Going Organic in the Herb Garden


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My first garden was located to the south of an old barn, next to and just a few feet above a wetland area. Although I was a novice gardener, that wonderful patch of earth easily brought forth abundant herbs and vegetables without a spritz of herbicide or a spray of insecticide. I didn’t fully understand at the time that I owed this satisfying experience not so much to my innate gardening skills as to the long-ago chickens, turkeys, goats, cattle, and pigs that had once trod there. The soil was rich with their well-composted manure and bedding materials. The parsley produced by that first garden was the best crop I’ve ever had.

Flush with the success of this happy accident, I set out to learn more about organic methods of growing herbs. My first surprise came as I rambled through the lush woods surrounding the farmhouse: I discovered that wonderful, useful herbs can grow freely without one moment of human encouragement. Mints, yarrow, bee balm, dandelions, nettle, lobelia, and calamus grew wildly and exuberantly on that old farm because nature had provided conditions appropriate for their growth. I understood then that a garden should mimic nature’s optimum conditions to foster growing herbs.

My explorations of nearby wetlands and overgrown pastures were influenced by Euell Gibbons’s books Stalking the Wild Asparagus and Stalking the Healthful Herbs, published just a few years before. With new eyes, I saw the wild herbs in relationship to humans and ecosystems. “Weeds” could be nutritious and healing herbs, not unwanted plants; I continue to consult these classics when making wine and jams from wild flowers and fruits.

My resolve to avoid synthetic pesticides and herbicides was affirmed when I?read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a frightening treatise revealing that the misuse of these products can cause devastating effects far beyond the garden. Other readings expanded my ­respect for the way some weeds penetrate the soil and accumulate minerals for the use of other plants.

Even the most solitary gardener does not work alone. Each teaspoonful of fertile soil contains up to six billion living creatures--bacteria, fungi, free-living nitrogen-fixers, algae, springtails, mites, worms, millipedes, ants, spiders, and hundreds of other creatures.

Organic Herbs

I am ever more firmly convinced that organic growing methods should be used to grow herbs. Whether the plants are intended to be used for their flavor, fragrance, or medicinal value, organic growing just makes sense. Nature is a powerful force, and I want her on my side.

Organic methods produce plenty of herbs, too. Some years back, in a fertile corner of my kitchen garden, I set out one or two plants each of thyme, sage, tarragon, oregano, and regular and garlic chives. With almost no attention, these plants continue to provide all the cooking herbs I can use. It’s true that the tarragon and chives could use more sun, the sage more dividing, and the thyme more weeding, but these plants just keep growing. I harvest sage, oregano, and thyme year-round, even when they’re blanketed with snow.

In a comparison of organic and inorganic growing methods, researchers at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven found that adding only annual leaf compost to a plot resulted in crops equal to those grown on a similar plot that was treated each year with commercial fertilizer and soil amendments. Over the twelve years of the study, total yields were the same, but the compost plot had a healthier pH, contained twice as much organic matter, retained 50 percent more water, and was easier for roots to penetrate.

Healthy Soil: The Foundation of Organic Herbs

Even the most solitary gardener does not work alone. Each teaspoonful of fertile soil contains up to six billion living creatures—bacteria, fungi, free-living nitrogen-fixers, algae, springtails, mites, worms, millipedes, ants, spiders, and hundreds of other creatures. Some, such as earthworms, aerate and fertilize the soil, while others break down minerals that plants need or prey upon insects. Organic gardening methods encourage this ecosystem, but harsh, acidic fertilizers or other chemical additives can distort or destroy it.

Ensuring healthy soil is a long-term task that begins with knowing your garden soil (see sidebar on page 48), but nearly all soils benefit from additions of organic matter. Organic matter releases nutrients slowly. It also boosts the soil’s water-holding capacity and air content, which influence the quality of soil life. In most but not all cases, the more organic matter, the more fertile the soil.

Healthy soil is about one-quarter air, one-quarter water, and about 45 percent mineral particles, or ground-up rocks. The remaining 5 percent is the most important part—organic matter, materials that once held life. In areas devoid of the natural life cycle of plants and animals, organic matter does not return to the earth. My first garden was rich with this material, but a prospective plot by a city sidewalk is unlikely to be so blessed.

In my gardens, I grow green manures, or cover crops, dense stands of easily grown plants that protect the soil, provide organic matter, control weeds, and break pest cycles.

Nutrients For the Herb Garden

To jump-start your organic herb garden, you may wish to purchase bags of organic matter to add to your soil. At the same time, however, begin to garden with natural methods that will assure your future herbs of nutrition aplenty for healthy growth.

Start a compost pile that emulates nature’s cycle of returning plants to the earth. In a year or less, composting produces a fresh, dark humus that will make your garden soil more productive. The compost nourishes the herbs in the garden; later, the spent herbs nourish the ­compost pile. The process costs little or nothing.

When selecting manure to be turned into the soil, make sure that it is well-rotted and at least a year old or older. Manure that is too fresh can damage plant roots but a more serious problem is the possible presence of Escherichia coli and cryptosporidia. These intestinal microbes, found in the gut of common livestock and poultry, can cause serious illness.

Put away your checkbook--despite the claims and pleas of advertisers, you don't need a lot of "stuff" for organic gardening.

Green Manures

In my gardens, I grow green manures, or cover crops, dense stands of easily grown plants that protect the soil, provide organic matter, control weeds, and break pest cycles. I use a two-year cycle to rest the soil and replenish nutrients that other plants have removed. Crop rotation is an age-old way of preserving the health of the soil.

My favorite green manures are white and red clover, along with annual rye. I sow white clover in the paths between my raised herb beds. Tough and prolific, these plants easily endure foot traffic. When mowed, the clover provides a nitrogen-rich mulch that conserves moisture and keeps weeds at bay.

I use red clover, a bushy upright plant, to replenish the soil in the beds. Root bacteria fix nitrogen, and the aboveground parts make good mulch and compost. You can plant red clover here and there among the herbs, or you can devote a different section of the garden each year to clover. Red clover’s bright pink blooms, three or four to a cup, make an excellent tea. Butterflies and hummingbirds love the flowers for their nectar.

Annual winter rye grass needs a bit more space than the clovers, but its benefits are many. Soon after the autumn sowing, the rye shows a brilliant green that can persist all winter, repressing weeds and providing young, tasty leaves for salads. I cut the rye for mulch as needed, and use its tall, dried seed heads for decoration. The straw, added to the compost pile, decomposes into long-lasting humus. Left in the ground, rye’s extensive system of fine roots is decomposed gently by the soil’s organisms.

Nature never “farms” without animals, so I have returned livestock to the ecosystem of my two or three acres of gardens. You might say I have a regular little farm, but even a few chickens or rabbits can make a big difference in soil fertility. In my gardens, I move the hogs and the chickens from one small patch or pen to another throughout the growing season. I let the chickens loose to dine upon insects, including those that damage plants, and to fertilize the area.

The hogs are the champs at soil preparation, however. They root in the earth for worms and grubs, turning up the soil to the depth of about a foot. Much to their pleasure, I encourage this behavior by dumping fallen leaves and organic food leftovers into their temporary pen. The following year, I seed that plot with rye or clover, and the third year typically sees a bountiful crop of delicious and beautiful herbs.

Work Less, Worry Less

Put away your checkbook—despite the claims and pleas of advertisers, you don’t need a lot of “stuff” for organic gardening. In fact, herbs are some of your strongest allies in promoting your garden’s long-term health.

For instance, insect plant pests are a fact of life, but so are the beneficial ­insects that control them. If pest insects are entirely eradicated, their predators will starve. I plant plenty of coriander, parsley, and their relatives because their small flowers supply nectar to beneficial insects. If it became utterly necessary, I would use a simple solution of garlic or hot pepper blended with water as a repellent spray. Most insect pests, however, yield to the squash ’em method.

Some herb-garden pests are not what they first seem. When my parsley attracts parsley caterpillars, I know swallowtail butterflies will soon appear—if the caterpillars survive. Nettle is used as a traditional spring vegetable, and herbalists sometimes prescribe nettle tea to alleviate hay-fever symptoms. Like dandelion, yarrow, comfrey, chamomile, and valerian, nettle is an excellent addition to compost piles.

Other garden “problems” just look bad—they don’t damage plants. Bee balm almost always gets powdery mildew after flowering, and if it really bothers you, consider planting a mildew-resistant variety. I just let it be, however; bee balm is so valuable in providing nectar for pollinators, color in the herb garden, and homemade tea for me that I don’t mind.

Connecting With the Big Picture

Growing herbs provides many connections: to plants, insects, and soil; and to ancient and modern culinary and healing traditions. Growing herbs organically puts us in touch with the ­lifeforce in our gardens. We should remember to be humble in our work and to respect and use nature’s methods.

Bill Duesing is an organic farmer and environmental artist working toward a socially just and environmentally sound future. His commentaries, “Living on the Earth,” can be heard on many public radio stations.