Any herbaceous plant grown for a particular flavor, aroma or even medicinal properties can be defined as an herb. They can be used in the kitchen to improve the taste of our food, to decorate and scent our surroundings, or they can be used to alleviate or even cure some diseases. Some herbs are considered to have magical properties in some cultures and many are the source of compounds that are used to heal our bodies and our spirits.
Soil and light requirements:
As a general rule, herbs can be grown under the same sunlight and soil conditions as vegetables. As a matter of fact, many herbs are usually planted among vegetables in the garden. Herbs generally grow well in well-drained soils with a pH range between 6.0 to 7.0 and require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. For sandy soils, organic matter such as compost, peat moss, manure, bonemeal, or wood ashes should be added to improve its water holding capacity and to add nutrients to the soil. Mulching is usually recommended for growing herbs, to control weeds, slow down soil moisture evaporation, and add nutrients to the soil. A 2 inches thick layer of mulch is usually adequate for mulching herbs.
Growing herbs in containers:
The fact that herbs are needed in such small quantities, are good reasons why herbs are usually grown in containers. Pots of herbs or hanging baskets can be moved around as required. They are great for the terrace or patio, but can be moved in-door as a decorative or edible centerpiece or kitchen plant. Container grown plants require frequent watering and need to be fertilized constantly to replace the nutrients lost by the watering.
Most herbs are grown from seeds sown directly on place. Perennials are usually started in boxes or plant beds using seeds or cuttings, and then transplanted into the garden or growing container. Plants like sage and rosemary are best propagated by cuttings. Cuttings of about 3-4 inches should be taken from new growth or upper part of older stems, and placed in a shallow box filled with 4-5 inches of a mixture of sand, peat and perlite. The rooting soil should be kept moist until roots develop, which may take at least two weeks. Thyme and marjoram can be propagated by a method known as simple layering that consist in covering the lower portions of the side branches with soil, leaving much of the top of the plant exposed. This will promote root development on the soil-covered branches, which can later be separated and become new plants. Old chive and tarragon plants can be propagated simply by, dividing their crown clumps into separate parts. Each one of those parts then becomes a new plant.
Seeds, leaves, flowers and roots of herbs usually contain volatile or essential oils that are used for flavoring purposes. The flavor is retained longer if the herbs are harvested at the right time and properly cured and stored. The young and tender leaves can be harvested any time during the growing season, but when the plants begin to flower, they should be harvested for later use. Leaves should be washed in cold water and dried rapidly in a well-ventilated, darkened room. The tender-leaf herbs, such as basil, mints, and tarragon, that have a high moisture content, should be dried rapidly away from the light if they are to retain their green color. A well-ventilated darkened room such as an attic is ideal for this process.
For leaves with lower moisture content, such as sage, rosemary, and thyme, they can be dried in the sun without affecting their color. The seed crops should be harvested when they are mature or when their color changes from green to brown or gray. The seeds should be dried before storing to prevent loss of quality. Store dried herbs in sealed glass jars to preserve aroma and flavor. Glass containers should be painted or stored in a dark room to prevent bleaching of the color by the light.