Have you ever dreamed of creating an old-fashioned herb garden for fragrance alone? Has the nostalgic trend toward making herb gifts caught you short of aromatics?
Whether for the pure pleasure of the aromas or for use in herb crafts, why not treat yourself to a fragrant garden this season, perhaps in traditional separated plots.
Starting such a project may be simpler than you imagine.
At least, it was for us when our young teen spied the raised beds defined by eight-foot-long railroad ties behind a food store.
"There's no reason why we can't grow ourm herbs like that," he declared.
On one Saturday afternoon, with his determination catapulting the family into action, it was accomplished by (1) laying out a 7-by-10-foot rectangle of lawn adjacent to the vegetable garden, defining it with lengths of lumber, bisecting it with a brick path, breaking and turning the sod, lining the two triangles with well-rotted compost, and building up a good soil mix.
There was only time to line up current "nose" herb holdings, including sage seedlings ready for transplanting; pots of rose-and orange-scented geranium, catnip, and rosemary; and packets of sweet marjoram, common thyme, and lemon balm seed.
Somehow our young herb enthusiast deserved an instant herb garden, and an instant herb garden he got.
No doubt you'd opt for careful planning and study before planting. For more formal beds, such as a ladder, wheel, or an elaborate knot, you'd need it and would reap the decorative benefits.
Yet we harvested and dried good crops the first year and have been able to gradually expand our collection of these wonderfully fragrant plants. The raised beds, moreover, soon proved worth the trouble. Their height provided convenient seating while tending plants as well as allowing for good drainage; and the separate beds contained herbs while discouraging grass and weeds.
Instead of lumber or railroad ties you might use concrete blocks. Or in lieu of raised beds, you could use plain dividers of paving stone or gravel or simple 2-by-2-inch strips to separate the herbs.
Whether complicated or simple, however, the main requirements for any herb garden are a sunny, level spot with well-drained soil. Although a few herbs, such as mint, will tolerate dappled shade, most herbs need full sunlight for greatest fragrance.
Use a soil mix of equal parts sand, peat moss, and good loam to provide proper drainage.
Blood and bone meal as well as dehydrated manure are suggested by organic growers. They should be worked into the soil at the time of preparation, dug deep, and raked fine.
(Heavy subsequent fertilization is not recommended because it forces growth at the expense of the fragrant oils which are produced by slow maturation.)
Lime or dolomite may be needed for the slightly alkaline soil (pH 5.5 to 6.5) required by these plants. Be sure to break and turn the sod if you're building raised beds on an established lawn.
Buying young herbs at a greenhouse is the easiest way to get started. "Harden" them outdoors in a sheltered spot for a week before transplanting them into the garden. Then protect them from the sun and wind, watering regularly until they "take."
Many aromatic herbs can be grown from seed economically when all danger of frost is past. Simply follow the directions on the seed packs. You also can start slow-growing perennials indoors in flats.
The mints are best propagated by division. Find a neighbor with a good crop and beg a couple of pieces which show new healthy leaves and a sound root system. Many people like to contain mint with metal dividers below ground to block the spreading roots.
To root cuttings from perennials, such as rosemary, lavender, and scented geranium, take them in the spring, too. With a clean, sharp knife, slip from an established plant a new green shoot about three inches long. Insert in a mixture of sand and perlite and mist daily until the new roots "tug back" when gently pulled. Keep in potting soil on a sunny window sill to let the root systems mature before transplanting.
Care of your aromatic-herb garden includes regular weeding. Commercial herb grower Sal Gilbertie suggests that only 10 minutes per week through June will ensure control of weed problems for the season.
Once young herbs are established, water only a third as often as you do flowers and vegetables. Even when the top of the soil appears dry, Mr. Gilbertie recommends inserting a stick 6 inches and watering only when the soil is dry to that depth.
Insert pests on herbs are rare. Caterpillars can be picked off by hand and discarded at a distance. For other pests Mr. Gilbertie uses a combination of fresh garlic cloves and vinegar or water with a dash of cayenne pepper. He runs the mixture through a blender, strains through cheesecloth, and mists the affected leaves.
(In addition to Mr. Gilbertie's "Herb Gardening at Its Best," other interesting and helpful books on the subject include "Profitable Herb Growing at Home" by Betty E. M. Jacobs, "The Book of Herbs" by Dorothy Hall, and "Growing Herbs as Aromatics" by Roy Genders.)
Harvest herbs on clear, sunny mornings after the dew has evaporated but before the volatile oils escape. Their pungent aromas are usually most powerful immediately before flowering.
Cut stems with a sharp knife, tie together with string, and hang in the shade or in an attic or large, airy closet. You can also spread out the leaves on screening or newspaper.
Drying takes up to two weeks, depending on the humidity.
When the leaves are crisp and crackly, strip the stems and store in clean glass jars with screw caps. Label and keep in a cool, dark cupboard.
Finally, when planning your "nose" garden, be sure to include some scented geraniums, found on the herb bench in the greenhouse. They come in about a dozen delightful fragrances and are easy to grow. The leaves dry quickly, retain their scent idefinitely, and add some delicious scents when the less prolific aromatics are used up.