This is what the Herb Society calls herbs. These are multi-tasking plants. They are grown for cooking, fragrance, medicine, crafts, landscaping, wildlife, and beauty. Herbs can be great ground covers. Just remember, the label groundcover means they cover the ground. In other words, they can be invasive as heck. They can be grown in containers or with your flowers or shrubs. The smaller ones make a neat edging plant. Most herbs are happy in any well-drained, average soil, ample sunlight and water. Then there are the Mediterraneans; lavender, thyme, rosemary, sage and the gray-green or silver leaved plants. They will tolerate a higher soil pH and less water. The most important thing to remember about these herbs is air circulation. If they are crowded and we have humid days, they will be more susceptible to fungi and rot. If you have had this problem, plant the plant “high” with the area between the stem and root above the soil level with a slope of soil all around it. A gravel mulch will help keep the area dry. Deer aren’t attracted to these plants. However, if they are hungry enough, deer will eat almost anything.
If you have a shady yard, all is not lost. Parsley, chive, lemon balm, chervil and some mints will tolerate if not really appreciate some shade, especially in hot afternoons. Of course, if your herbs are in pots, you can move them with the sun. Most herbs want 6-8 hours of sunshine a day.
Once established, many herbs are low maintenance. A regular harvest of culinary herbs like basil, thyme, tarragon, and oregano will result in longer and better production. Pruning about a third of the plant at a time stimulates more leaf growth while staving off flowering and seed production. Some, like dill, fennel and caraway, can be allowed to go to seed after you have used the leaves.
If you are growing herbs for drying or freezing, you can harvest them throughout the growing season. If you are a crafter, lamb’s ears (Stachys sp.), sweet annie (Artemisia anna) and roses, yup, it’s an herb too, make pretty wreaths. Adding aromatic sprigs can be a nice and unusual addition to your flower bouquet. Textile artist can grow their own dyes with indigo, (Indigofera tincotia), woad, (Isatis tincoria) lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) and yarrow (Achillea sp.). These are just a few for you to try.
Flowering herbs attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, ground beetles and tachinid flies. Butterflies, birds, bees, hummingbirds, and butterfly larvae use herbs for food. Dill, fennel and parsley are favorites. And did you know that some varieties of bee balm (monarda), is used to give Earl Gray its special flavor?
Old husband’s tales say that certain vegetables grow better when planted next to certain herbs. Tomatoes don’t thrive next to basil just because they think he’s a nice guy. They benefit when a braconid wasp is attracted to the basil flowers and lays its eggs on the tomato hornworm’s back. The hornworm is a voracious eater of both tomato and potato leaves. The wasp larvae will parasitize the hornworm when they hatch. So there actually is science behind the tales. So, plant herbs. They smell good and taste good to us and the insects. What a deal!
Bev Johnson is a Master Gardener with the University of Minnesota Extension. Her column appears in the Weekend Edition.