Starting From Scratch With an Herb Garden

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Buying Herb Plants

Question: I’d like to start an herb garden but don’t know where to get the plants. Where can I buy herbs?

Answer: There are many places to buy herbs. The big differences between shopping at one place or another have to do with variety, reliability, and service, not price. ­Wherever you buy them, herb plants are usually sold in small plastic pots and cost no more than a few dollars apiece.

Local garden centers and the garden shops at chain stores such as Kmart typically stock a limited assortment of popular herbs in spring along with vegetable seedlings and bedding plants. Parsley, chives, basil, sage, thyme, rosemary, lemon balm, lavender, peppermint or spearmint, and scented geraniums are some of the herbs you’re likely to find at a garden center.

Although herb plants are usually healthy and attractive when they’re delivered to these stores, any leftovers that remain unsold after several weeks are likely to deteriorate as they outgrow their pots, tip over, dry out, and bake in the hot sun. To get good herbs from a garden center, stop by every week or two during the busy spring season and buy any plants you want as soon as you see them.

When choosing a plant from among a group of the same kind of herb (if the shop has several pots of lemon balm, say, and you want only one), look for one that’s bushy and full with lots of fresh-looking foliage. Avoid skinny, bare-stemmed plants whose bottom leaves have fallen off. Also, rub a leaf and sniff it. If it doesn’t smell at all or doesn’t smell right, the plant may have gotten mixed up or mislabeled; don’t buy it.

Nurseries that specialize in herbs and grow their own plants carry many more ­varieties than all-purpose garden centers, and they continue selling plants throughout the growing season, or even year-round, not just in spring. Instead of just one of each, an herb nursery might grow a dozen different thymes, a score of scented geraniums, and more kinds of mints, lavenders, and other herbs than you ever dreamed of.

The owner and staff should be able to answer your questions about which herbs to buy and how to care for them, based on their own experience. Many herb nurseries also maintain demonstration gardens so you can see how the plants look growing in the ground. Ask around, watch for ads in local news­papers and magazines, and check the Yellow Pages to see if there’s an herb nursery in your region. When you find one, plan an outing to shop there. You’ll have a wonderful time and come home inspired and optimistic, probably with a carful of exciting new plants.

If you can’t find any herb plants locally, or if you’d like to collect some unusual ones in addition to or instead of more common kinds, try buying from mail-order herb nurseries. Write for some catalogs (you can find addresses right here in The Herb Companion) and start by ordering just a few plants. You may be disappointed when the box arrives and you undo all the padding and wrapping to find wrinkled little plants that look like–well, that look like they’ve been stuffed in a box for a few days. Have faith! When watered, loved, and planted in your garden, those herbs should soon take root and thrive.

Sow what?

Many herbs grow slowly or don’t come true from seed, and if you only need one plant of a kind, you might as well just buy it instead of buying a packet of seeds for about the same price. But growing the following herbs from seed is fairly quick and easy and very satisfying. You can sow borage, cilantro, dill, epazote, mustard, nasturtium, and summer savory seeds directly in the garden in spring. Sow chives, parsley, and sweet marjoram seeds indoors in small pots in late winter, basil in late spring. Grow them on a sunny windowsill or under fluorescent lights until they’re big enough to go into the garden. Chives, parsley, and marjoram can all take a little cool weather, but wait to transplant basil seedlings outdoors until after the date of the last killing frost.

Rita Buchanan is a woman of many and varied interests, including a large herb garden in Winsted, Connecticut.

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