There is nothing better than the smell of fresh herbs – from the scents that burst forth with the clip of your garden snips to the rich aromas that fill your home when you’re cooking an evening masterpiece. With very little time and effort you can grow a thriving herb garden that will save a little on the grocery bill and provide plenty of fulfillment, and rewards that money just can’t buy.
Along with the pleasures of designing and growing your very own herb garden will be the challenges that every gardener faces here in Southern Florida. First and foremost, Floridians must take into consideration the sun. Florida’s blistering hot southern sun can cook many tender herbs and, in a matter of days, your pretty herb garden will look like a graveyard of tiny mounds of dried twigs and dust.
So here are some tips for keeping your herb garden alive and thriving:
• Plant your herbs in partial sun. “Full sun” does not mean full sun in South Florida. That is a recipe for disaster, especially in the sweltering months of July and August. Herbs will do well with about six or seven hours of sun each day. They really don’t need more than that.
• Mulch your herb garden. Mulching will serve two purposes – keep the moisture in and keep the weeds out. Grass clippings (weed and pesticide free, of course), straw and dead leaves will work just as well as commercial mulch, although this may not be pretty. I also recommend putting some newspaper below the mulch. The newspaper will provide an initial barrier to weed seeds in the soil, eventually compost and attract earthworms to help nourish your garden soil. Make sure the mulch does not touch the crown of the plants, since this can encourage fungus and disease.
• Create an herb garden that’s exposed to morning sun, and hidden or shaded in the afternoon. The intensity of the South Florida afternoon sunshine is much more than the tender herbs can tolerate. If you have no choice but to plant on the west side of your home or garden, create something that will filter the light. For instance, place a trellis in front of your herb garden and grow beans or a grape vine on it to help minimize the herb garden’s sun exposure.
• Find out which herbs are annuals and biennials, and which are perennials, and group them together accordingly. This way your perennial herbs will go undisturbed from year to year, and you will be able to easily replant the short lived herbs when needed.
• Don’t allow your annual herbs to flower. Some herbs are perennials, but many will naturally live a year or less, and once they are allowed to flower they go to seed, and the plant will die off. This is part of the plant’s natural cycle. But if you allow this to happen, you will constantly be replenishing your garden. I didn’t figure this out until I went through three cilantro plants in one season. So continually trim and top off the flower buds to extend the life of your herbs.
• Keep your herb garden close to an entrance. Why? So that you will have easy access to your herbs when cooking. Plus, you will be able to see your garden on a daily basis, and you will be able to tell if your plants need a little more water, a quick trim, or a bit of harvesting.
• Be cautious of the more wily herbs. Members of the mint family can be a real challenge, and can take over your garden. Although they are some of the easiest to grow herbs in South Florida, they spread rapidly through underground runners, and are often difficult to contain. So it may be best to plant your mint in a container – sticking the pot down into the soil – to contain the mint’s growth. Also be cautious of the heavy seeders. In my experience dill and basil spread their seeds and propagate quite well – so well that they become a bit “weedy”. So get to know what the young plants look like, and don’t be afraid to pull them (or repot them and give them to a friend!) so that you can keep your herb garden neat and attractiveIf you don’t have space to dedicate to an herb garden, the good news is that you can grow herbs easily in containers. Also, you can mix attractive herbs in with your other garden plants. Rosemary will make a great shrub. Bee balm, lavender, sage, and chive can be grown in flower beds and will complement other plantings. Oregano or thyme can make an excellent ground cover. Be creative with herbs. The possibilities are endless.