Falling for Herbs
Falling for Herbs
By Rebecca Goodsell, Sonoma County Master Gardener
We know that this is the best time of year to plant daffodils and cool weather vegetables like broccoli and brussel sprouts, but for herb lovers, there is life after basil. There are perennial herbs that can be set out now that will dry your tears after frost has nipped that basil plant.
Herbs that have the word “officinalis” in their name are considered culinary herbs. There are so many within the families to choose; thyme, for example has a French, Italian or Greek version. Sage selections include ones with purple, green or bi-colored leaves. Salvia officinalis “Biergarten” is highly desired by chefs as it has thicker leaves to use when they have the trendy flash fried salvia on the menu (and it
Herbs prefer a sunny, well-drained location. They will adapt to most soil conditions, but if you have heavy clay soil, amending it with organic matter and some gravel will go a long way to improve the drainage. Herbs will also grow in poorer soils with less fertility. The leaves, though less abundant, will have a more intense flavor. Imagine, if you will, those rocky, sun-baked slopes on the south of France. Herbs can also be happy in a container; just make sure that the size of the container and the size of the mature plant are congruent. A lemon verbena, with a growth of 3’ to 6’, will be much happier in a half-barrel than in a strawberry pot.
After you have decided where to plant your herbs, taking into account their growth habit (sprawling or bushy, short or lanky), consider building up mounds at their sites. This technique will go a long way to keep the roots from developing root rot. Dig the hole in the mound, large enough to accommodate the root ball, plus a little more in the diameter. Plant the herb with its stem no deeper that it was in its container. Fertilize lightly with fish emulsion or sea kelp. Fertilize no more than once a year. With herbs you are seeking out the flavor, not lush growth. Moderate growth is ideal. You will need to fertilize more often if your herbs are in containers, perhaps once a month, even in the winter, since the root system is still working, even if the visible part of the plant is dormant.
Harvesting herbs? Or are you pruning your herbs? Harvest your herbs early in the morning, because the essential oils in the leaves will disperse through the warmth of the sun by the afternoon. Form small bunches using rubber bands and hang to dry in a fresh, shady area, maybe under a tree. Soft-leaved herbs, like basil, will dry in 2-4 days; herbs like sage and rosemary take 3-7 days; and bay leaves take up to a week. Shelf life and container choice go hand in hand. The dried herbs will keep their flavor from 6-9 months when stored as whole leaf , in glass jars, in a cool, dark place. Storage in plastic bags will result in a three months shelf life, while the quickest deterioration (six weeks) comes when stored in brown paper bags.
This is the time of year for pruning/harvesting your perennial herbs, because if you don’t, the stems will get woody and reduce the amount of green growth for next year. Cut back approximately 25% to reduce legginess. Cut above the lowest green leaf material to encourage side shoots. If you have allowed your herbs to become very woody, a spritzing of sea kelp after the pruning will help them cope with the shock.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners