By Nancy Norton Mattila, Special to The Christian Science Monitor — Why not cultivate a collection of savory cooking herbs this spring? Or expand current plantings now that you know which herbs are most popular at your family table?
Even if you missed starting them from seed indoors in late winter, you can still harvest home-grown culinary herbs in 1981. And with herb plants selling for $2 to $3 a piece, it's rewarding and economical to start them yourself from seed out-of-doors, from stem cuttings, or by root division.
Briefly, here are the possibilities:
* Annual herbs that are easy to grow from seed include sweet basil, dill, and summer savory as well as biennial parsley.
* Chives, oregano, the mints, tarragon, and common thyme, all perennials, are often propagated by dividing the plants.
* Stem cuttings from sweet marjoram, rosemary, sage, winter savory, and common thyme are usually easy to root. These herbs are all perennials.
Fortunately, the perennial herbs can be propagated by more than one method. This provides additional possibilities, depending on which seed and plant materials are most readily available.
Start all the above-named annual herbs from seed only when the garden soil is genuinelym warm. This is very important. Choose a sunny, well-drained location for culinary herbs. (Parsley and the mints will tolerate partial shade.)
The seedbed should be carefully prepared using a combination of good garden loam, sand, and peat moss which has been enriched with well-rotted, sifted com post and some blood and bone meal, if possible.
Soak the soil a day or two before seeding and be sure it remains moist during germination.
Sow the seed somewhat sparingly and cover with a sprinkling of sand. Germination takes about a week. Thin the seedlings to prevent overcrowding and use the thinnings in the kitchen. Culinary herbs produce characteristics aroma and flavor as soon as the first true leaves appear.
By the Fourth of July you may be able to harvest in quantity herbs that were started in mid-May. Never cut the plants more than halfway back to the ground, however, and give them a boost back into production with compost or manure tea. Harvest again next month.
Of course, perennials that weren't started indoors earlier can still be propagated from seed in the garden. These might include oregano, sweet marjoram , sage, winter savory, chives, and common thyme. Although slower growing than the annuals, they will yield some flavorful foliage by season's end. Next year the plants will be large enough to cut regularly.
One way to ensure success with this project is to sow only fresh seed package by a reputable, nationally known supplier for the current growing season. Be careful about the seed you buy and don't be misled by the pretty picture on the package.
If your favorite herbs are not available locally, why not order by mail from firms such as the Geo. W. Park Seed Company Inc., PO 31, Greenwood, S.C. 296447 or the Burpee Seed Company, Warminster, PA. 18991?
Sweet marjoram, rosemary, sage, winter savory, and common thyme are often propagated by rooting stem cuttings.
The cuttings are best taken in the spring when fresh growth is apparent but before the flowering stems form. They also can be taken in the fall.
Using a clean, sharp knife, tkae cuttings 1 to 3 inches in length and remove all but two or three top leaves. Insert the bare stems to about 1 inch in moist sand and perlite in a porous clay pot. Setting the cuttings around the edge of the pot makes daily misting easy. When the new roots have formed, leave the cuttings for another week to strengthen. Then transplant into small clay pots containing equal parts commercial potting soil, sand, and peat moss.
Set on a sunny sill for further development, watering only when the soil surface appears dry. Pinch out the tops when the new young herbs are flourishing at 3 or 4 inches to produce stronger, bushier plants. You should be able to transplant them into the garden about three months after the cuttings were taken.
Where will you get stem cuttings? The answer is the same for dividing herb plants. Ask some of your herb-growing friends.
Herbs most often propagated by division include chives, tarragon, the mints, and oregano. These herbs may be your best bet.
A damp, cloudy day is excelent for making divisions. You should be able to harvest delectabl e snippings for the kitchen within two months.