A Brief History of Herbs

Herbs have played an important part in man's life for countless years -- in his politics, romance, love, religion, health, and superstition.

Ancient Greeks and Romans crowned their heroes with dill and laurel. Dill also was used by the Romans to purify the air in their banquet halls. Some herbs were given magical properties, probably because of their medicinal uses. In France during the Middle Ages, babies were rubbed with artemisia juices to protect them from the cold. Ancient Greeks used sweet marjoram as a valuable tonic, and parsley as a cure for stomach ailments. Rosemary was eaten for its tranquilizing effects and as a cure-all for headaches.

Early settlers brought herbs to America for use as remedies for illnesses, flavoring, storing with linens, strewing on floors, or burning for their pleasant fragrances. Some herbs were used to improve the taste of meats in the days before preservation techniques were developed. Other herbs were used to dye homespun fabrics.

Many herbs familiar to settlers from other countries were found growing wild in the new country. These included parsley, anise, pennyroyal, sorrel, watercress, liverwort, wild leeks, and lavender. Native Americans knew uses for almost every wild, nonpoisonous plant, but they used the plants chiefly for domestic purposes -- tanning and dyeing leather and eating.

With the growth of allotropic medicine and increased use of synthetics in pharmaceuticals, both home and professional use of herbs has declined but never faded away. In the early part of the twentieth century interest in herbs with kept alive by the likes of J.I. Rodale, Rudolph Steiner and more recently the popular Euell Gibbons.

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Cultivation of Herbs

Site and Soil Conditions

When selecting the site for your herb garden, consider drainage and soil fertility. Drainage is probably the most important single factor in successful herb growing. None of the herbs will grow well in wet soils. If the garden area is poorly drained, you will have to modify the soil for any chance of success. A raised bed (with a base of crushed stone in extreme circumstances) is an excellent solution to poor drainage.

The soil at the site does not have to be especially fertile. Generally, highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor. Plants, such as chervil, fennel, lovage, and summer savory, require moderate amounts of fertilizer. Adding several bushels of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil condition and retain needed moisture.

Sowing Herb Seed

If possible, sow seeds in shallow boxes in late winter and transplant seedlings outdoors in the spring. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Different varieties have specific germination requirements - consult a good book or website.

Vegetative Propagation

Cutting and division also are useful in propagating certain perennial herbs. Early spring just before or as you notice the first signs of growth is the best time. Excessive woodiness or bald middles in your herbs is usually a sign that it's time for rejuvenation. Once you lift the plant out of the ground, it is usually clear the best way to divide the plants. Bulbous roots can usually be pulled apart where others will need to be cut. Discard any woody sections and replant and water as soon as possible. Providing some shading for the first week or so can be helpful.

Layer is a fairly risk-free method that can be practiced throughout the summer and works well on some of the woody, Mediterranean-type plants that don't have a very extensive root system for dividing. Select a branch(s) that can be bent to the ground and strip the lower branches and leaves from the section that touches the ground. Loosen the soil and bury the branch just below the surface - you made need secure it to keep it in the ground. Let nature take its course. By the end of the growing season, roots will have formed and the branch can be separated from the parent and moved to a new location.

Taking rooting cuttings follows these same principles. Cutting is a faster process but also more prone to failures since the new section is completely removed from the parent plant and requires controlled conditions and regular attention. Cuttings are taking in spring for planting the same season or in late summer for over wintering. If you'd like to try this method, I'd advise finding a good book on the subject.

Winter Protection

Perennial and biennial herbs should be winter protected. Many herbs are shallow-rooted, which makes them susceptible to heaving during spring thaws. Mulch with straw, oak leaves, or evergreen boughs 4 inches deep to protect the plants. Avoid materials that will mat and smother the plant or hold excessive water. Apply the mulch after the ground has frozen in early winter. Do not remove the mulch until plants show signs of growth in early spring. Early removal could result in some frost damage.

Herbs at the edge of their hardiness range can also be brought indoors for the winter either for continued use (see Indoor Herb Gardening below) or strictly for survival. To hold over plants indoors dig and pot them several weeks before you plan to bring them in. Hold them in a shady location and check them thoroughly for pests. If you don't plan on using the herbs store them in a cool location (a basement or unheated garage) where they will get moderate light. Water sparingly but don't let them dry out. When moving the outdoors in the spring try to do this in stages.

Indoor Herb Gardening

Herbs can also be grown indoors for year-round enjoyment. Growing herbs indoors is no more difficult than growing them in the garden. Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as herbs grown outdoors -- sunlight and a well-drained soil mix that is not too rich. Different herbs have different light requirements, but most need a sunny location - 5 hours per day or the artificial equivalent; in winter, "grow lamps" or fluorescent lamps are helpful in supplementing light.

Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you place them outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim, or keep it in a protected location on the porch or patio. You can maintain an indoor herb garden indefinitely by periodic light feeding, yearly repotting, renewing annuals, seasonal moves outdoors for perennials, and occasional pruning. Water plants as needed. Use several planters or a divided one to allow for different moisture needs of plants.

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Harvesting Herbs

Fresh leaves may be picked as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. Most herbs are at their peak flavor just before flowering, so this is a good time to collect them for drying and storage. To be certain, check drying directions on specific herbs in a reliable reference book. Cut off the herbs early in the morning just after the dew has dried. For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick the seed heads as the color changes from green to brown or gray. Wash dirty leaves and seed heads in cold water; drain thoroughly before drying. Strip leaves off the stalks once plants have drained and dried, choose the best leaves for drying - generally the top 6 inches. Remove all blossoms

Natural or Air Drying

Herbs must be dried thoroughly before storing. Herbs with high moisture content, such as mint and basil, need rapid drying or they will mold. To retain some green leaf coloring, dry in the dark by hanging plants upside down in bunches in paper bags. Hanging leaves down allows essential oils to flow from stems to leaves. Tie whole stems very tightly in small bunches. Individual stems will shrink and fall. Hang in a dark, warm (70o-80oF [21.1o-26.7oC]), well-ventilated, dust-free area. Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly in about 1 to 2 weeks.

Oven Drying

For quick oven drying, take care to prevent loss of flavor, oils, and color. Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven at low heat less than 180oF (82.2oC) for about 2 to 4 hours.

Microwave ovens can be used to dry leaves quickly. Place the clean leaves on a paper plate or paper towel. Place the herbs in the oven for 1 to 3 minutes, mixing every 30 seconds.


When completely dry, the leaves may be screened to a powder or stored whole in airtight containers, such as canning jars with tightly sealed lids. Seeds should be stored whole and ground as needed. Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just before use.

For a few days, it is very important to examine the jars in which you have stored dried herbs. If you see any moisture in the jars, remove the herbs and repeat the drying process. Herbs will mold quickly in closed jars if not completely dry.

Once you are sure the herbs are completely dry, place them in the airtight containers, and store them in a cool, dry place away from light. Never use paper or cardboard containers for storage as they will absorb the herbs' aromatic oils.

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Companion Planting

The age-old suspicion that plants can effect the growth and flavor of their neighbors is supported at least with a lot of antidotal evidence. Controlled studies and experiments have had mixed results. But then it's as much a matter of faith as science and, it just makes sense. Creating more diversity in the garden makes for staggered maturity cycles and therefore less competition at every stage of growth. By mixing up plants you make it harder for plant specific insect to move from plant to plant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A diversity of plants leads to a diversity of insects - hopefully attracting beneficial insects. A mixture of plant textures and odors may also confuse pests. The benefits of companion planting are not limited to herbs. Planting perennials near your vegetable garden also adds to the plant diversity and is particularly helpful in attracting predator insects.

There are several ways plants affect their surrounding:

Improving Flavor

This is a hard one to put your finger on since it is so subjective but, with so many people swearing by it, there must be something to it. There are logical arguments that can be made - complimentary nutrient requirements; shading effect; or, actual chemical changes in the soil or the air. Dandelions are known to give off ethylene gas that encourages the setting and ripening of fruits. Some of these companions are:

Basil Tomato, pepper Lovage Bean
Beebalm Tomato Oregano Bean
Chamomile Cucumber, onions Rosemary Bean
Chervil Radish Sage Cabbage, carrot, strawberry, tomato
Chives Carrot, rose, tomato Tansy Berries, rose
Dill Cabbage, onion, lettuce Tarragon Most vegetables
Horseradish Potato Thyme Eggplant, potato, tomato
Hyssop Cabbage, grape

Repelling Pests

Insect must use their senses to find their dinner be it taste, smell, or something more unfamiliar to us. Plants that give off a contradictory message will obviously confuse. Generally the strongly scented herbs work best - garlic and wormwood being the most universal. Although proximity can work (my experience has been very close and lots of it) you might try making a "tea" with the herb and using it as a spray. Here's a limited list - again, there are many good books on the subject.

Ants Mint, tansy, wormwood Aphids Most aromatics
Cabbage butterfly Southernwood Cabbage lopper Garlic, hyssop, mints, onion, pennyroyal, sage, southernwood, thyme
Carrot fly Rosemary, sage, wormwood Codling moth Garlic, wormwood
Potato beetle Catnip, nasturtium, onion, tansy Cucumber beetle Catnip, rue
Flea beetle Catnip, mint, southernwood, tansy, wormwood Japanese beetle Catnip, chives, garlic, tansy
Bean beetle Rosemary Mice Wormwood
Slug and snails Fennel, garlic, rosemary Squash vine borer Catnip, mints, tansy
Tomato hornworm Dill, borage, basil Whitefly Peppermint, thyme, wormwood

Attracting Beneficial Insects

These fall into three categories - predators, parasites, and pollinators - and they all need food and shelter. It is in attracting these insects (and reptiles) that the diversity of your garden environment plays its greatest role. Many predators such as ground beetles, spiders, toads seek out the cool, dark, moist spots to both hide and reproduce. While flying predators will also need refuge, they are most drawn to the nectar and pollen that supplements their diet. Daisies and daisy-like flowers as well as mints (of course be sure mints aren't too close to the garden since they can take over an area) and catnip are some of the best. Many parasitic wasps and other tiny parasites need tiny flowers for their nourishment. Remember that insects aren't necessarily attracted by the large, showy flowers that attract our attention. A mix border of perennials near the vegetable can be an effective and attractive approach.

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