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Thje word "herb" refers to any of the plants which are commonly used for culinary, medicinal or cosmetic purposes. These plants come from many botanical families and from diverse regions of the globe, so whether you've a large garden or just a sunny windowsill, it's a simple matter to grow fresh herbs.
Herbs complement and bring out the flavour of food; many regional dishes owe their distinctive flavour to specific herbs, for instance, French tarragon in French cuisine and oregano in Italian cooking. Herbs are the natural alternative to artificial flavouring and are of particular value in seasoning low-kilojoule and salt-reduced meals.
Most herbs are hardy and adaptable. But like all plants they perform best when provided with conditions most closely matched to their individual needs. Many of the herbs we use today originated in areas around the Mediterranean and these require full sun, seasonal changes, regular light watering and low humidity. For individual plant requirements see Dictionary of Herbs or check when purchasing seeds or seedlings.
Light - Herbs need sunlight in order to grow and produce their flavoursome oils. Most of the commonly used culinary herbs need full sun. Herbs which cannot tolerate summer afternoon heat require a north-easterly aspect which receives only morning sun. A position under deciduous trees suits herbs which prefer winter sun, summer shade.
Wind - A herb garden should have protection from very cold or hot drying winds and from salt-laden winds in coastal areas. Some of the faster- growing herbs have brittle stems and
require a sheltered position and light shading to prevent possible damage.
Temperature - All plants have a particular temperature range in which they do best. At one extreme, frost-tender perennial herbs need indoor protection over winter in some areas. In hot inland areas, it may be possible to grow herbs that wilt in high temperatures.
Soil - Most herbs prefer soil with an open gravelly structure. Soil can be adapted to meet the requirements of individual herbs. Compost, leaf mould or peatmoss are beneficial additions, especially to dry soils. River sand and compost improve heavy clay soils. Work into soil to a depth of 30cm, breaking it to a fine consistency. If necessary raise the bed to provide an adequate depth of soil and to assist drainage. Many herbs require a fairly neutral soil, pH 6.0 to 7.5. Lime acid soils a few weeks prior to planting or add agricultural ground limestone at planting time.
Feeding - The compost worked into the soil before planting provides sufficient nourishment for some time. A little blood and bone may be given occasionally. Avoid liquid chemical fertilisers as these produce excessive leaf growth which results in a lower concentration of essential oils and a greater susceptibility to insect attack.
Mulching - In summer, mulching helps to conserve water and keep the soil cooler. It reduces weed growth and keeps rain from splashing soil onto low-growing herbs. Mulch also improves the structure of the soil and provides nourishment. Suitable mulchs are part-composted lawn clippings, compost and leaf mould. Mulch the beds with 3-4cm of organic mulch (reduce the depth to 1cm at the stems of the plants to avoid the possibility of rotting).
Watering - To simplify watering, group plants with a similar water requirement together. An occasional thorough watering is more beneficial than frequent sprinklings. In hot windy weather soil needs to be checked every day or two. The best time to water is in the morning as evening watering leaves the foliage damp and subject to fungus attacks.
Pruning - Nipping sprigs from the ends of the branches throughout the year provides fresh leaves for immediate use and promotes compact growth. Bushy herbs are harvested in autumn and this usually constitutes the only other pruning they will need.