Spring has arrived in eastern NC and we are enjoying the beauty of the flowers and the warm temperatures. There is something about this time of year that turns our minds to gardening. It is the time to get serious about planting a garden whether you desire vegetables, flowers or herbs. We have three optimal growing seasons: spring, summer, and fall. Both day length and temperature vary dramatically between seasons.
A soil test can tell you what your soil’s pH is and if you need to add lime. Soil tests are provided free to North Carolina residents through the NC Department of Agriculture. Boxes and forms can be picked up at any Cooperative Extension office, and when completed, can be returned there to be shipped free to Raleigh for analysis. The soil test results are sent by email to your computer but can also be viewed on line.
Perennial herbs return each year from the same roots and only need to be planted once to provide years of harvest. Most perennial herbs grow best in full sun and well-drained soil, with a pH around 6.5 to 7.0.
Perennial herbs that thrive in sandy soils include oregano, common thyme, lemon thyme, rosemary, and sage (the variety ‘Berggarten’ does well in the south). True bay (Laurus nobilis), which grows as a shrub, also does well here when give a little extra protection from winter winds. Chives and fennel are two more perennial herbs that thrive in sandy soils and both are very easy to grow from seed. Oils are what give these culinary herbs their flavor, and these develop most intensely under dry, poor conditions. To produce plants with full-bodied flavors, do not water or fertilize these culinary herbs too much, though they will need to be watered for the first several weeks after planting while they establish new roots.
Mint is a perennial herb that thrives in our area. Carefully consider where it should be planted because all types of mint spread rapidly. One option is to grow mint in large containers sitting above the ground. In the garden, mint prefers moister conditions than most perennial herbs and will tolerate part shade.
Annual herbs are also easy to grow just requiring the extra effort of starting new plants each year. Some annual herbs prefer cool weather and grow best in fall and early spring, while others are frost sensitive and can only be grown outside in summer. Basil is by far the most popular annual herb for summer. It comes in many varieties and loves heat, so May is a good time to put it in the ground. Another annual herb that likes hot weather is Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus). A relatively new summer annual herb that is growing in popularity is Stevia, or sweetleaf, which is used as a sugar substitute since its leaves are twice as sweet as sugar.
Many annual herbs prefer cool temperatures and should be planted in late summer (mid-August – September) for fall harvest, or early spring (February and March) to harvest in late spring. These include dill, parsley and cilantro, also known as coriander. If you are feeling adventurous, you may want to try lemon grass or culinary ginger (Zingiber officinale). While technically perennials, neither of these plants are winter hardy in our area, but they can be planted in spring for harvest in summer and fall.
Rosemary is one plant that has recently been lost because of flood waters. It is a beautiful evergreen shrub that comes in many forms from bushes four feet tall or more to low-growing groundcovers. The fragrance is strong and distinctive, used in many meat dishes, especially chicken. Rosemary typically has gray-green or dark green needlelike leaves and blue or occasionally white flowers. There are many different cultivars that vary in size, shape and even flavor. Weeping and pine-scented cultivars are also available.
For more details on planting in our part of the state check for an NCSU publication: Eastern North Carolina Planting Calendar. Remember weather conditions vary from year to year and planting dates should be adjusted accordingly.