Dishing the Dirt: Herbs of Summer
By Jeff and Eileen Bidwell
Imagine a sunny, rocky slope in Italy, Greece or Southern France in late summer. This is the ideal environment for many of the Mediterranean herbs that also flourish in our northwest gardens. While this may seem counter intuitive, our Pacific Northwest climate is very similar to the Mediterranean region—several months of chilly wet weather followed by late summers that are dry, sunny and glorious. While Seattle summer typically arrives late, we are often rewarded with sensational Septembers that offer the perfect conditions for growing herbs.
Herb gardens appeal to all of our senses. They are attractive, fragrant and present a world of culinary delights. They can be planted together or blended with ornamentals to add texture and aromatic appeal. They grow well in containers, add interest to perennial borders, and can be grown in vegetable gardens and rockeries. Many gardeners prefer to plant culinary herbs close to their kitchen for easy access. Several herbs also attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees.
Successful herb gardening requires careful attention to soil, space and sun exposure. A sunny location is essential, as most herbs need a minimum of six hours a day of full sun. Exceptions are chives, parsley, mint and lemon balm, which can be grown in either sun or part shade. Mediterranean herbs (including lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, bay laurel, oregano, marjoram, and basil), thrive in rocky, infertile soil with good drainage. They won’t grow in moist soil. Add sand to improve drainage if your soil is too rich. Avoid compost and mulch, as this may lead to waterlogged soil. Perennial herbs do not need fertilizer, although basil, a delicious annual herb and Northwest garden favorite, can be fertilized sparingly. Once established, herbs native to the Mediterranean thrive in dry conditions and need very little water, although parsley and chives should be watered more frequently.
Most herbs can be started from seeds indoors in early spring and transplanted outdoors after frost danger is past. When plants are available at your favorite garden center, you will know it’s safe to plant these outdoors. The huge exception is basil, a frost-sensitive tender annual that does not like cold air.
Here’s a list of herbs commonly grown in our Northwest Gardens:
- Bay Laurel: can be started in a pot and transplanted into the ground once established.
- Lavender: numerous varieties grow well in our climate. Trim in early spring to keep plants bushy.
- Rosemary: Arp and Tuscan Blue are most hardy. Plant in early spring. Cold weather will kill Rosemary;
cover with a sheet if it gets too cold.
- Sage: green, golden, purple and tri-color. Green is most hardy in our region, tri-color is attractive but doesn’t grow as well. Harvest sage leaves often. To avoid woodiness, cut back to new growth, but never more than 1/3 of the plant. Pineapple sage is often not hardy.
- Thyme: plant in spring or summer in light, sandy soil. Slow growing, but very hardy.
- Winter Savory: small, evergreen shrub. Flowers in July and August. Trim back after flowering, then again in February or March to keep plant healthy. For dried flowers, harvest flowers before they open.
- Chives and garlic chives: cut back in mid-summer and fertilize with fish emulsion.
- Mint: can be planted anytime. Spreads very fast by runners; plant in a pot to avoid spreading.
- Oregano and Marjoram: plant in spring or summer
- Tarragon: dies back in winter, returns in summer. Divide plants every few years.
- Basil: Many varieties, including Sweet, Italian, Genovese, Cinnamon, Purple, Thai and African Blue. Don’t plant until night temperature is above 50 degrees. Needs frequent, consistent water, heat and lots of sun! Snip off flower buds; if plant flowers it stops producing leaves.
- Cilantro: goes to seed quickly
- Dill: do not plant near fennel, as they will cross-pollinate.
- Sweet Marjoram
- Summer Savory
Most herbs can be successfully grown in pots of any size on a patio, porch or deck, either separately or in attractive groupings for varied texture and form, and sensory appeal. Be sure your containers have excellent drainage, and use a medium potting soil, or standard greenhouse mix. Terra cotta pots are best for Mediterranean herbs, because it dries out faster than plastic. Because it spreads so rapidly, we recommend growing mint in a pot by itself.
Once again, close proximity to your kitchen is important, as herbs are a glory to behold and a delight for the palate.
While nothing tastes better than fresh herbs from your garden, many culinary herbs (basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram and thyme) can be dried and preserved to enhance your favorite recipes. At our house, we simply pick them, bundle them together at the top with string, then hang them upside down in a cool, dry spot (we use an old-fashioned clothes drying rack.) When dry and crispy, we crush them and place them in jars or plastic bags for later use. This allows us to appreciate and enjoy the herbs of summer all year around!
See you at the Market!
Jeff and Eileen Bidwell are King County Master Gardeners and long-time Ballard residents. You can find the Master Gardener Plant Answer Clinic at the Ballard Sunday Farmers Market every Sunday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., May 1st through September 25th.