It’s true that some herbs will spring up and grow in carefree fashion almost anywhere, by the side of the road or in an empty field, with no attention from anybody. But plants are like people. They have their needs. While herbs are not generally fussy or demanding, they put forth their best performance with a little TLC.
The proof is in the pudding of any garden maintenance routine. Your goal is to be able to maintain a garden plot that is lush and bountiful, with sturdy, productive plants—and with a minimum of fuss. When you first plant a garden, you spend a lot of time and trouble nurturing plants until they establish themselves; but by midsummer, you’re probably ready to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Here are some keys to minimum maintenance:
By now, let’s hope you’ve got a routine down that’s based on the demands of your climate. Whether you’ve got a sprinkler system on a timer or are hauling hoses around the yard, when the heat of the summer hits, this demand takes precedence, even in today’s drought-tolerant gardens.
There’s no exact formula for how much or how little water a garden needs—this varies so widely from one climate to the next, from one day to the next, and from one plant to the next—but the rule is that when you water, water deep, then let the top inch of soil start to dry out between waterings. And never let your herbs stand in water; the soil must be free-draining (but hopefully you improved and conditioned your soil at planting time). Watering takes some experimentation and a watchful eye. The plants or areas that need more moisture than the rest will let you know.
Keep on top of this because weeds can choke out more desirable garden plants, steal water and nutrients, and make pests of themselves by propagating all over the place. They can be difficult to eradicate if left unchecked. Think of the garden as a process rather than an end result. Weeding, done regularly, can be an enjoyable part of this process, rather than a dreaded chore.
You want your plants to get what they need from your soil, which should be biologically active and rich in nutrients, so you don’t have to pour on the fertilizer. Think of fertilizer as a finishing touch to keep your plants growing at their peak. With gardens of herbs, which end up on the dinner table, it’s particularly important that you use organic products, so that you’re feeding both the plants and the soil with natural substances that don’t leave chemical residues in the soil.
Plants need a broad array of nutrients, including a readily available supply of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Organic components that supply these include blood meal or fish meal for nitrogen; bonemeal or rock phosphate for phosphorus; and kelp or greensand for potassium. Mix your own, or find a good general-purpose, balanced organic fertilizer that you can use diluted in a sprayer once or twice throughout the garden during the growing season.
You can also use compost tea or manure tea (aged manure or compost plus water plus sunlight equals a tea for the garden!). Used as a foliar spray, manure tea can give a quick boost to the garden every month or so.
Keep these garden feeding points in mind: First, annuals generally need more nutrients than perennials to complete their flowering cycle in a single season. When that calendula or annual chamomile is blooming its heart out for months on end, an occasional squirt of organic fertilizer or manure tea will be much appreciated. Second, take care not to over-fertilize your garden, which can result in weak, sprawling, floppy growth rather than sturdy, upright plants. Artemisias, for example, grow better lean and rarely, if ever, need any fertilizer.
You’ll learn. Your garden will tell you what it needs.
— Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is now a freelance writer and editor.