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Growing Herbs Successfully in NJ Zone 6

Here at GardenBedsNJ, we love herbs! They're easy to grow. They add a little something to an ordinary recipe to make it excellent, and they're really good for you. Best of all, herb plants are highly scalable to the space in which they live.

Keep a small basil plant in a pot on your kitchen windowsill to snip fresh leaves through the winter. Plant the same basil plant in well-composted soil in your garden this spring, and watch it morph into a 2-foot high monster.

Should you grow herbs from seed?

We say no, but that's because we're busy people on the go. Herbs require a little more TLC to coax into life from seed – including starting the herb seeds indoors, faithfully keeping the little sprouts watered (think about it – this is like having a new baby or puppy in the house – you can't go anywhere!), and then gently transplanting the delicate plants at a time when they won't be destroyed by extreme temperatures and weather conditions (too hot, not enough water, unexpected storms, wind, frost, etc.). Sure, you can try to seed some parsley, basil, oregano, rosemary, etc. But we say, why bother when you get nice, healthy herb plants right at your local nursery, or even at Home Depot, Lowes or Shoprite?

Should you grow herbs in an herb garden that's kept separate from your vegetables? Or, are herbs better served as companion plants, living in the same soil as your tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbages, and so forth, to help ward off pests and disease?

We have a small yard, so we just intermingle our herbs with the veggies, all in two garden beds. But if you like the look and convenience of an herb garden, why not give your herbs their own space? An herb garden that grows in its own framed garden bed will lend much visual appeal and fragrance to your yard. Imagine slipping out to the herb patch on a summer evening, to snip fresh parsley, chives and thyme for your dinner, oh what a delight! You could even have a little of both – strategically-placed basil near the tomatoes, chives by the pole beans, and so on. And then do a few more of all your favorite herbs, together in their own raised herb garden bed.

Most herbs are easy to grow from starter plants. They don't require a ton of fertilizer or water. But, if you do keep them in well composted soil, don't be surprised if your herb plants take over! To learn exactly how much space to give each herb when planting, check the included instructions.

Nowadays, you can find many enticing varieties of herbs to choose from – like "chocolate" mint, Thai basil, peppery oregano. In fact, there are often so many flavors of any one type of herb, that if you have a large backyard, you can even devote an entire garden bed to several mint varieties, several basil varieties, several types of oregano, and so forth.

If you're doing an herb garden, try to group your herbs according to growing preferences. Lavender, sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme will all co-commune happily together. So will parsley and basil.

When to plant herbs in the garden:

Wait until the danger of frost is past (in NJ Zone 6, that's May 15), then plant herb starter plants in the ground.

Some basics for growing your favorite herbs:

Basil. Height: 18 inches. A well-known flavoring for sauces and summer salads, basil grows beautifully in full sun with plenty of water and regular hits of composted fertilizer throughout the growing season. (If your basil plant's leaves begin to turn yellow, spray with a little fish emulsion and/or add compost to the soil.) There are many species of basil, from lemon basil to Thai basil to purple basil. Tip: once your basil begins to form flowers, you can pinch them off ("deadheading") so that the plant will continue to grow. Add fresh basil to most any recipe to give it that extra boost.

Chamomile. Height: 6 to 24 inches tall. Roman chamomile grows well as a ground cover, while German chamomile forms a bush. Both types of chamomile are known for their sleep inducing properties when the stems and flowers are steeped in a tea. The Roman type tends to choke out other plants, so keep it potted or boxed in its own space. I personally find chamomile difficult to grow, so I can't offer any additional tips. For more info, read this helpful article.

Chives. Height: 8 to 18 inches. A clumping bush that grows well in full sun to part shade, and makes a beautiful border plant for your garden beds. We have had chives in our garden for years – it is a perennial that, once established, will return each spring. There are many varieties, including garlic chives and onion chives. Use the stems to season soups, salads and egg based dishes with a delicate flavor – but wait until the recipe is finished cooking before adding, as the flavor of chives quickly dissipates in high heat. Pinch off flower buds to keep your chive plants producing throughout the summer.

Dill. Height: 18 to 40 inches. We cannot seem to keep dill plants alive in our well-composted garden, but if you can, then all the better for you! Dill has a taproot, and does not enjoy living in a small pot. It will self-sow (spread its own seed) in your garden, so it's best to keep dill in its own boxed area or in a larger sized pot. Dill is best known for its use in pickle-making, so if you plant cucumbers, consider adding some dill to the garden this summer. Check this article on growing dill from the Old Farmer's Almanac.

Lavender. Height: variable. Native to the Mediterranean, lavender thrives in hot, sunny climates and therefore is a summer plant here in NJ. This is an aromatic herb well known for its calming properties. Dried lavender is perfect for sachets and infusions. The plant requires full sun and well drained soil – so place on a raised bed to ensure that excess water drains off. Lavender can thrive in clay-like soil, or garden soil with a bit of sand mixed in. Do not fertilize. For additional info on how to grow lavender, check out this handy Wiki we found! The height of lavender plants can vary greatly by species.

Lemon Balm. Height: 24 to 36 inches. Lemon balm prefers a hot, sunny location with good drainage. This citrus-scented herb makes a lovely, healthful tea that's especially nice when served iced on a hot summer day. Lemon balm is an invasive plant that, like dill, will re-seed itself all over your garden beds if not confined to its own box or grown in a pot. Trim your well established lemon balm plant to watch it grow to twice its size!

Mint. Height: variable. Mint imparts an invigorating aroma and is a welcome addition to the garden area. Take a quick snip to enliven fruit salad, cold cucumber soup, or a glass of fresh brewed iced tea. However, be forewarned: mint plants must be contained to pots or boxed-in raised beds, as they will quickly form "runners" beneath the soil, and choke out all of your other plants with their viny, twiny roots. Your potted mint will come back next spring, but take care to divide the plant as it will continue to form root shoots until it chokes itself out. We tried mint a few years back but failed to prep the plant when it returned in spring-- and so our potted, untended mint plant eventually became its own undoing. For tips on growing mint successfully, explore this article.

Oregano. Height: 12 to 24 inches. Flavor soups and sauces with hearty, pungent oregano. This herb tastes better after it's dried. Oregano is another plant of Mediterranean origin that thrives in well drained somewhat rocky soil, with full sun. It requires almost no fertilization. Give oregano plants plenty of air circulation to reduce the effects of humidity. We have planted oregano in our garden beds nearby other, taller growing plants, but found that this reduced the amount of sun and therefore kept the plant small. Oregano makes a good garden bed mate to thyme, sage and lavender.

Parsley. Height: 8 to 24 inches. Chop it fresh and add once your recipe is finished cooking - for use in soups, salads, meat dishes, etc. Actually, we like to do both – boil some parsley and other veggies/chicken in stock as it's cooking, then chop additional, fresh parsley to finish off the soup. Parsley requires full sun and lots of watering in a well-drained bed. Transplanting can be achieved, but the shock is often too much for the young plants. So don't start from seed, and try to plant yours directly in the garden bed where it will live. We've kept parsley in a small container with other herbs, only to discover that it does much better in a bigger, well composted garden bed full of good, dark soil where it can spread out and benefit from the even watering and multiple fertilizations.

Rosemary. Height: 2 to 5 feet. A fragrant, piney herb that's perfect for flavoring breads, potatoes, pork and chicken. Thrives in full sun, with well drained soil and plenty of space around the plant to keep air circulating and thereby prevent powdery mildew from forming. It's best to purchase rosemary starter plants, as this herb must be propagated by cutting a mature plant and coaxing it to life indoors - which can be challenging. Fertilize at the start of the growing season and then leave your rosemary plant alone! We love to step out into the garden in October and November to find our beautiful rosemary plant standing proudly in the chilly air.

Sage. Height: 24 to 36 inches. Sage makes for a tasty and fragrant rub on pork and poultry. The plant grows as a low, wide shrub that becomes more woody as it matures. Sage prefers light, well drained soil. It requires regular thinning and plenty of space around it to create good airflow and keep mildew from becoming a problem. A friend of ours gave us a nice sage plant that he started from seed, and it did well as a border plant in our garden until the autumn frost took hold. If you love the flavor of sage, be sure to plant several of them and hang upside-down to dry for use through the winter.

Thyme. Height: 6 to 15 inches.  Thyme is an aromatic shrub that grows best in dry, sandy soil. This herb makes an excellent groundcover, and does not require re-fertilization after the initial application at the start of the growing season. In cooking, thyme can be used interchangeably with oregano – I actually prefer to flavor my Italian tomato sauce with thyme, as it sweetens it nicely. Yes, I just gave away one of my best kept cooking secrets. Fresh-picked thyme is excellent in soups and sauces, but dried tastes just as good.

A final consideration: What to do with large quantities of giant herb plants such as basil, thyme, oregano, sage, etc.? Dry them, of course. We have yet to try this, but a good friend of mine is practically a master herb-drier, so we will consult with her for some expert advice and get back to you in the summer.

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GardenBedsNJ.com is owned by Mike Hyde and 4 Seasons Lawn Care. We build, deliver and install raised garden beds to Hunterdon and Warren Counties in NJ and Northampton County, PA.

Contact us for more information: 908 783 5733 or email mikehyde@4seasonslawns.com today!

 

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