Herb Gardening for Beginners

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Illustration by Gayle Ford

Question: We just moved to a new state and bought a house with a
nice, big yard. The previous owners apparently loved plants, and
I’m intrigued by one brick-edged bed that the Realtor pointed out
as an herb garden. I’d like to restore it, but it’s sort of weedy,
and I can’t tell what’s what, as none of the plants are labeled.
How can I identify the herbs and learn what they’re good for?

Answer: The quickest solution might be to contact the previous
owners, explain your interest and ask them to stop by and help you
get started. They might be delighted to share their knowledge and
enthusiasm. If that’s out of the question, you can still
proceed.

Early spring is a great time to get started. First, buy a basic
illustrated reference book. Next, visit garden centers and
nurseries in your vicinity, looking for places that sell herb
plants. Also make calls, ask around, and watch the local paper for
news of specialty herb nurseries, public herb gardens, institutions
that sponsor classes in herb ­gardening, or garden clubs or study
groups devoted to herbs. Take a class, attend herb-related events,
and join a club. You’ll meet folks who enjoy herbs and can share
information and ideas with you.

Start poking around in the garden as soon as the weather is nice
enough to work outdoors. Like a good detective, collect as many
clues as possible to identify your mystery herbs. The main
categories of evidence are smell, the overall size and appearance
of the plants (including dead stalks left over from last year), and
details such as the shape and color of the leaves. Later in the
season, you’ll look at flowers, too.

Smell is very useful in identifying herbs. You can recognize
such popular herbs as mint, lemon balm, chives, oregano, thyme,
catnip, lavender and rosemary simply by rubbing and then smelling
their leaves or stalks. Even if you can’t name them, plan to save
any plants that smell good to you. Plants that don’t smell at all
might be weeds; if you suspect that they are, pull them out now and
throw them away. If you find a plant that really stinks, wait to
throw it away until you’ve identified it. Be gentle in disturbing
the garden’s soil; dormant herbs may lie beneath it, waiting until
later in the spring to begin growing.

Next, compare your unknown plants to the photos in your
reference book. Can you make a match? Check the written
descriptions for more information about each herb’s looks, mature
size, whether it stays evergreen or dies back in winter, and so on.
Identifying herbs this way is tricky because plants often don’t
look like their pictures: the photo may have been taken at a
different season or may show a plant that’s younger or older than
yours.

Still stumped? Pick a leafy stem from a plant that you’re trying
to identify, take it to a nursery that sells herbs, and ask for
help from the staff. You may be allowed to compare its fragrance
and appearance to the plants you find there (nurseries are wary of
potentially unhealthy plants being brought in). Trust smell over
looks when making these side-by-side comparisons. The leaves of the
potted herbs at the nursery may be larger or smaller, greener or
yellower, than those on your sample, but if you find something that
smells just like your herb, it’s probably the same kind of plant.
Copy its name off the label so you won’t forget.

There will probably be some herbs that you can’t pin down
exactly. For example, it’s easy to recognize that a plant is some
kind of mint but hard to specify what kind of mint it is (even
experts have trouble distinguishing mints, so don’t feel bad if you
can’t figure out yours). Wait until the plant blooms: flowers
provide important clues to a plant’s identity.

As soon as you’ve identified an herb, make a label for it. You
can buy blank plastic, wooden or metal labels or stakes at garden
centers. Use a pencil or indelible marker to write the plant’s
common and botanical names. Then refer to your book to learn about
tending, harvesting, and using the herb.

Most perennial and biennial herbs benefit from a spring pruning,
so trim away some or all of the previous year’s growth to keep the
plants neat and healthy. After you’ve pulled out anything you think
is a weed and trimmed everything you think is an herb, you’re off
to a fine start.

Spend this first growing season learning more about your herbs.
Observe how they grow and experiment with using them.

Rita Buchanan grows many herbs in her garden in Winsted,
Connecticut.

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