This morning Linda Lucas, a Williamsburg Master Gardener, talked to our neighborhood garden club about herbs. We all discussed what a terribly rough winter it has been here for herbs. Rosemary and Lavender plants which have weathered several recent winters died out during this one. Our Bay trees have taken a hard hit, and many need to be replaced.
I am taking a very slow and patient approach to everything in the garden this spring. I still believe we may have at least one more bout of extremely cold weather before warm weather settles in for good.
Bronze fennel overwintered in our garden, and has begun good strong growth this spring. Not only is this a delicious herb, it is a host plant for swallowtail butterflies.
Many of my beds still have a light covering of leaves. The Ginger Lily stalks still lie where they fell, mulching their tubers. And, I haven’t cut back a single Rosemary or Lavender this season.
Cutting back herbs is an important part of their care. Long lived herbs like Lavender live longer, and look better with two or three annual shearings, where at least a third of the plant is removed.
But, I’ve learned the hard way that cutting back too early, before the last freezing weather, can kill a plant which has survived the winter.
Comfrey has shown itself in these last few warm days.
And so I’m waiting. And watching to see signs of new growth on woody stems, what is poking up out of the ground.
Inspired by the conversations this morning, I headed out to the Homestead Garden Center this afternoon to look over their herbs one more time. They have had an excellent selection this spring, and I’ve already bought out their first shipment of a certain cultivar of scented geranium last week.
Cat nip purchased at Homestead Garden Center as a birthday gift for a friend.
With a friend’s birthday later in the week, which I promised to honor with some herb plants, I had some shopping to do!
While many of the warm season annual herbs, like Basil, aren’t widely available yet; hardy herbs, like Parsley, Rosemary, Germander, Savory, and Thyme have shown up at garden centers and big-box stores.
In honor of spring, I will write a few posts featuring some of my favorite herbs.
We all grow herbs for a variety of reasons. Most of us cook with herbs, and some use them for healing. Many of us enjoy the fragrance living herbs bring to the garden.
This cat mint overwintered out in the garden. It was one of the earliest perennials to awaken this spring. With gorgeous blue flowers, this plant will grow to 3′ or more if planted in the ground.
Although most herbs need at least six hours of direct sun a day, I’ve found them a valuable part of our Forest Garden. I don’t just grow herbs I’ll use in cooking. We also grow a variety of other herbs for their beautiful leaves, flowers, and form.
Most herbs aren’t very fussy about soil, don’t require a great deal of fertilizer to grow well, and can withstand some degree of drought and heat. In fact the so called “Mediterranean herbs” like Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender, Germander, Marjoram, and Savory prefer poor, somewhat dry, alkaline soil. They thrive in full sun, and too much water will drown their roots.
Perhaps the most pressing reason we have planted more herbs than anything else lately has to do with critter control. You see, deer not only avoid nibbling on herbs, but the herbs’ strong fragrance often serves as a deterrent to prevent deer from grazing other plants growing nearby.
Purple culinary sage is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It will grow to about 18″ tall and wide within a season.
The Lavenders and Rosemaries I planted around new roses last summer didn’t keep the deer completely away from them, but I believe it gave some measure of protection to reduce the grazing.
I learned this autumn that scented geraniums do an excellent job of keeping deer from grazing plants they protect, and over the winter I’ve had nearly 100% success with using garlic cloves in pots of flowers to keep deer from nibbling at our Violas.
As the days grow longer and warmer, you are probably browsing the garden center herb displays as avidly as am I. So I’ll begin this series of posts on herbs with a bit of information about my current favorite, scented geraniums.
This rose scented geranium grows in a pot next to a rose bed. Planted here with Alyssum, also strongly scented, it will fill the pot within a few weeks.
Technically known as Pelargonium species, there are over 200 cultivars of scented geraniums. Although grown primarily for their beautiful and fragrant leaves, most have small, but delicate and lovely flowers. Fragrances commonly available include Citronella, the most common which has a lemony smell; rose, mint, apple, ginger, nutmeg, cedar, strawberry, coconut, orange and lime.
I tend to grow mostly rose scented geraniums, and there are several different cultivars with different leaves available which smell like roses.
Rose scented geraniums often have variegated leaves. I particularly like this large cultivar with burgundy markings.
Although you purchase a little 3″ or 4″ pot in early spring, these plants can grow quite large in a single season. Depending on the cultivar, your plant may be 4” tall and wide by September. In our Zone 7B, and even in Zone 8, plants left outside over the winter will die back to the ground. Plants can be overwintered in bright or medium light inside. I have been delighted to discover those geraniums left out of doors coming back from the roots for the last several springs.
I grow scented geraniums both in pots and in garden beds. They weave beautifully around other plants, and are especially nice grown around roses. Work a little compost into the planting hole if planting into the ground. Use a good quality potting mix if planting in pots. I top dress the soil with some Osmocote, and then a mulch of gravel whether planting into a pot or into the garden. I also feed every few weeks with a dilute solution of Neptune’s Harvest.
This summer I plan to plant up some arrangements with scented geraniums, annual zonal geraniums, and ivy geraniums all in the same pot. This should give a beautiful mix of color, scent, and interesting foliage in a really big, but easy to maintain potted garden.
This geranium has grown large and rangy in the reduced light of our garage over the winter. I’ve already taken cuttings from it once, and likely will again.
Pelargoniums are enormously easy to root. Cut off the tip of a branch, at a leaf node, and dip it into rooting hormone powder. Then stick this little cutting into any good, moist potting mix, and wait for new roots to grow.
It isn’t necessary to cover the cutting, apply bottom heat, or do anything fussy and meticulous. These are hardy plants which want to live.
I haven’t had great success rooting Pelargoniums in water. The stems often rot before roots grow. I’ve learned to root them in potting soil, although a mixture rich in sand or vermiculite might work even better.
I love cutting stems of Pelargoniums to use in summer flower arrangements. They make wonderful filler both because they are beautiful, but they also make the bouquet more fragrant. When they are in bloom, they are an especially nice addition to an arrangement.
The leaves can be harvested, washed, dried and used in tea and other cooking projects. Dried leaves can be layered in an air tight container with sugar. After a few weeks, the sugar is nicely flavored.
Use their flowers to decorate cakes. Slice the washed leaves into small slivers to add to stir fries, rice, puddings, cakes, or add to lemonade or cocktails.
Dried leaves make an excellent base for potpourri because the leaves lose very little volume when they dry. Dried leaves can be stacked between linens or used in bureau drawers to scent cleaned laundry. The volatile oils are very strong in most varieties. While they freshen, they offer protection from moths.
The volatile oils of scented geraniums make them a good insect repellant. When going out into the garden, pick a leaf or two of citrus scented varieties and rub on your exposed skin as a non -toxic repellant. Then tuck the crushed leaf into your pocket or hat for even more lasting protection.
Scented geraniums are the first herb I’ve planted this year, after parsley. I’ve scattered them generously, especially in areas I want to protect from deer. I’ve taken cuttings from two which overwintered in the garage, and I’ll keep my eye out for new growth coming up from the roots of scented geraniums which remained outside over the winter.
Two citronella scented geraniums planted to offer some protection to this Oakleaf hydrangea, which is just beginning to leaf out for spring.
We had long stretches of very cold days and nights, but these are tough plants, and I hope to see them return from the roots, for another year in our forest garden.
Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014