Growing & caring for herbs in spring


Basil's greatest need is warmth, so avoid planting out when nights are still cool. Basil won’t grow well where temperatures drop below 10˚C, and a dip below 4˚C will kill plants. Sow seeds in small pots in early spring for transplanting later. And while you’re at it, toss a few curse words around. The ancient Greeks believed that basil could only be grown if the seed was sown while ranting and swearing.

Thyme: Position new plants in a sunny spot in free-draining soil. Give them poor (or unfertilised) soil, or flavour will decline. Seeds can also be sown, or established plants divided or layered. Trim plants once they start becoming straggly.

Sage seeds can be sown now, or take softwood cuttings. Trim back straggly stems on older plants. Established plants and those that are becoming woody can be propagated by layering branches.

Rosemary grows well in sun. Put new plants in a sunny spot in free-draining soil. Poor or sandy soils are fine. Seeds can also be sown, and softwood cuttings taken. Trim established plants after flowering to keep them from growing tall and straggly. Straggly plants can be cut right back.

Parsley: Both curly and Italian parsley are biennials but are best treated as annuals. In their second year, leaves are tougher and slightly bitter. Sow seeds or plant seedlings in a sunny, sheltered compost-enriched spot. Soil that had manure added in the previous autumn is ideal. In warmer areas, a little shade for the coming summer is beneficial.

Oregano & marjoram: Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare (oregano) is the easiest and most commonly grown orginanum, but cooks often prefer the milder, sweeter flavoured Origanum majorana (sweet marjoram). Both can be sown now in a sunny spot in free-draining soil. Established plants can also be divided, or take softwood cuttings from the growing tips.

Aloe vera is a soothing herb that's great for treating cuts and burns. Separate offsets that have formed at the base of mature plants and set them aside to dry for a couple of days before potting up or planting out. Or buy new plants from garden centres. Plant in a frost-free environment where temperatures remain above 4˚C. In cooler areas, grow in pots that can be shifted indoors over winter. Or treat as an indoor plant, but watch out for mealybugs. Squirt with water and rub off with a soft cloth.

Mint: Divide established plants or take root cuttings. You can also take stem cuttings. Take 10cm long cuttings, removing the lower leaves. Put the stems in a jar of water. Wait until strong roots form before potting up.

Lovage is one of the few herbs that grows well in part shade. It grows equally well in full sun if given ample moisture. A hardy perennial with a celery-like flavour, seeds can be sown now, or divide established plants.

Lemongrass seeds can be sown in trays for transplanting later. Keep the trays in a warm spot – they need heat to germinate. Established plants can be divided. Use two forks back to back to wedge plants apart. Plants in containers like to be root-bound, so if potting up, keep them snug. Feed plants with a general fertiliser.

Vietnamese mint: Cuttings can be taken, or new plants can be positioned in sun or part shade. In warmer areas, part shade is best. Keep plants well watered – wet soils and boggy gardens are ideal.

Lemon balm: Sow seed in trays for transplanting later. Established plants can be divided.

There are several types of lavender, but all like well-drained, fertile soil in full sun. Planting on mounds will aid drainage during rainy periods. A Mediterranean plant, it’s used to dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soils. Don’t feed it unless the plants look straggly, in which case use a controlled release fertiliser. Trim plants in spring after flowering to maintain shape. Trim again in early autumn, making sure you don’t cut back to old wood, as it won’t regrow.

Horseradish can be invasive, so keep it in an area that’s confined. Plant root cuttings or new plants in a sunny spot in deep, fertile, moisture-retentive soil. Don’t let plants dry out or the roots will become bitter.

Garlic needs ample moisture during spring growth in order for bulbs to fatten up, so make sure you water well. As soon as leaves appear, foliar feed fortnightly for a couple of months.

Foeniculum vulgare is common fennel; Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum is Florence fennel. The latter is distinguished by its bulbous base. It sports the same feathery headdress as common fennel, but the leaves lack the characteristic flavour. Both are easy to grow from seed. Sow now in deep pots for transplanting later. Position in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. If you want to grow fennel for the seed, keep the plants away from dill or coriander as cross-pollination reduces seed production.

Dill looks and tastes a lot like fennel, but dill is an annual (fennel is a perennial) whose leaves are slightly more blue and whose seeds are flatter and thinner. Like fennel, dill has an aniseed taste, but the flavour is more subdued and not as sweet. The seeds, however, have a stronger taste and are often used as a pickling spice. Sow seeds successively. For an early start, sow in deep pots (they have a taproot so avoid trays) for transplanting later.

Coriandrum seed can be sown for a late spring or early summer crop in rich, well-drained soil. Sow successively for a continuous supply. Let some plants go to seed so they can self-sow. Previously self-sown plants will begin to appear now.

Comfrey is a great plant for making natural fertilisers, but it can take over your garden, so keep it contained. Take root cuttings or plant new ones. Comfrey is a deep-rooted perennial, so plant in a spot where it can get its roots down 1.5m. Space plants about 60cm apart. Comfrey grows in sun or part shade.

Chives is a hardy perennial that’s easy to grow from seed. The seed needs reasonable warmth to germinate, so sow in trays for transplanting later. Grow at least three clumps. Harvest from one clump, then move on to the next while the first clump regrows. Leave 5cm of growth on each clump. You can also divide established clumps now. Make sure each division has six to eight bulbs. Add compost to the soil before replanting.

German chamomile, an annual, is the medicinal herb for making teas; Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) is the perennial herb used for lawns. Sow seeds of both, and take cuttings or divide perennial chamomile. If you want to establish a chamomile lawn, clear the area of weeds first while your seedlings are growing. For best flowering, plant in full sun.

Caraway is a biennial. In its first year, the plant forms feathery fronds, which reach a height of around 20cm. In its second year, from spring to early summer, it produces tall flower heads between 60cm and 120cm high. These eventually turn into seed heads, from which you can harvest seeds for flavouring. Plant in full sun in well-drained soil that has added compost.

Borage can be sown directly in the ground in a sunny spot. The soil does not need to be rich. Plants germinate quickly and mature in about six weeks. Borage self-sows, so you may see downy leaves appearing from new plants beginning to establish.

Bay can be grown from seed, but takes several months to germinate. Or buy plants from your local garden centre and plant in moderately rich, free-draining soil. Dig compost and a little slow-release fertiliser into the soil first. If growing in containers, mix compost in with your potting mix. Although frost hardy to -5˚C, young plants need protection from frosts. Established plants will benefit from a liquid feed, and once again in summer.

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Now that the weather is warming up, it's a good time to show the herbs in your garden some love. 

Whether you grow them for their culinary or medicinal value, a few tasks carried out now will keep your herbs growing well.

The gallery above has spring care tips for the most common herbs. For more information, read:

* Herbs to grow for your favourite global cuisine
* 5 great herbs to grow in pots
* 5 herbs that will thrive in partial shade
* The best herbs to help you sleep - and how to grow them
* 10 healing herbs to grow in your garden



A terracotta planter overflowing with herbs.
Paul McCredie

A terracotta planter overflowing with herbs.


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 - NZ Gardener


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