Put your green thumb to use this spring starting an herb garden. Chives, lavender, oregano, peppermint, sage or thyme thrive in Michigan’s growing season.
Members of the Charlevoix Gardening Club offer advice on the best way to get started with some of these plants.
“Herbs are typically grown for culinary purposes, but they can be included in an ornamental perennial bed,” said member Beth Cowie.
“Thyme, oregano, chamomile and lavender will provide attractive blooms and have the important advantage of being quite deer-resistant. Many of our gardeners use these herbs as border plants in their flower gardens to help keep the deer away,” said Cowie.
All plant growth requires varying levels of light, temperature, soil and watering, and it can be confusing to some gardeners. Here are the basic guidelines:
“Most of the common culinary herbs prefer full sun, at least six hours per day, warm temperatures, and the occasional pruning,” said Cowie.
Outdoors, herbs can be companion plants in a vegetable garden or garden bed.
“They benefit the garden by repelling pests and providing nutrients to the soil. Basil is often planted alongside tomatoes to help repel insects. Sage benefits cabbage and carrots by protecting them from pests. Borage is an excellent provider of minerals that benefit plants – including strawberries. Its purple blossoms are edible and they attract pollinators to the garden,” said Cowie.
The best indoor option for growing herbs is a south-facing window. East- or west-facing will work if you don’t have a window facing south. Herbs prefer six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily. If you don’t have the window option, consider using grow lights. Turn on the grow light for 10 hours daily for maximum benefit to plants. Self-timer outlets are great options to keep plants on a routine light schedule.
Herbs grow best at 65-70 degrees. If growing indoors, avoid drafty places, like directly next to an air vent. To maintain humidity, consider using a humidifier or a small water reservoir. A vase or bowl with water close to plants allows exposes air to water. Slowly the water will evaporate, raising humidity levels in the air. Keeping the air circulating is also important; a small fan or open window can help increase airflow.
Herbs can be grown outdoors from late spring to early fall.
“When the weather cools in the fall, potted herbs can be brought indoors and kept in a warm, sunny spot – or herbs can be cut and dried to preserve them for later use,” said Cowie.
“Here in Northern Michigan, thyme, oregano, chamomile, sage, and lavender are perennial and will survive outdoors in the winter. Cut them back to the ground in the spring and new growth should appear as the temperature warms. Parsley is a biennial that flowers in the second year. After flowering, parsley leaves will taste bitter. Rosemary will typically not survive our winter, unless brought indoors, and basil is quite sensitive to cold, so it will fade quickly in the fall,” said Cowie.
“Growing herbs is an easy way to get started with gardening. They are quite low-maintenance, tolerant of poor soils, and drought resistant,” said Cowie.
Sandy soils are best for growing herbs. They are light, dry, warm, low in nutrients and often acidic. The soil should feel coarse and gritty when handled.
“Herbs are perfect for containers or raised beds. It is a good idea to keep mint in containers since it is an aggressive spreader and will quickly take over a planting bed if it’s put in the ground. Using containers allows herbs to be placed close to the kitchen – where they are readily available to use in cooking,” said Cowie.
If you aren’t growing from seed, avoid repotting any plant immediately. When somewhat dry, pull the plant out of its nursery pot and asses the roots. If the plant has sufficient soil and is not root bound, leave it in its container.
“Basil and parsley are fairly easy to grow from seed. Rosemary, thyme, and oregano can be quite slow to get started, so many gardeners find it easier to purchase small nursery plants,” said Cowie.
When coming from a greenhouse or nursery, the plant needs time to adjust to its new home. Allow it to acclimate before watering or repotting for best long-term results.
“It’s not usually necessary to fertilize herbs, but they should be potted up, or put in a garden bed, if they begin to outgrow their container,” said Cowie.
It’s good to keep plants on a schedule, but it’s more important to water based on need. Herbs vary in how much water they need. Thyme and oregano can thrive with less water, as little as one watering every two weeks. Basil, mint or parsley like to stay moist and will need to be watered at least once a week.
To prevent root rot or overwatering, be sure to have well-draining soil and drainage holes in the bottom of pots.
Regular cut-backs promote regrowth. Avoid removing more than a quarter of the plant at a time.