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Herbs add value to gardens, meals
By Laura Whelan
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Herbs are the multipurpose plants of the 21st-century garden.
Mississippi State University Extension horticulturist Lelia Scott Kelly grew herbs commercially for several years, and she is quite familiar with their advantages.
"Herbs have so many functions. They release wonderful aromas, add beauty to the landscape, are great additions to any recipe and have health benefits," Kelly said.
Adding fresh herbs to diets provides flavor without added sodium or fat, and researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found herbs to be a rich source of antioxidants, which fight cell-damaging free radicals, cancer, heart disease and stroke.
To begin a herb garden, Kelly suggested selecting plants that grow easily in the Mississippi climate. These herbs include annuals basil and dill; perennials chives, mint and lemon balm; and biennial parsley. Growers can plant annuals from seeds that are available in nurseries and garden stores in early spring. Perennials and biennials should come from transplants, available after the last frost, usually in midspring. Plant most herbs in spring after the last frost, but perennials can be planted in the fall.
Most herbs thrive in full sunlight, so a sunny location is usually best, but some herbs like catnip, lemon balm, lovage and sweet woodruff will flourish under shady conditions.
Herbs also grow well in containers, making them ideal for a would-be gardener with no garden space. But they must receive ample sunlight, even if container-bound.
Plant herbs where they are easily accessible, especially if they will be used in cooking.
"Culinary herbs are used often, and it's not practical to walk out to the back 40 to snip some parsley while making dinner," Kelly said.
Herbs also require well-drained soil, meaning that water should not stand at the base of the plant after rain.
"The No. 1 problem for herbs is 'wet feet,'" Kelly explained. "Herbs need very good drainage because if they can't drain properly they won't survive."
Prepare the soil bed by adding organic matter if planting in clay soil. Take a soil sample to determine its nutrient level and pH level, which should be approximately 6.5.
Maintaining herbs is easy if they are properly planted and nourished from the start.
"Basic maintenance should include mulching to keep leaves clean, adding plenty of water during dry periods and harvesting herbs properly by taking only one-third of the foliage at a time. This will ensure that herbs grow at a healthy rate," Kelly said.
Herbs usually are not bothered by pests because of their high concentration of natural oils, so pesticide applications typically are not necessary.
"Herbs are easy to plant and maintain, and they offer many advantages for the home landscape. They are becoming an important and useful part of the mainstream garden," Kelly said.