Growing herbs at home

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By Benita Peoples, County extension agent for family and consumer science
In a botanical sense, an herb is a plant that does not produce a woody stem and dies back to the ground each winter to a perennial root system. In the garden sense, herbs are plants that serve as a major source of seasonings in food preparation. In an even broader sense, herbs include plants that are also useful for scents in cosmetics or for medicinal purposes. Some of them are woody and outstep the definition of a herbaceous plant.
For American pioneers, herbs were the major source of seasonings for foods. They were also used for curing illnesses, storing with linens, strewing on floors, covering the bad taste of meats before refrigeration was devised, dyeing homespun fabrics, and as fragrances.
With the advent of the supermarket, growing herbs in the garden declined because a wide range of dried herbs became available in stores. Now, however, with an increase in the popularity of ethnic foods, combined with a realization that fresh herbs have more distinctive tastes than some dried herbs, more gardeners are growing at least a few herbs for fresh use, drying or freezing. Increasing interest in herbal medicine also has helped make herb growing more popular. In addition, some herbs are ornamental.
You can grow many herbs indoors, but they will be less productive than those grown outdoors. They are best used fresh. They require the same conditions as herbs that are grown outdoors: plenty of sunlight and good, well-drained growing medium.
Select a south or west window. During winter, they need as much light as you can give them. If a bright location is unavailable, supplement existing light with “grow lamps” or fluorescent lights.
For herbs in pots, soilless growing media consisting of peat, vermiculite and perlite work well. Because most herbs prefer a nonacid soil, add a cup of ground limestone per bushel of soil or about one teaspoon per five-inch pot. Prepackaged potting media usually contain limestone.
Good drainage is important. Never leave herbs sitting in a saucer of water. Water well, so a little water runs through the pot but does not accumulate. Allow moderate drying, but not wilting, between waterings.
You can seed annual herbs in pots in late summer. They will go through a life cycle indoors. Perennial herbs will improve and be more productive if you place them outdoors during the summer. Outdoors, keep potted herbs in an area that provides good light but gives some protection from intense heat or winds. You can also plunge pots into the garden with soil up to the rim. These pots dry faster than surrounding soil and may need extra watering.
In fall, bring potted herbs indoors before frost. A light frost on some herbs, such as chives, mint and tarragon, won’t be harmful. Fertilize lightly as you would houseplants, and trim as needed for use and to maintain an attractive appearance.