Chapter 5 : Outdoor Gardening

In a nutshell, here's what it takes to grow health herbs outside.  The right soil, just enough water (and not too much), and protection from the cold, winter months.  And yes one more thing:  companion plants would help.  Find out about all of these aspect of growing your herbs outdoors in this chapter.

It's one of those no-brainers.  Healthy, vigorous herbs sprout from healthy, nutritious soil.  Good soil is the basis of plants that are resistant to insect pests and various diseases.  The pleasant surprise is that creating a healthy base for your herbs is incredibly easy.

Whether you're growing culinary, medicinal or tea herbs, they all need the same basic soil:  three parts of garden soil, one part peat, compost or aged manure and one part sand.  It's that easy.  Give your herbs this and you're well on your way to producing healthy, strong herbs.

Beyond that you'll notice that many herbal guides advise the soil be "well drained."  It's just a fact of herbal life -- these plants hate wet soil. You may be wondering how to ensure that the soil in your yard is well drained. 

To do this ideal growing condition, simply place a three-inch layer of compressed stone into your soil about 15 to 18 inches under the surface.  Return the soil -- blended with compost and sand -- on top of these stones.  Be sure in doing this, that you fill this top soil just a little higher than it was originally.  This allows for some settling of the soil as time passes.

As an additional insurance policy, you may also want to purchase a soil-moisture meter.  Because this device actually measures the moisture at the roots of the plant, this can eliminate a lot of the guess work that's usually involved in estimating moisture.

While you think the best, fastest and easiest way to obtain healthy plants is to fertilize them.  And this is certainly true -- but just to an extent.  Just as with everything else in this world, moderation is the key in nourishing your plants.

You may be surprised to learn that this is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to fertilizing herbs.  Herbs grown in overly fertilized soil actually grow poorly.

Your herbs aren't completely maintenance free.  They require regular care and attention, just like flowers or vegetable plants.  After the initial planting of the herbs, continue to apply compost or fertilizer to them on a regular basis.  You may also want to add mulch occasionally as well.  Mulch helps to preserve moisture.  It also prevents weeds from overtaking your garden.

Many herb growers are concerned though with the plants they grow in containers.  One of the questions I receive most often is how can you be certain your container herb is well drained.  It really isn't as hard as it seems.

When you initially buy your pot or container for your plants, be sure they container already has drainer holes in it.  The better containers will.  If you decide to decorate, planting your herbs in unconventional containers -- say a teapot, for example -- then create several holes In the bottom to ensure proper drainage

These holes don't need to be large.  But to ease your worry that the soil will leak through these holes, fill the bottom of the container with gravel or stones.  In this way, you'll be sure that the soil won't escape.

If you're planning on growing these herbs indoors, keep a waterproof tray underneath your pots.  But be careful not to water these plants too much.

Specific soil for certain herbs

Of course, one soil doesn't necessarily fit all herbs.  There are of necessity different needs for different plants.  And this is where the expertise of your local nursery is indispensible.   They'll know exactly what type of soil your particular herbs need.

How often do my herbs like to drink?

Ahh!  What a smart person you are to question this right up front.  Obviously, you're either an accomplished experienced gardener ... or you were like me for the longest time -- killing off plants by either withholding water or drowning the poor things.

Here's a good rule of thumb that I've finally found works for me.  When the natural rainfall is less than one inch within the week, water your herbs. 

And don't forget that one of the very good uses for mulch is an effective control mechanism.  When you go to the nursery to buy your mulch, take not that you'll have a variety from which to choose. 

Consider buying the bark chips or the shredded bark.  Other good mulches you might consider include compost, ground corncobs, pecan hulls or even dried grass clippings.

When you spread your mulch, don't be cheap!  You need to spread enough that it has half a chance of performing the jobs you want it to.  That means you want it at least three inches deep.

Surviving a cold, hard winter.

While it might not seem like a "Valley-Forge Experience" to you, the winter months may prove hard on your plants.  You may wan to take a bit of extra care when it comes to their winter protection and survival.

Granted, many of the perennial herbs are quite hardy.  They survive the winter quite well, thank you.  But depending on the other types of herbs you've planted outside and where you live, you may have to supply your plants with a little extra protection.

This is especially true if you live in any of the Midwestern or northern states.  I think of Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin right off the top of my head.  But there are plenty of other cold states from which to choose.

But more than just the cold, more herbs are killed by the extreme and wild fluctuations in temperature rather than just the extreme cold.

To make sure your herbs see it through to another summer, what you do throughout the growing season plays a vital role.  I know I'm sounding like a broken record, but there's a reason I keep returning the theme of "well-drained" soil.  It's just another layer of protection for your plant during the long, cold winter.

Herbs are especially subjected to root rot over the winter if they soil they're sitting in isn't well-drained.  If you haven't take much stock in "lightening up" your soil throughout the summer months, come fall make it a priority.  It's the best way to help ensure herbal survival in the winter.

Don't fertilizer or prune in winter.

You probably wouldn't do either of these, but I had to make myself clear on this point as well.  Just in general over-fertilizing is good, but it's especially essential once the winter months hit.

Pruning should only take place in the spring and summer months.  Once fall appears, then you can gradually taper back on your pruning.  You really want a little more growth in the fall; it helps to insulate the plants for the upcoming cold weather.

Also, considering protecting your herbs with an extra layer of mulch.  Top the existing mulch off with evergreen branches or even some other material.  Try not to use a mulch that packs heavily down.  It will only retain the moisture during the winter which very well may contribute to root rot.

Got herbs that you feel are marginally hardy?  Rosemary?  Greek oregano?  If you have doubts about their ability to survive the winter, then by all means don't be afraid to dig them up, pot them and bring them inside for the winter. Once spring hits, they can be planted outside again.

Diseases, insects and other pests.

Herbs grown outdoors and have access to ample air circulation, sunlight and water drainage are seldom affected with either disease or damage by insects.

The usual suspects that attack herbs -- mites and aphids -- are held in check by natural predators and parasites.  And this is especially true if you're growing a wide variety of different herbs.  Of course, you don't want to use chemical insecticides. 

Instead, search out insecticidal soap as well as horticultural oil.  These can help fight any attacks as well as keeping your plants chemical free!  If you have troubles with some of the larger pests, like beetles and caterpillars, simply pick them off.

Companion plants.

Sounds like a buddy movie aimed at wildlife.  But when it comes to herbs, companion plants may prove to be a vital key in the overall health of your garden -- not only your herb garden, but your patch of vegetables and your flower bed too!

That's because some plants actually grow better when they're sitting next to other plants.  Yes, it might not sound very sensible at first, but the concept is really quite simple.

If you start to add specific herbs to either your vegetable or flower garden -- or both -- you may notice a decidedly improved level of overall health for all the plants, depending on the herbs you've put there.

Let me give you a classic example of this.  And when I say classic, I'm drawing on history.  When white settlers came to North America, they soon learned that the Native Americans had what they referred to as the "three Sisters" a combination of corns, beans and squash.  Now if you learned this in school or elsewhere as I did, you might have assumed these three plants were "sisters" because they were a vital part of their overall diet.  And that's true!

But here's the rest of the story.  When planted together, they actually help the others to grow.  The beans, first of all are the "nitrogen-fixers" for the other plants and they climb the stalks of the corn.  The squash shades the ground for the sake of the health of the other two plants holding the moisture longer in the ground.

More examples of companion plants.

Now, here's an example that might have come straight from your garden.  Garlic and roses.  As much as it might sound like a new heavy metal rock band, it's really how many gardeners arrange their plants. Garlic and roses are companion plants.

The pungent scent of the garlic repels a portion of the rose plant's worst pests, the aphids.  Cool isn't it?  Actually to a gardener who's trying hard to stay organic, it's quite exciting.

But you also have the opposite affect.  Some plants just don't grow well at all when placed together.  Let's just face it, Irish potatoes don't grow well at all when placed next to turnips or pumpkins. 

While I may sound as if I'm not taking this very seriously, there's actually very good reasons for these companion plants -- or in this case, non-companion plants.  Tall plants may block the sun from lower lying sun-loving plants.  Others may actually create some negative biochemical reaction with those around them.

Here are a few other herbs you may want to consider planting with others - as well as some you may want to keep these herbs from getting near.

Basil.  This plant loves tomatoes.  And you can bet it's a mutual admiration club. In fact they are so good together some gardeners have developed a rule of (green) thumb:  three basil plants for every tomato plant.

But here's one more thing you may not have known about basil -- it actually repels flies and mosquitoes. 

Borage.  This particular herbs encourages the growth of strawberries.  It's also a great companion plant for tomatoes and squash.

Chamomile.  Be sure to plant these with your onions and cabbage -- and watch all three of them grow strong and healthy.

Chives.   Did you know that if you steeped chives in water, it's a great organic method of killing powdery mildew disease?  And when you plant it, make sure it's near your carrots if you have a vegetable garden and any apple trees you may have on your property.

Dill.  Dill appreciates being near cabbage, cucumbers, corn and lettuce.  One hint:  don't plant dill near fennel just to avoid cross pollination.

Garlic.  Of course, we've already mentioned how this plant loves tomatoes, but go ahead and plant it near fruit trees as well.  Garlic repels the red spider mites.  And this herb, steeped in water is another effective insecticide.

Lemon balm. Plant this plant with the tomatoes.

Mint.  It'll help cabbage grow, but don't let it get near your parsley.

Oregano.  Think collard, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage.  And then plant the oregano plant with these.

Parsley.  You'll make your parsley and your tomato plants both happy if you planted them together.  You can also plant parsley with chives, carrots and even asparagus.  But keep the parsley away from the mint.

Rosemary.  Keep her away from the potatoes.  But, you'll want to plant this herb near cabbage, carrots, beans and sage.

Sage.  In addition to rosemary, sage also encourages the growth and health of carrots, and cabbage.  But please keep it away from your cucumber.

Thyme.  Cabbage appreciates being near thyme.  This herb repels worms that love to munch on the cabbage.

Now that you know how to keep your outside herbs healthy and happy, let's see what it takes to maintain quality herbs inside your home.  That's the focus of the next chapter.

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