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Get Started Growing Herbs

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Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger

Herbs are a great addition to a garden of any size. Even if you do a container garden on a patio, a few herb plants will bring an array of textures, smells and tastes to delight your senses. Fall is a great time to plant perennial herbs.

Two very nice perennial herb plants that do well across Virginia’s garden zones are thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and sage (Salvia officinalis). These two plants could not look more different! Thyme has the tiniest leaves. It is a low growing perennial with woody stems and occasionally produces tiny flowers. Thyme is available as an upright, small shrub or as a prostrate, low growing ground cover. For use as an herb, I prefer the upright shrub. Sage is a much larger shrub, with large, silvery soft leaves and fantastic purple blooms that attract lots of bees.

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Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger

In the garden, both want the same things: full sun and well drained soil of medium fertility. Unless you have thyme and sage in a container, you should not need to water the plants, once established. Both herbs are excellent dried and fresh.

Another perennial herb for the garden is rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus). This attractive plant has leaves that look more like pine needles, and some would say its flavor is distinctly resinous like evergreens. In the milder winters of some parts of Virginia, rosemary is easy to establish and regular cutting will keep it from getting very large. It might even bloom for you!

I am in garden zone 6 so I have a greater challenge with rosemary surviving the winters. There are a few tricks to play if you live in colder zones. First is to find the rosemary ARP cultivar which is far more cold hardy than other varieties. Next trick is to find your warmest spot, which should be on the south or southwest part of the garden. Plant rosemary in the warmest spot and it might even survive zone 5!

I also look for a spot near the house, driveway or concrete walkway for rosemary in my region; these spots act as heat reservoirs keeping the rosemary warm during winter. I planted rosemary in several places where it died overwinter before I found the hottest spot where it still lives over a decade later. Rosemary also likes full sun, well-drained soil with medium fertility.

These three perennial herbs will all provide you with years of flavorful meals with the right start in the right place. If you have more room, think about adding a few other perennial herbs like chives and savory.

Next spring, once the soil is warm, directly sow other annual herbs like dill, basil, Thai basil and cilantro in your garden. It is a delight to walk by herb plants and brush the leaves to release the essential oils for the fragrance. Oh, the joy of cooking with fresh herbs!

Happy Gardening!

Dr. Robyn Puffenbarger

VHG Co-Host, Professor at Bridgewater College, and a Central Shenandoah Valley Master Gardener