by Micky Ellenbecker, Purchasing Assistant
It’s spring and with spring come daydreams of gardening! While winters can get long in Wisconsin, it has really instilled in me an appreciation for all seasons, and the excitement of planning for yet another growing season is like the light at the end of that winter tunnel. But my sheer enjoyment of playing in the dirt isn’t the only thing that motivates me to get outside. The continued discoveries on how our garden spaces can also benefit our environment push me that much further, and an herb garden is a great place to start if you don’t have one already.
First, there are many perennial herbs (perennials are plants that come back year after year) that you can plant, which is both a great financial investment and investment in soil health. Perennials tend to have dense, deep root systems and a longer growing season, which results in them storing more carbon in the soil, feeding beneficial soil microorganisms for the full length of the growing season, and tapping into nutrients that shallow-rooted annuals don’t tend to reach. When you delve deep into soil health you’ll discover that it’s the foundation for healthy, disease-free plants and even improves the flavor of your food.
Herbs also attract pollinators and serve as host plants for beneficial insects and butterflies. Dill, fennel, cilantro, lemonbalm, mint, lavender and parsley will attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs, hoverflies, tachinid flies, and lacewings which in turn will help control populations of garden pests, such as aphids, cabbage worm, mealybugs, corn earworm, squash bug nymph and more. Probably the most charismatic herb garden resident is the Swallowtail Caterpillar, whose host plants include dill, fennel, and parsley. And once you’re ready to let your herbs go to flower, the bees will thank you for it.
How to get started
If you’re starting with a patch of grass or have a garden space that’s overrun with weeds, take on a no-dig approach (again, maintaining soil health and structure!) and use a sheet mulching technique to prepare the soil. The most basic version of sheet mulching is to cut down any tall existing plants and cover the area with cardboard, being sure to remove all stickers and tape and make sure it overlaps so no weeds are poking through. Once you’ve got the area completely covered, add three to six inches of compost or soil on top of the cardboard, followed by two to three inches of straw or wood chips. You should let the area rest for at least a month to be sure you’ve smothered all the existing vegetation below, which means you should start sheet mulching as soon as the snow melts.
What I recommend
Buy transplants/starts for perennial herbs that you won’t need to plant year after year, such as sage, mint, oregano, thyme, chives, rosemary and lavender. Mint and oregano can spread aggressively if left unchecked, so you may want to put them off until your second year once other perennials get more established, place them in an area where they’ll have less opportunities spread, or put them in a pot if you’re not ready to take the chance. Also know that rosemary isn’t cold hardy in Wisconsin winters, so you’ll either need to plant it near the south side of a building which creates a small microclimate and mulch it heavily before winter or transplant it back to a pot to overwinter indoors. Though parsley is an annual, I’d also recommend buying it as a transplant if you don’t have grow lights. It is very slow to start from seed, so if you’re unable to start it indoors in March you’ll benefit from an earlier harvest if you buy it as a transplant.
Basil, cilantro and dill are good herbs to start from seed; they are easy to germinate, one tends to use it in larger quantities, and therefore it’s more economical than buying individual plants. When it comes to dill you’ll only ever need to seed it once and you’ll have it forever so long as you let some of it reseed.
Once you’ve got your plants in the ground you’ll need a way to protect them. In general, rabbits prefer plants when they are young and tender, and parsley will likely be the tasty target in an herb garden. I find squirrels to be more of the problem because they will dig up plants in recently disturbed soils to see if maybe a fellow squirrel just hid a morsel there. I prefer to use temporary fencing or row cover (paper cloth that lets rain and light through but keeps pests out). Once plants are established, I remove the fencing or row cover for easy access and the visual appeal of an unfenced garden.
Once your new herb garden is flush with a glorious bounty, start freezing pesto, chimichurri, mint sauce and other flavorful concoctions that you can savor during the cold winter months.