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The Perfect Herb Garden With Eugene Higgins

Thursday, 10 May 2007


Today, our landscaping legend Eugene Higgins will show and tell us how to grow the perfect herb garden

Herbs have been used as medicines for centuries. They were kept in dried form in many pharmacies so that they could be used all year. This is why the word "drug" is from the Anglo-Saxon word "drigan," which means to dry. For centuries, herbs have been the principal if not the only medicines used in many countries. Even herbs we use today for seasonings in cooking were originally used as medicines. Herbs have not been used as often with the recent advances in medical technology, but many people have begun to use herbs as medicines due to their medicinal properties.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Price: €4.95
Widely available
Rosemary is an attractive evergreen shrub with pine needle-like leaves. It has blue flowers that will last through spring and summer in a warm, humid environment. It will grow to a height of between 3 and 5 feet. Propagate from cuttings of the twisted wood of non-flowering branches in early summer, or layer established branches. Choose a sheltered position and well-drained soil, and allow the plant lots of sun. The thick shrub tolerates clipping so that the size can be kept in check. In hot weather it will appreciate a good hosing down. In a warm climate it can remain in the same location for up to 30 years, but in climates where freezing temperatures are expected it is best grown in pots so that it can be brought indoors in winter.

The botanical name Rosmarinus is derived form the old Latin for 'dew of the sea', a reference to its pale blue dew-like flowers and the fact that it is often grown near the sea. It is a symbol or remembrance and friendship, and is often carried by wedding couples as a sign of love and fidelity. Tradition says that rosemary will grow for thirty-three years, until it reaches the height of Christ when he was crucified, then it will die. Sprigs of rosemary were placed under pillows at night to ward off evil spirits and bad dreams. The wood was used to make lutes and other musical instruments.

Lavender (Lavandula) Price: €6.99
Widely available
This plant is a native of the Mediterranean and a lover of dry, sunny, rocky habitats. Nonetheless, because it is such a romantic flower, every Irish gardener sooner or later trys to grow it. Lavender plants will tolerate many growing conditions, but it thrives in warm, well drained soil and full sun. Like many plants grown for their essential oils, a lean soil will encourage a higher concentration of oils. An alkaline and especially a chalky soil will enhance lavenders fragrance. You can expect to have plants that will do well when the weather cooperates and to experience the occasional loss of a plant or two after a severe winter or a wet, humid summer.

Lavender is a tough plant and is extremely drought resistant, once established. However, when first starting you lavender plants, don't be afraid to give them a handful of compost in the planting hole and to keep them regularly watered during their first growing season. It is dampness, more than cold, that is responsible for killing lavender plants. Dampness can come in the form of wet roots during the winter months or high humidity in the summer. If humidity is a problem, make sure you have plenty of space between your plants for air flow and always plant in a sunny location. Areas where the ground routinely freezes and thaws throughout the winter will benefit from a layer of mulch applied after the ground initially freezes. Also protect your lavender plants from harsh winter winds. Planting next to a stone or brick wall will provide additional heat and protection.

Mint (Mentha) Price: €2.50
Widely available
Mint is a perennial herb that is propagated by root division or rooting cuttings in water. The plant is invasive and should be grown in pots really. It enjoys a damp location, shaded from strong afternoon sun, and rich soil. Mint planted outdoors should be mulched heavily to protect against frost. Given half a chance, mint will take over your whole garden. That natural vigor makes this hardy perennial a great, no-fail plant for beginning gardeners - or for anyone who needs a tough, fast-growing and lovely ground cover. Choose a site where mint can roam freely without disturbing other plants in your garden. It's happiest in partial shade and in moist, moderately rich, slightly acidic soil, but it will grow in any light from full sun to full shade and in any kind of soil you happen to have. Buy mint plants at the nursery for planting in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked.

To stop it taking over, give it a less-than-perfect home (for instance, full sun and soil that's on the dry side). Set plants 12 to 18 inches apart, depending on the variety. To control their rampant ways, plant them in bottomless containers sunk into the soil. Clay drainage tiles, about 10 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches across, are ideal. Keep the soil moist until the plants are established. Pinch stem ends off each spring to keep plants bushy. At the end of the gardening season, prune plants back to near ground level and top-dress with compost.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) Price: €4.00
Widely available
Very sensitive to cold, basil is best grown from seed indoors, in pots and only transplanted to the herb garden after all risk of frost is long past and the soil temperature has reached at least 50ºF. Basil likes full sun in well-drained soil that contains well-rotted manure or good compost, but unlike other herbs it can't tolerate drought. Mulching will help maintain soil moisture, but be careful not to mulch until the soil is warm. Once flourishing, cut every stem of the herb back to the second set of leaves and don't allow it to flower. You will be rewarded with ongoing basil all summer.

Basil is primarily a culinary herb. It has antibacterial and antiviral properties, but it is not an important herb for modern clinical herbalists. However, as a member of the mint family, basil is recommended as a digestive aid and an after dinner cup of basil tea makes a healthier alternative to the after dinner mint.
There are countless species of basil but the enduring winner in the kitchen is Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum).

Parsley (Petroselinium crispum) Price: €2.50
Widely available
Common parsley is well known for its use as a garnish or as flavouring in many dishes and salads. The curly varieties also make a nice addition to most gardens, planted with other herbaceous plants or used in a border. Native to the Mediterranean area, parsley is biennial in nature, but is grown as an annual in our region. As with most herbs, parsley does best in a sunny area which receives direct light for 6-8 hours a day, although it can tolerate some light shade. Plants will be more productive if grown in well drained soil that is fairly rich in organic matter.Do not allow the plants to dry out completely between waterings in the garden. Water deeply at least once a week to insure the roots are receiving enough moisture during the growing season. A light mulch of ground up leaves or grass clippings will help retain moisture and keep weeds to a minimum.

Fertilize those plants in garden beds once or twice during the growing season. Use a liquid fertilizer at one half the label recommended strength every 3-4 weeks for container grown plants outside and every 4-6 weeks for parsley grown indoors.

Planting Herbs
Pots: €29.95 widely available in garden centres.
Use a loose, soilless mix for planting and remember that container grown herbs will require more water than garden grown plants. How much more depends on the environment and the type of pot. Water when the soil, not the plants, appears dry and water at the base of the plant to limit dampness on the foliage. Once the plants are thriving, they can be transferred to the garden.

Keep in mind that although lavender has a large, spreading root system; it prefers growing in a tight spot. A pot that can accommodate the rootball with a couple of inches to spare would be a good choice. Too large a pot will only encourage excessive dampness. Ensure that the pot has plenty of drainage. 

For More Information
Eugene's gardening set has been supplied with thanks to Blackbanks gardening centre.

Eugene is all about herbs today!