Back to Culinary Herbs

 

 

 

PROPAGATION

SEEDS

Flat of Seedlings Ready to Be Transplanted
Flat of Seedlings Ready to Be Transplanted

Most herbs may be readily propagated by means of seeds. Some, however, such as tarragon, which does not produce seed, and several other perennial kinds, are propagated by division, layers, or cuttings. In general, propagation by means of seed is considered most satisfactory. Since the seeds in many instances are small or are slow to germinate, they are usually sown in shallow boxes or seed pans. When the seedlings are large enough to be handled they are transplanted to small pots or somewhat deeper flats or boxes, a couple of inches being allowed between the plants. When conditions are favorable in the garden; that is, when the soil is moist and warm and the season has become settled, the plantlets may be removed to permanent quarters.

If the seed be sown out of doors, it is a good practice to sow a few radish seeds in the same row with the herb seeds, particularly if these latter take a long time to germinate or are very small, as marjoram, savory and thyme. The variety of radish chosen should be a turnip-rooted sort of exceedingly rapid growth, and with few and small leaves. The radishes serve to mark the rows and thus enable cultivation to commence much earlier than if the herbs were sown alone. They should be pulled early—the earlier the better after the herb plantlets appear. Never should the radishes be allowed to crowd the herbs.

By the narration of a little incident, I may illustrate the necessity of sowing these radish seeds thinly. Having explained to some juvenile gardeners that the radish seeds should be dropped so far apart among the other seeds that they would look lonesome in the bottoms of the rows—not more than six seeds to the foot—and having illustrated my meaning by sowing a row myself, I let each one take his turn at sowing. While I watched them all went well. But, alas, for precept and example! To judge by the general result after the plants were up, the seedsman might justifiably have guaranteed the seed to germinate about 500 per cent, because each boy declared that he sowed his rows thinly. Nevertheless, there was a stand of radishes that would have gladdened the heart of a lawn maker! The rows looked like regiments drawn up in close order and not, as was desired, merely lines of scattered skirmishers. In many places there were more than 100 to the foot! Fortunately the variety was a quick-maturing kind and the crop, for such it became, was harvested before any damage was done the slow-appearing seedlings, whose positions the radishes were intended to indicate.

CUTTINGS

Glass-Covered Propagating Box
Glass-Covered Propagating Box

No herbs are so easy to propagate by means of cuttings as spearmint, peppermint, and their relatives which have underground stems. Every joint of these stems will produce a new plant if placed in somewhat moist soil. Often, however, this ability is a disadvantage, because the plants are prone to spread and become a nuisance unless watched. Hence such plants should be placed where they will not have their roots cut by tools used close to them. When they seem to be extending, their borders should be trimmed with a sharp spade pushed vertically full depth into the soil and all the earth beyond the clump thus restricted should be shaken out with a garden fork and the cut pieces of mint removed. Further, the forked-over ground should be hoed every week during the remainder of the season, to destroy lurking plantlets.

The other perennial and biennial herbs may be readily propagated by means of stem cuttings or "slips," which are generally as easy to manage as verbenas, geraniums and other "house plants." The cuttings may be made of either fully ripened wood of the preceding or the current season, or they may be of firm, not succulent green stems. After trimming off all but a few of the upper leaves, which should be clipped to reduce transpiration, the cuttings—never more than 4 or 5 inches long—should be plunged nearly full depth in well-shaded, rather light, porous, well-drained loam where they should remain undisturbed until they show evidences of growth. Then they may be transplanted. While in the cutting bed they must never be allowed to become dry. This is especially true of greenwood cuttings made during the summer. These should always have the coolest, shadiest corner in the garden. The cuttings taken in the spring should be set in the garden as soon as rooted; but the summer cuttings, especially if taken late, should generally be left in their beds until the following spring. They may, however, be removed for winter use to window boxes or the greenhouse benches.

Flower Pot Propagating Bed
Flower Pot Propagating Bed

Often the plants grown in window boxes may supply the early cuttings, which may be rooted in the house. Where a greenhouse is available, a few plants may be transplanted in autumn either from the garden or from the bed of summer cuttings just mentioned, kept in a rather cool temperature during the winter and drawn upon for cuttings as the stems become sufficiently mature. The rooting may take place in a regular cutting bench, or it may occur in the soil out of doors, the plantlets being transplanted to pots as soon as they have rooted well.

If a large number of plants is desired, a hotbed may be called into requisition in early spring and the plants hardened off in cold frames as the season advances. Hardening off is essential with all plants grown under glass for outdoor planting, because unless the plants be inured to outside temperatures before being placed in the open ground, they will probably suffer a check, if they do not succumb wholly to the unaccustomed conditions. If well managed they should be injured not at all.

LAYERS

Several of the perennial herbs, such as sage, savory, and thyme, may be easily propagated by means of layers, the stems being pegged down and covered lightly with earth. If the moisture and the temperature be favorable, roots should be formed in three or four weeks and the stem separated from the parent and planted. Often there may be several branches upon the stem, and each of these may be used as a new plantlet provided it has some roots or a rooted part of the main stem attached to it. By this method I have obtained nearly 100 rooted plants from a single specimen of Holt's Mammoth sage grown in a greenhouse. And from the same plant at the same time I have taken more than 100 cuttings. This is not an exceptional feat with this variety, the plants of which are very branchy and often exceed a yard in diameter.

Layering is probably the simplest and most satisfactory method of artificial propagation under ordinary conditions, since the stems are almost sure to take root if undisturbed long enough; and since rooted plants can hardly fail to grow if properly transplanted. Then, too, less apparent time is taken than with plants grown from cuttings and far less than with those grown from seed. In other words, they generally produce a crop sooner than the plants obtained by the other methods set in operation at the same time.

DIVISION

Division of the clumps of such herbs as mint is often practiced, a sharp spade or a lawn edger being used to cut the clump into pieces about 6 inches square. The squares are then placed in new quarters and packed firmly in place with soil. This method is, however, the least satisfactory of all mentioned, because it too frequently deprives the plants of a large amount of roots, thus impairs the growth, and during the first season or two may result in unsymmetrical clumps. If done in early spring before growth starts, least damage is done to the plants.

Holt's Mammoth and Common Sage About Half Natural Size
Holt's Mammoth and Common Sage About Half Natural Size

Artificial methods of propagation, especially those of cuttage and layerage, have the further advantage over propagation by means of seeds, in the perpetuation of desired characters of individual plants, one or more of which may appear in any plantation. These, particularly if more productive than the others, should always be utilized as stock, not merely because their progeny artificially obtained are likely to retain the character and thus probably increase the yield of the plantation, but principally because they may form the nucleus of a choice strain.

Marker for Hotbeds and Cold Frames
Marker for Hotbeds and Cold Frames

Except in the respects mentioned, these methods of propagation are not notably superior to propagation by means of good seed, which, by the way, is not overabundant. By the consumption of a little extra time, any desired number of plants may be obtained from seed. At any rate, seed is what one must start with in nearly every case.

TRANSPLANTING

No more care is required in transplanting herbs than in resetting other plants, but unless a few essentials are realized in practice the results are sure to be unsatisfactory. Of course, the ideal way is to grow the plants in small flower pots and when they have formed a ball of roots, to set them in the garden. The next best is to grow them in seed pans or flats (shallow boxes) in which they should be set several inches apart as soon as large enough to handle, and in which they should be allowed to grow for a few weeks, to form a mass of roots. When these plants are to be set in the garden they should be broken apart by hand with as little loss of roots as possible.

Leading Forms of Trowels
Leading Forms of Trowels

But where neither of these plans can be practiced, as in the growing of the plants in little nursery beds, either in hotbeds, cold frames or in the garden border, the plants should be "pricked out," that is, transplanted while very small to a second nursery bed, in order to make them "stocky" or sturdy and better able to take care of themselves when removed to final quarters. If this be done there should be no need of clipping back the tops to balance an excessive loss of roots, a necessity in case the plants are not so treated, or in case they become large or lanky in the second bed.

In all cases it is best to transplant when the ground is moist, as it is immediately after being dug or plowed. But this cannot always be arranged, neither can one always count upon a shower to moisten the soil just after the plants have been set. If advantage can be taken of an approaching rainfall, it should be done, because this is the ideal time for transplanting. It is much better than immediately after, which is perhaps next best. Transplanting in cloudy weather and toward evening is better than in sunny weather and in the morning.

Since the weather is prone to be coy, if not fickle, the manual part of transplanting should always be properly done. The plants should always be taken up with as little loss of roots as possible, be kept exposed to the air as short a time as possible, and when set in the ground have the soil packed firmly about their roots, so firmly that the operator may think it is almost too firm. After setting, the surface soil should be made loose, so as to act as a mulch and prevent the loss of moisture from the packed lower layer. If the ground be dry a hole may be made beside the plant and filled with water—LOTS OF WATER—and when it has soaked away and the soil seems to be drying, the surface should be made smooth and loose as already mentioned. If possible such times should be avoided, because of the extra work entailed and the probable increased loss due to the unfavorable conditions.

IMPLEMENTS

When herbs are grown upon a commercial scale the implements needed will be the same as for general trucking—plows, harrows, weeder, etc.—to fit the soil for the hand tools. Much labor can be saved by using hand-wheel drills, cultivators, weeders and the other tools that have become so wonderfully popular within the past decade or two. Some typical kinds are shown in these pages. These implements are indispensable in keeping the surface soil loose and free from weeds, especially between the rows and even fairly close to the plants. In doing this they save an immense amount of labor and time, since they can be used with both hands and the muscles of the body with less exertion than the hoe and the rake require.

Nothing, however, can take the place of the hand tools for getting among and around the plants. The work that weeding entails is tiresome, but must be done if success is to crown ones efforts. While the plants are little some of the weeders may be used. Those with a blade or a series of blades are adapted for cutting weeds off close to the surface; those with prongs are useful only for making the soil loose closer to the plants than the rake dare be run by the average man. Hoes of various types are useful when the plants become somewhat larger or when one does not have the wheel cultivators. In all well-regulated gardens there should be a little liberal selection of the various wheel and hand tools.

Only one of the hand tools demands any special comment. Many gardeners like to use a dibble for transplanting. With this tool it is so easy to make a hole, and to press the soil against the plant dropped in that hole! But I believe that many of the failures in transplanting result from the improper use of this tool. Unless the dibble be properly operated the plant may be left suspended in a hole, the sides of which are more or less hard and impervious to the tiny, tender rootlets that strive to penetrate them. From my own observation of the use of this tool, I believe that the proper place for the dibble in the novices garden is in the attic, side by side with the "unloaded" shotgun, where it may be viewed with apprehension.

Wooden Dibbles
Wooden Dibbles

In spite of this warning, if anyone is hardy enough to use a dibble, let him choose the flat style, not the round one. The proper way is to thrust the tool straight down, at right angles to the direction of the row, and press the soil back and forth with the flat side of the blade until a hole, say 2 or 3 inches across and 5 or 6 inches deep, has been formed. In the hole the plantlet should then be suspended so all the roots and a little of the stem beneath the surface will be covered when the soil is replaced. Replacing the soil is the important part of the operation. The dibble must now be thrust in the soil again, parallel and close to the hole, and the soil pushed over so the hole will be completely closed from bottom to top. Firming the soil completes the operation.

There is much less danger of leaving a hole with the flat than with the round dibble, which is almost sure to leave a hole beneath the plant. I remember having trouble with some lily plants which were not thriving. Supposing that insects were at the roots, I carefully drew the earth away from one side, and found that the earth had not been brought up carefully beneath the bulbs and that the roots were hanging 4 or 5 inches beneath the bulbs in the hole left by the dibble and not properly closed by the careless gardener.

I therefore warn every dibble user to be sure to crowd over the soil well, especially at the lower end of the hole. For my own part, I rely upon my hands. Digits existed long before dibbles and they are much more reliable. What matter if some soil sticks to them; it is not unresponsive to the wooing of water!

LOCATION OF HERB GARDEN

In general, the most favorable exposure for an herb garden is toward the south, but lacking such an exposure should not deter one from planting herbs on a northern slope if this be the only site available. Indeed, such sites often prove remarkably good if other conditions are propitious and proper attention is given the plants. Similarly, a smooth, gently sloping surface is especially desirable, but even in gardens in which the ground is almost billowy the gardener may often take advantage of the irregularities by planting the moisture-loving plants in the hollows and those that like dry situations upon the ridges. Nothing like turning disadvantages to account!

No matter what the nature of the surface and the exposure, it is always advisable to give the herbs the most sunny spots in the garden, places where shade from trees, barns, other buildings and from fences cannot reach them. This is suggested because the development of the oils, upon which the flavoring of most of the herbs mainly depends, is best in full sunshine and the plants have more substance than when grown in the shade.

Combination Hand Plow, Harrow, Cultivator and Seed Drill
Combination Hand Plow, Harrow, Cultivator and Seed Drill

THE SOIL AND ITS PREPARATION

As to the kind of soil, Hobson's choice ranks first! It is not necessary to move into the next county just to have an herb garden. This is one of the cases in which the gardener may well make the best of however bad a bargain he has.

Combination Hand Plow, Harrow, Cultivator and Seed Drill
Combination Hand Plow, Harrow, Cultivator and Seed Drill

But supposing that a selection be possible, a light sandy loam, underlaid by a porous subsoil so as to be well drained, should be given the preference, since it is warmed quickly, easily worked, and may be stirred early in the season and after a rain. Clay loams are less desirable upon every one of the points mentioned, and very sandy soils also. But if Hobson has one of these, there will be an excellent opportunity to cultivate philosophy as well as herbs. And the gardener may be agreeably surprised at the results obtained. No harm in trying! Whatever the quality of the soil, it should not be very rich, because in such soils the growth is apt to be rank and the quantity of oil small in proportion to the leafage.

The preparation of the soil should commence as soon as the grass in the neighborhood is seen to be sprouting. Well-decayed manure should be spread at the rate of not less than a bushel nor more than double that quantity to the square yard, and as soon as the soil is dry enough to crumble readily it should be dug or plowed as deeply as possible without bringing up the subsoil. This operation of turning over the soil should be thoroughly performed, the earth being pulverized as much as possible. To accomplish this no hand tool surpasses the spading fork.

Surface Paring Cultivator
Surface Paring Cultivator

One other method is, however, superior especially when practiced upon the heavier soils—fall plowing or digging. In practicing this method care should be taken to plow late when the soil, moistened by autumn rains, will naturally come up in big lumps. These lumps must be left undisturbed during the winter for frost to act upon. All that will be necessary in the spring will be to rake or harrow the ground. The clods will crumble.

I once had occasion to try this method upon about 25 acres of land which had been made by pumping mud from a river bottom upon a marsh thus converted into dry ground by the sedimentation. Three sturdy horses were needed to do the plowing. The earth turned up in chunks as large as a man's body. Contrary to my plowman's doubts and predictions, Jack Frost did a grand milling business that winter! Clods that could hardly be broken in the autumn with a sledge hammer crumbled down in the spring at the touch of a garden rake!

CULTIVATION

Having thoroughly fined the surface of the garden by harrowing and raking, the seeds may be sown or the plants transplanted as already noted. From this time forward the surface must be kept loose and open by surface cultivation every week or 10 days and after every shower that forms a crust, until the plants cover the whole ground. This frequent cultivation is not merely for the purpose of keeping the weeds in check; it is a necessary operation to keep the immediate surface layer powdery, in which condition it will act as a mulch to prevent the loss of water from the lower soil layers. When kept in perfect condition by frequent stirring the immediate surface should be powdery. Yes, powdery! Within 1 inch of the surface, however, the color will be darker from the presence of moisture. When supplied with such conditions, failures must be attributed to other causes than lack of water.

DOUBLE CROPPING

Thinning Scheme for Harvesting
Thinning Scheme
for Harvesting

When desired, herbs may be used as secondary crops to follow such early vegetables as early cabbage and peas; or, if likely to be needed still earlier, after radishes, transplanted lettuce and onions grown from sets. These primary crops, having reached marketable size, are removed, the ground stirred and the herb plants transplanted from nursery beds or cold frames.

Often the principal herbs—sage, savory, marjoram and thyme—are set close together, both the rows and the plants in them being nearer than recommended further on. The object of such practice is to get several crops in the following way: When the plants in the rows commence to crowd one another each alternate plant is removed and sold or cured. This may perhaps be done a second time. Then when the rows begin to crowd, each alternate row is removed and the remainder allowed to develop more fully. The chief advantages of this practice are not only that several crops may be gathered, but each plant, being supplied with plenty of room and light, will have fewer yellow or dead leaves than when crowded. In the diagram the numbers show which plants are removed first, second, third and last.

HERB RELATIONSHIPS

Those readers who delight to delve among pedigrees, genealogies and family connections, may perhaps be a little disappointed to learn that, in spite of the odorous nature of the herbs, there are none whose history reveals a skeleton in the closet. They are all harmless. Now and then, to be sure, there occur records of a seemingly compromising nature, such as the effects attributed to the eating or even the handling of celery; but such accounts, harrowing as they may appear, are insufficient to warrant a bar sinister. Indeed, not only is the mass of evidence in favor of the defendant, but it casts a reflection upon the credibility of the plaintiff, who may usually be shown to have indulged immoderately, to have been frightened by hallucinations or even to have arraigned the innocent for his own guilt. Certain it is that there is not one of the sweet herbs mentioned in this volumes that has not long enjoyed a more or less honored place in the cuisine of all the continents, and this in spite of the occasional tootings of some would-be detractor.

Like those classes of society that cannot move with "the four hundred," the herbs are very exclusive, more exclusive indeed, than their superiors, the other vegetables. Very few members have they admitted that do not belong to two approved families, and such unrelated ones as do reach the charmed circles must first prove their worthiness and then hold their places by intrinsic merit.

Center Row Hand Cultivator
Center Row
Hand Cultivator

These two coteries are known as the Labiatæ and the Umbelliferæ, the former including the sages, mints and their connections; the latter the parsleys and their relatives. With the exception of tarragon, which belongs to the Compositæ, parsley and a few of its relatives which have deserted their own ranks, all the important leaf herbs belong to the Labiatæ; and without a notable exception all the herbs whose seeds are used for flavoring belong to the Umbelliferæ. Fennel-flower, which belongs to the natural order Ranunculaceæ, or crowfoot family, is a candidate for admission to the seed sodality; costmary and southernwood of the Compositæ seek membership with the leaf faction; rue of the Rutaceæ and tansy of the Compositæ, in spite of suspension for their boldness and ill-breeding, occasionally force their way back into the domain of the leaf herbs. Marigold, a composite, forms a clique by itself, the most exclusive club of all. It has admitted no members! And there seem to be no candidates.

The important members of the Labiatæ are:

Sage (Salvia officinalis, Linn.).
Savory (Satureia hortensis, Linn.).
Savory, winter (Satureia montana, Linn.).
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Linn.).
Marjoram (Origanum Marjoram; O. Onites, Linn.; and M. vulgare, Linn.).
Balm (Melissa officinalis, Linn.).
Basil (Ocimum Basilicum, Linn., and O. minimum, Linn.).
Spearmint (Mentha spicata, Linn., or M. viridis, Linn.).
Peppermint (Mentha Piperita, Linn.).
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Linn.).
Clary (Salvia Sclarea, Linn.).
Pennyroyal (Mentha Pulegium, Linn.).
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare, Linn.).
Hyssop (Hyssopus vulgaris, Linn.).
Catnip (Nepeta Cataria, Linn.).
Lavender (Lavandula vera, D. C.; L. spica, D. C.).

These plants, which are mostly natives of mild climates of the old world, are characterized by having square stems; opposite, simple leaves and branches; and more or less two-lipped flowers which appear in the axils of the leaves, occasionally alone, but usually several together, forming little whorls, which often compose loose or compact spikes or racemes. Each fertile blossom is followed by four little seedlike fruits in the bottom of the calyx, which remains attached to the plant. The foliage is generally plentifully dotted with minute glands that contain a volatile oil, upon which depends the aroma and piquancy peculiar to the individual species.

The leading species of the Umbelliferæ are:

Parsley (Carum Petroselinum, Benth. and Hook.).
Dill (Anethum graveolens, Linn.).
Fennel (Fœniculum officinale, Linn.).
Angelica (Archangelica officinalis, Hoofm.).
Anise (Pimpinella anisum, Linn.).
Caraway (Carum Carui, Linn.).
Coriander (Coriandrum sativum, Linn.).
Chervil (Scandix Cerefolium, Linn.).
Cumin or Cummin (Cuminum Cyminum, Linn.).
Lovage (Levisticum officinale, Koch.).
Samphire (Crithmum maritimum, Linn.).

 Hand Plow
Hand Plow

Like the members of the preceding group, the species of the Umbelliferæ are principally natives of mild climates of the old world, but many of them extend farther north into the cold parts of the continent, even beyond the Arctic Circle in some cases. They have cylindrical, usually hollow stems; alternate, generally compound leaves the basis of whose stalks ensheath the branches or stems; and small flowers almost always arranged in compound terminal umbels. The fruits are composed of two seedlike dry carpels, each containing a single seed, and usually separating when ripe. Each carpel bears five longitudinal prominent ribs and several, often four, lesser intermediate ones, in the intervals between which numerous oil ducts have their openings from the interior of the fruit. The oil is generally found in more or less abundance also in other parts of the plant, but is usually most plentiful in the fruits.

The members of the Compositæ used as sweet herbs are, with the exception of tarragon, comparatively unimportant, and except for having their flowers in close heads "on a common receptacle, surrounded by an involucre," have few conspicuous characters in common. No further space except that required for their enumeration need here be devoted to them. And this remark will apply also to the other two herbs mentioned further below.

COMPOSITÆ

Marigold, Pot (Calendula officinalis, Linn.). Tansy (Tanacetum vulgaris, Linn.). Tarragon (Artemisia Dracunculus, Linn.). Southernwood (Artemisia Abrotanum, Linn.).

RUTACEÆ

Rue (Ruta graveolens, Linn.).

BORAGINACEÆ

Borage (Borago officinalis, Linn.).

RANUNCULACEÆ

Fennel-flower (Nigella sativa, Linn.).

Before dismissing this section of the subject, it may be interesting to glance over the list of names once more. Seven of these plants were formerly so prominent in medicine that they were designated "official" and nearly all the others were extensively used by physicians. At the present day there are very few that have not passed entirely out of official medicine and even out of domestic practice, at least so far as their intrinsic qualities are concerned. Some, to be sure, are still employed because of their pleasant flavors, which disguise the disagreeable taste of other drugs. But this is a very different matter.

One of the most notable of these is fennel. What wonders could that plant not perform 300 years ago! In Parkinson's "Theatricum Botanicum" (1640) its "vertues" are recorded. Apart from its use as food, for which, then, as now, it was highly esteemed, without the attachment of any medicinal qualities as an esculent, it was considered efficacious in cases of gout, jaundice, cramps, shortness of breath, wheezing of the lungs; for cleansing of the blood and improving the complexion; to use as an eye-water or to increase the flow of milk; as a remedy for serpent bites or an antidote for poisonous herbs and mushrooms; and for people who "are growen fat to abate their unwieldinesse and make them more gaunt and lanke."

But let us peep into the 19th edition of the United States Dispensatory. Can this be the same fennel which "is one of our most grateful aromatics," and which, because of "the absence of any highly excitant property," is recommended for mixing with unpleasant medicines? Ask any druggist, and he will say it is used for little else nowadays than for making a tea to give babies for wind on their stomachs. Strange, but true it is! Similar statements if not more remarkable ones could be made about many of the other herbs herein discussed. Many of these are spoken of as "formerly considered specific" for such and such troubles but "now known to be inert."

The cause is not far to seek. An imaginative and superstitious people attached fanciful powers to these and hundreds of other plants which the intervening centuries have been unable wholly to eradicate, for among the more ignorant classes, especially of Europe, many of these relics of a dark age still persist.

But let us not gloat over our superior knowledge. After a similar lapse of time, may not our vaunted wisdom concerning the properties of plants look as ridiculous to the delver among our musty volumes? Indeed, it may, if we may judge by the discoveries and investigations of only the past fifty years. During this time a surprisingly large number of plants have been proved to be not merely innocuous instead of poisonous, as they were reputed, but fit for human food and even of superior excellence!