The Herb Garden
The joy of growing and using herbs
The Spring Garden
by Rachel McLeod
From time to time, my alphabetic progression of herbs in this column is interrupted when there are more important events in the herb garden. What could be more important than the onset of Spring? To be honest, it still looks a long way away as I look out at the drifts of old snow and watch the mixture of rain and snow falling. However, my snowdrops are in flower and the weatherman promises us warm weather in a few days. With this promise, our minds turn to seeds – when should we plant them, and what will we see first in the garden?
First the seeds. There is no need to rush to plant herb seeds. May and June are quite early enough if you are planting straight into the garden. For good germination it is better to be late rather than early. Most annual herbs originate in a warm, Mediterranean climate and it is very important when planting them here that the soil be warm. I do not suggest that you try the old farmer's method of testing the soil temperature. He dropped his pants and sat down. If the ground felt comfortable on his bare bottom then he know it was planting time. No doubt you can find your own method!
Now that some of the snow has melted in my area, the bright, green leaves of chervil are growing fast. Chervil prefers cool weather and semi-shade. Mine self-seeds every summer and I have a permanent patch near the compost pile. If you are starting from seed, plant it early and allow it to flower and set seed in an undisturbed spot, and it will produce a delicious harvest year after year.
Marjoram, Summer savory, parsley, dill, fennel and the basils will need much warmer conditions. They can all be grown from seed quite easily but each needs slightly different treatment. Sweet marjoram and Summer savory can both be started indoors but you will probably get sturdier plants if sown straight into the garden. Wait until conditions are really warm, see that they have a sunny exposure, and they will grow quickly.
Parsley is happy with cooler conditions, but it can be difficult to germinate. I find it is best to buy a few plants while I wait for my seeds to germinate. That way I'm not so impatient! An old saying is that it goes to the devil seven times before germinating and we have to wait.
All the basils need really warm weather and it is wise not to plant seeds or put started plants out until June at the earliest. Like parsley, it may be best to buy plants or start your own under lights. But in any case, do not be tempted to put them in the ground until the soil is warm and the temperatures set to stay above 22 degrees C (55 F). If the plants are put out too early they cannot grow; they will just sulk, and worse, are in a weakened state which creates an invitation to disease and insect damage.
Perennial herbs are sown at the same time; either indoors in April or May or outdoors when the soil is warm. But the perennials will not grow as fast as the annuals and it is unlikely that they can be harvested the same year. However, spring is a good time to propagate perennials by cuttings or division. I use an old, but strong, kitchen knife to carve a small part of any herb I want to propagate away from the main clump and replant it in a nursery bed. At the same time, some shoots may break off. These can be planted in a soilless mix, kept damp in a sheltered spot and they will root in a few weeks. I find this especially good with French tarragon, which cannot be grown from seed. It sends juicy shoots up very early in the spring and a portion of the main clump can be severed with the kitchen knife. Almost certainly, some shoots will break off but they will root well. There is so much vigor in the plants in the spring that it is worth trying cuttings of almost any plant you would like to increase.
Spring, too, is the time to forage for the first wild herbs. Chickweed will be coming up in the flower beds as a weed, and makes a great soup or salad. Stinging nettles are at their delicious best in early spring and are one of the finest blood cleansers and tonics you can take. Fiddleheads and wild leeks are not exactly herbs but are another wild food free from additives and chemicals. Coltsfoot will be blooming and soon after the leaves will appear and can be used as a tea to banish that persistent winter cough. Then violets will be ready, which are wonderful in salads and provide an excellent source of vitamin C.
With all these on our tables, we know that Spring has surely arrived!
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.