Herbs are easy – and inexpensive – to cultivate.
If you’ve never planted herb species before, start small with 4 or 5. If you have too many, you could struggle to maintain them.
It’s useful to research each herb beforehand: “See if it’s suited to your daily needs. Otherwise they will just go to waste.”
CHOOSING A LOCATION
- The site should be free from perennial weeds.
- The area should be sunny, but as the South African sun is very harsh it’s adequate for herbs to receive 4 to 5 hours of direct sunlight each day.
- Good drainage is essential.
- If the area has a sprinkler system, don’t be tempted to use it on the herbs, as they will get more water than they need.
- Rather irrigate them separately and always check beforehand if the soil is moist or dry by pushing your finger into the soil.
- Newly-planted herbs need regular watering.
- Water thoroughly and less frequently.
- If you water little and often, it will encourage the production of shallow surface roots.
- Most herbs are naturally drought-resistant when established and need water only in periods of prolonged drought.
- Improve soil fertility by forking in well-rotted organic matter such as compost.
- If the soil quality is poor, the herbs won’t look lush and green.
- Most nurseries sell herb seedlings, but you can grow herbs from seed too.
- The benefits of planting seedlings are that they have already germinated, they’re well-established and you don’t have to wait as long to harvest herbs as if you used seeds.
- If you only need a small quantity of herbs, the 6 or 12-pack seedling trays may be too much.
- Seeds are usually cheaper and you only have to sow as much as you need, but you have to wait patiently for them to germinate and grow.
- Herbs should be well-watered before planting, as dry root balls are difficult to wet thoroughly once they are underground.
- Gently loosen the root balls to encourage new root growth and incorporate organic soil conditioner or concentrated organic fertiliser such as bone or fish meal in each planting hole.
- Firm the soil around the plant and then water thoroughly to “settle” the soil.
Few of the popular herbs are heavy feeders, but an annual mulch of bulky organic material such as compost or shredded bark will replenish nutrients and prevent weed growth. It is best to spread the mulch in spring, after rain, once the ground has warmed up.
Inorganic fertilisers are not recommended, as they encourage sappy growth, herbs lack flavour and the plant is more prone to frost damage, pests and diseases.
Unlike other plants, pruning is mostly carried out as part of the harvesting process. Growers should cut back perennials vigorously to encourage regrowth each season, which creates well-shaped, manageable plants.
Some herbs flower longer, or grow more vigorously if their faded flower heads are removed often. This process is called “dead heading”.
If there’s a surplus of herbs, you can dry them by hanging bunches in a well-ventilated area. Alternatively, air dry the herbs on a flat table covered with brown paper.
Wait until the herbs are completely dry, otherwise they will become mouldy when stored in bottles. Remember that herbs will lose their flavour if they are stored for too long.
ORGANIC PEST CONTROL
Herbs aren’t very prone to pests and diseases, but common problems to look out for are aphids, red spider mite, white fly and rust. Inspect your herbs regularly to detect any pests in good time.
If you encounter any of the following pests, take action by planting the corresponding plant near the affected herb:
- Ants – bay leaf and tansy
- Aphids – catmint or marigolds
- Beetles – rose-scented geranium
- Cabbage fly – celery, rose-scented geranium
- Eelworm – marigolds
- Fruit fly – khakibos, tansy and marigold
- Flies – basil, catmint, or lemon verbena
- Fleas – catmint, fennel and pennyroyal
PERENNIAL OR ANNUAL?
Perennial herbs are characteristically hardy and bushy. These include chives, fennel, lavender, lemon balm, mint, rosemary, lemongrass, marjoram and thyme. Perennial herbs require pruning every year to control growth and maintain health.
You have to train the plants to grow in the appropriate space and prevent their suffocating other plants. Some perennial herbs like to spread and populate a large area.
Annual herbs are characteristically weaker and rely mainly on stem and leaf growth. Common annual herbs include basil, chamomile, coriander, garlic and parsley.
An annual garden requires you to plant new seeds every year to replenish the crop. You will have to invest money in seeds on an annual basis and sow them at the appropriate time.
Your library for herb production
- This article was written by Wilma den Hartigh and first appeared in Farming SA.