can even curb the spread of the underground runners by sinking some drainage tiles or plastic dividers into the soil around the plants, up to a minimum depth of about 30 cm or 12 inches. The mints can also be planted in large containers or pots equipped with drainage holes, and these can then be sunk into the ground.
We sure love personalizing our own herb garden with our favourites and we hope you're all set and inspired to grow the herb garden of your dreams!