Grow your own herbs Edit

Preparing Soil for Herb Garden PlantingGood soil is the key to an easy-to-maintain garden. While most herbs are pretty hardy and require little care, you'll still find that a little preparation goes a long way.

Improving Your Garden Soil Edit

Good soil is 50 percent solids and 50 percent porous space, which provides room for water, air, and plant roots. The solids are inorganic matter (fine rock particles) and organic matter (decaying plant matter). The inorganic portion of the soil can be divided into three categories based on the size of the particles it contains. Clay has the smallest soil particles; silt has medium-size particles; and sand has the coarsest particles. The amount of clay, silt, and sand in a soil determine its texture. Loam, the ideal garden soil, is a mixture of 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt, and 40 percent sand.Some people choose to add vegetables into the herb garden. In the interest of harvesting a bigger and better crop of herbs and vegetables, you'll want to improve the texture and structure of your soil. This improvement, whether to make the soil drain better or hold more water, can be accomplished quite easily by the addition of organic matter.

Organic matter is material that was once living but is now dead and decaying. You can use such materials as ground corncobs, sawdust, bark chips, straw, hay, grass clippings, and cover crops to serve as organic matter. Your own compost pile can supply you with excellent organic matter to enrich the soil.

Each spring, as you prepare the garden for planting, incorporate organic matter into the soil by tilling or turning it under with a spade. If noncomposted materials are used, the microorganisms that break down the materials will use nitrogen from the soil. To compensate for this nitrogen loss, increase the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that you incorporate into the soil.

The next step in your soil-improvement program is to have the soil tested for nutrient levels. The local county Cooperative Extension office can advise you on testing the soil in your area. Your soil sample will be sent to a laboratory to determine any deficiencies of the necessary nutrients needed for successful plant growth. Instructions for taking and preparing soil samples can be found in our article How to Prepare Soil for Planting.

Be sure to tell the laboratory that the samples came from an herb and/or vegetable garden plot. The test report will recommend the amount and kind of fertilizer needed for a home garden. Follow the laboratory's recommendations as closely as possible during the first growing season. We'll talk more about fertilizing below and in the next section, Herb Garden Soil Preparation Techniques.

The necessary nutrient levels are relative to the soil type and the crop being grown. Although different herbs have varying requirements, the soil test institution calculates an optimum average for fertilizer and lime recommendations.

The results of the soil test will indicate the pH (acid-alkaline balance) of the soil as well as the nitrogen content, phosphorus content, and potassium content. The pH is measured on a scale of 1 (most acid or sour) to 14 (most alkaline or sweet), with 7 representing neutral. Most vegetable plants produce best in a soil that has a pH between 5.5 and 7.5.

To check your soil texture quickly,
squeeze lightly moist soil in your hand. 

The pH number is important because it affects the availability of most of the essential nutrients in the soil. The soil lab will consider the type of soil you have, the pH level, and the crops you intend to produce and make a recommendation for pH adjustment.

Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels will be indicated by a "Low," "Medium," or "High" level. High is the desired level for herb and vegetable gardens for both nutrients. If your test results show other than High, a recommendation of type and amount of fertilizer will be made.

Although nitrogen (N) is also needed in large amounts by plants, the soil nitrates level is not usually routinely tested because rainfall leaches nitrates from the soil, which easily results in low levels. Additional nitrogen through the use of a complete fertilizer is almost always recommended.

Tests for other elements are available on request but are needed only under special circumstances.

Adjusting Soil pH Edit

The soil test results may advise you to raise the pH by adding a recommended amount of lime to the soil. Ground dolomitic limestone is best and can be applied at any time of the year without harm to the plants. You may be advised to lower the pH by adding a recommended amount of a sulfur product. Ammonium sulfate is the sulfur product most commonly used. Spread the lime or sulfur evenly through your garden and incorporate it into the soil by turning or tilling.

Fertilizing: How & Why To Do It Edit

Many inexperienced gardeners think that since their herbs have done fine so far without fertilizer, they'll continue to do fine without fertilizer next year. But it's not quite that simple. Although your plants will probably provide you with herbs without using fertilizer, you won't be getting their best effort. Properly fertilized plants will be healthier and better able to resist disease and attacks from pests, providing more and higher-quality herbs.

There are two types of fertilizers: organic and inorganic. Both contain the same nutrients, but their composition and action differ in several ways. It makes no difference to the plant whether nutrients come from an organic or an inorganic source as long as the nutrients are available. However, the differences between the two types are worth your consideration.

Organic fertilizers come from plants and animals. The nutrients in organic fertilizers must be broken down over a period of time by microorganisms in the soil before they become available to the plants. Therefore, organic fertilizers don't offer instant solutions to nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Dried blood, kelp, and bone meal are types of organic fertilizers.

Manures are also organic. They are bulkier and contain lower percentages of nutrients than other natural fertilizers. However, they offer the advantage of immediately improving the texture of the soil by raising the level of organic matter.

Because organic fertilizers are generally not well-balanced in nutrient content, you'll probably need to use a mixture of them to ensure a balanced nutrient content. The table below, as well as the directions on the package, may be used as a guide to making your own mixture. Incorporate the mixture into the soil while preparing your spring garden. Apply it again as a side-dressing midway through the growing season.

When you fertilize with an inorganic fertilizer, nutrients are immediately available for the plant's use. Any container of fertilizer has three numbers printed on it, such as 5-10-20, to indicate the percentage of major nutrients it contains. Nitrogen is represented by the first number (5 percent in this example); phosphorus is represented by the second number (10 percent); and potassium by the third (20 percent). The remaining 65 percent is a mixture of other nutrients and inert filler. A well-balanced complete fertilizer consists of all three major nutrients in somewhat even proportions. A complete fertilizer is recommended for herb and vegetable garden use as long as the nitrogen content isn't more than 20 percent. A typical complete fertilizer used in edible gardens is 10-10-10.

Fertilizing Your Garden: A Two-Stage Program Edit

Broadcast Fertilizing.

When you're preparing the bed for spring planting, apply a complete fertilizer -- such as 10-10-10 -- evenly to the entire garden according to the soil test recommendations. Do not overfertilize. A hand spreader helps keep the job neat as it distributes the granules. Turn the fertilizer into the soil with a hand spade or tiller and smooth out the surface to prepare for planting. This first fertilizing step will see most of your herbs and vegetables through their initial period of growth. Halfway through the growing season, the plants will have used up a lot of the nutrients in the soil, and you'll have to replace these nutrients.


As the nutrients are used up by the plants, a second boost of fertilizer will be needed to supply the plants with essential elements through the remainder of the growing season. Use the same complete fertilizer at the same rate as used in the spring, but this time apply it as a sidedressing to the plants. With a hoe, make a four-inch deep trench along one side of the row, taking care not to disturb the plant's roots. Apply the fertilizer in the trench and then cover the trench with the soil you removed. Rain and irrigation will work the fertilizer into the soil, becoming available to the plants.

The Gardener's Recycling Plan Edit

The backyard compost pile is the ideal way to reuse most of your garden and kitchen waste and get benefits galore. Composting is essentially a way of speeding up the natural process of decomposition by which organic materials are broken down and their components returned to the soil. The decaying process happens naturally but slowly. The proximity, moisture, and air circulation of a compost pile encourages this process. Composting converts plant and other organic wastes into a loose, peatlike humus that provides nutrients to growing plants and increases the soil's ability to control water.

Composting can save money you would otherwise spend on soil conditioners and fertilizer. It can save time, too, since it gives you a place to dispose of grass clippings, weeds, and other garden debris.

This compost pile serves many uses in the vegetable garden. 

Garden waste can be turned into good compost in less than a year if the pile is properly managed. When the compost is ready -- coarse, dark brown, peatlike material -- it can be used for many purposes. Compost can be added to potting soil for starting garden seeds indoors. It can also be used as a mulch to protect a plant's roots from the hot, dry summer sun. Compost is also an excellent material to incorporate into garden soil to help control moisture: either increasing the water-holding capacity in sandy soils or improving drainage in heavy clay soils. The more organic matter you add, the more you improve the texture of the soil. Blend the compost into the soil to a depth of 12 inches, making sure it is evenly dispersed through the entire planting area. When compost is added to the soil, it will absorb some of the soil's nitrogen. To compensate for this, organic or inorganic fertilizer and work it into the soil with the compost.

Except for diseased and pest-laden materials or materials that have been treated with herbicides, almost any type of garden waste can be composted. You can also use such kitchen leftovers as vegetable and fruit peels, vegetable tops, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and eggshells. Don't use meat products or greasy foods, which tend to smell bad and attract animals. Composting material should be kept moist but not soggy, and it should be supplied with a nitrogen fertilizer (manure, dried blood, bone meal, or commercial fertilizer) to keep the microorganisms active for faster decay.

Compost forms as organic wastes are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms don't create nutrients; they just break down complex materials into simple ones that the plant can use. Soil microorganisms are most active when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of them work best in a moist, slightly alkaline environment. Microorganisms work fastest on small pieces of organic material.

There are two basic types of microorganisms: those that need air to work (aerobic) and those that don't need air (anaerobic). It's possible to compost in an airtight container, thanks to the microorganisms that don't need air. A tightly covered plastic trash can will convert an enormous amount of organic kitchen waste into compost in the course of a winter. The classic outdoor compost pile should be turned regularly (about once every two weeks) with a pitchfork to provide air for the microorganisms that need it.

There are several handy composting devices on the market. Each has its own advantages, but a compost pile need not be fancy to work well. A simple bin made with old cinder blocks, lumber, or fencing material can be used. Tucked aside, but not too far from the garden, the bin can be square, rectangular, or round. It should be four to five feet across and about three feet high.

There are almost as many different methods of composting as there are gardeners. Follow these basic steps of composting to be a success.

How to Start a Compost Pile Edit

Start with either a one- to two-foot pile of leaves or 6 to 12 inches or more of compact material, such as grass clippings or sawdust. You can compost hay, straw, hulls, nutshells, and tree trimmings (except walnut). However, unless they're shredded, they'll take a long time to decompose. Use any organic garden or kitchen waste (except meat scraps), as long as it contains no pesticides or diseases.

Over this initial pile spread a layer of fertilizer. The nitrogen will help activate the microorganisms, which in turn will speed the decay of the organic materials. Add about 1/2 cup of ground limestone (most microorganisms like their environment sweet). Then add several shovelfuls of garden soil, which will provide a starter colony of microorganisms. It's handy to have a small pile of soil nearby when you start the compost pile.

Water the pile well. The pile should be kept moist, like a squeezed sponge. Keep adding garden waste to the top of the pile as it becomes available. As the layers become thickened and compacted, repeat the layers of fertilizer, lime, and soil.

About once every two weeks, turn and mix the pile with a pitch fork or digging fork. This will ensure that all the components of the pile, not just the center, will heat up. As the temperature in the compost pile increases, weed seeds and harmful disease organisms are killed, and the decay process will not be delayed.Now that your soil is ready for your herbs, let's talk about how to plant and grow herbs.

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