by Kathy Hummel, Coles County Master Gardener
Save this date! Come Saturday, April 30 to HerbFest at the corner of 9th and Broadway in Mattoon! The Master Gardener tables will be overflowing with hundreds of reasonably-priced plants, along with many other vendors.
Herbs are extremely easy to grow. They are both beautiful and functional so you can plant them anywhere in the garden. Mix them with flowers, grow them along paths, by the kitchen door, or plant them in containers both indoors or out. All they really need are average soil, good drainage, consistent moisture and full sunlight, at least 6 hours per day.
Three versatile herbs to try are rosemary, onion chives and basil.
Rosemary is an aromatic shrubby evergreen and an indispensable kitchen herb. I love to stroke it to release its soothing aroma. It prefers a warm, sunny, dry environment and is ideally suited for container gardening. Keep a pot outside your kitchen door or plant it, container and all, in the garden. Just lift it out of the ground when temperatures begin to drop in autumn and bring it indoors to a sunny window. It is not cold hardy below 15 °F.
You can cut rosemary stems at any time. The fragrant blooms are edible too. Rosemary-seasoned roasted chicken is delightful. Use the stems as basting brushes and as skewers. Rosemary is available in several forms including upright, prostrate and trailing so it can serve as an accent, low hedge, ground cover or cascading element for containers. It is also fairly easy to start from cuttings. Simply cut off a 2" tip, strip off 1" of the leaves (save them for cooking) stick the stem end in rooting compound (found anywhere that carries plant supplies), stick the cuttings in damp peat moss and cover the container with a clear plastic bag to act as a mini-greenhouse to conserve moisture. Keep in indirect light for 2 weeks, then gradually expose to full sun. Remove the bag while it's in the sun and replace it afterwards. When new growth appears, roots have been established and you can do away with the plastic bag.
Onion chives are a grassy-looking perennial with onion-flavored leaves and charming purple blooms. The mild onion flavor is a tasty addition to any savory dish. Use the flowers in salads. Plants are perfect for containers. Plant chives about mid-April. They need well-drained soil amended with compost. Chives are not finicky and tolerate some neglect. Water and fertilize occasionally with an all-purpose liquid plant food and divide crowded clumps every two to three years. If you harvest the leaves often, fertilize every few weeks. After the first killing frost in autumn, cut the plants back to ground level. They will return the following spring. This winter I forgot a pot of chives outside, and even after our brutal winter, it is already a robust 8" tall.
Chives are extremely easy to propagate from seeds. When the flowers have turned completely brown, simply shake the seeds on to bare soil, press them down lightly, and keep well watered. Or you can just plant the whole dry flower. Soon you see "grass" sprouting. Great project for junior gardeners.
You can harvest chives almost immediately after planting. Cut the outer leaves about ½-inch from the ground. If you cut at mid height, it will leave an unsightly stub. Chives need some foliage to stay energized, so do not cut too much at one time during the growing season. But if you're going away, you can cut them back to 1", snip into 1/2" pieces and freeze in a zip-lock bag.
Chives are a mild-flavored relative of (and great substitute for) onions, garlic and shallots. Their clump-forming habit makes them excellent to use as an edging and they produce an exceptionally showy flower for an herb. It's also an easy herb to grow indoors over winter.
Try growing an assortment of basil, from the tiny-leafed spicy globe and boxwood types to the cinnamon-spiced Thai, to the big leaves of Italian classic sweet basil.
Basil starts readily from seeds. Follow directions on the seed packets or purchase plants. Set your plants out about two weeks after the last frost (about the end of May) when the days are warm; basil can't tolerate cold weather. When planting, add plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal or cottonseed meal to the soil. Basil is not a heavy feeder, but because you'll harvest often and it is continuously replacing the harvested leaves, feed every couple of weeks with an all-purpose liquid plant food. Most grow about two feet tall, but the little-leafed ones are shorter.
Basil needs well-drained soil and full sun, but appreciates afternoon shade on the hottest days. Water deeply during dry spells, especially in containers. Watering is very important because drying stunts growth. Avoid splashing water on the leaves to prevent leaf spots and sunburn.
Begin pinching off leaves as you need them when the plant is 6 to 8 inches tall. Remove the lowest leaves first. As it grows, harvest by pinching the tips too, to keep flowers from forming and encourage branching. Never cut the plant back into the hard woody stems; it will not re-sprout.
In the garden, basil works to control pests. The aromatic oils repel thrips, mosquitoes, slugs and flies. Basil blooms are beautiful in cut flower arrangements.
Sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt, pepper and basil and a dash of olive oil are a perfect healthy summer treat. If you have a huge amount of basil, pesto is a great garnish to make by food-processing the leaves with olive oil, garlic and pine nuts or almonds. Great on crackers, with salmon or in lasagna. I'm getting hungry writing about it!
Master Gardeners are available to give free education presentations on horticultural topics. For more information, contact the University of Illinois Extension office at 345-7034.
This column is based on information and materials at the University of Illinois Extension office, located at 707 Windsor Road, Suite A., Charleston, 61920; phone 345-7034; or web site: www.extension.uiuc.edu/coles/