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herbs in pots

New Vegetable Gardener — Herbs are a Cool Season Crop in Central Florida

As you have already learned, the environment is unique in Florida and the seasons for growing vegetables is different from what you may be used to or what you have learned from social media sites that are not in the Central Florida area. Herbs too, need to be grown in seasons you may not be used to. We will be starting seedlings of the Cool Season vegetables in late September. This would also be a great time to start some seedlings for fresh herbs that you will plant out in October. Herbs prefer a cooler season for the best growth and production. The cool season gives you an herb gardening season with almost six months of growing the tastiest herbs. It will be cooler, it will have fewer insect pests, and it will be bountiful. You should visit the UF EDIS webpage for information about herbs in Florida.

What is an herb? The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses (New York: Doling Kindersley, 2001. P. 18) defines herbs as “trees, shrubs, annuals, vines, and more primitive plants, such as ferns, mosses, algae, lichens, and fungi, valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes).” However, for our purposes, we will define herbs as “herbaceous plants (do not have woody stems) that are grown for the special flavor and aroma of their various parts.” We use herbs to enhance the taste or aroma of certain foods. They are not classified as vegetables because they are not primary dishes. With the similarity of herb growth habits and cultural requirements, they are often included with vegetables in the garden.

Herbs are quite amazing in that they stimulate many of our senses; hairy leaves (touch), aromatic (smell), silver and green foliage (sight), have interesting tastes. We can tuck them into existing flower beds, grow them indoors and outdoors in containers and they have few pests and fungal problems. Additionally, herbs have different water and nutrient needs than vegetables. They should be planted in their place in the garden and not mixed in with the vegetables.

Herbs are grown with the same considerations as vegetables or ornamentals. The soil should be fertile, organically amended, with good drainage, a soil pH between 5.8 and 6.5, and if grown in containers, a soilless mix should be used. The soil should be allowed to dry out between irrigation events except for parsley, chervil, and members of the mint family.

Have you planned your herb garden? What are you going to grow in the cool season (October – February)? As with vegetables, ask your family members what herbs they like. This will help you determine what you are going to plant. Do you have enough space to grow the herbs? Understand the mature size of the herbs you intend to grow so you can space them properly in the herb garden to promote air circulation and reduce insect/disease issues. Most herbs are grown as vegetables. Basil, dill, chervil and fennel should be planted 12” between plants. Oregano and rosemary should be planted 24” between plants and parsley can be planted 6” between plants (depending on variety). Do you have enough room to make all the herbs fit into the garden space allotted to them? By planning the garden, you will know how much space you will need and how many herbs to grow in the herb garden.

The best place to locate the herb garden is where it will receive at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. Some may prefer light shade. Group herbs according to light needs. Also, group herbs according to water needs; moist (parsley, mint), slightly moist (rosemary, thyme), or dry between watering (aloe). Few herbs are perennials, so should be grouped together.

Once you have determined that there is enough space near the vegetable garden to plant some herbs, prepare the area by removing old, poorly performing plants and weeds, loosen up the soil, add organic matter, level the area, and rake smooth.  Add about 1-2 pounds of a complete fertilizer such as 6-6-6 to a 100 square foot area. Water the area lightly.

Are you going to grow your herbs from seeds or transplants? By growing them from seed you will have a greater choice in what varieties you will grow. Purchasing transplants from the garden center may limit the varieties you grow because of the limited selection. If you choose to grow herbs from seed, do not plant them deeper than 3 times the diameter of the seed. If you choose to grow transplants, make sure the garden bed is moist, try not to damage the root system as you remove the plant from the transplant container, and plant no deeper than the plant was growing in the container. You may want to use a “starter fertilizer” (a half strength liquid fertilizer) but it is usually not necessary.

Herbs are grown for the various plant parts: parsley (leaves), nasturtium (flowers), caraway (seeds) and ginger (roots and rhizomes). Annuals are usually cultivated by seed but some can be propagated by cuttings. The few perennials are propagated by cuttings (mints) or division (lemon grass).

Care for the garden as necessary. Weed often and keep pests under control. Few pesticides are labeled for use on herbs. If you use a pesticide, choose pesticides only after you have identified the pest, so you make a good choice on how to control the pest. Often it will only require you hand pick the pest from the plant and dispose of in a container of soapy water.

Herbs are used for flavoring purposes. Their flavor comes primarily from the volatile or essential oils contained in leaves, seeds, and fruits. For flavor retention, harvest herbs at the right time and properly cure and store. The young, tender leaves can be used fresh at any time during the season, but after the season they should be harvested when the plants begin to flower and should be dried rapidly in a well-ventilated, darkened room. The leaves should be washed in cold water and thoroughly drained before drying. Growing herbs during the summer months is challenging with increased diseases from the high humidity and high nighttime temperatures; herbs often lose those volatile oils and taste very bland as a result.

Most of all, care for the garden as needed and enjoy the best tasting herbs ever – your own.

For more information about herb gardening in the south, refer to publications found at Land Grant university sites such as this one from the University of Georgia.

Come back and read more about the “New Vegetable Gardener.”