A borage bloom

Herbs are one of those garden accent plants that sometimes get a bad rap. Cooks who love to garden appear to be in the know on how to keep them straight; they always seem to have a healthy assortment of culinary oriented varieties brimming from kitchen window boxes. But if you are like most people, you go into the season with high hopes of having a balanced garden complete with perennials, annuals, and herbs, and often it’s the herbs that don’t make it to the end of the season. Are herbs just difficult to grow or are we doing something wrong?

Caring and maintaining any plant in the high desert can have its ups and downs. The altitude and grow zones aren’t as much an issue as the elements of nature — sun, wind, and drought-like conditions can take its toll on any plant, especially a small one with shallow roots.

We all know how tempting the flower departments are at Sprouts and Trader Joe’s with their alluring displays of seasonal plants. It’s hard to turn your back on a robust basil or rosemary, but what happens after you get them home into a container or the garden is another story. You can’t help but wonder why the basil’s leaves turned black (overwatering) or the rosemary petrified like a dead cholla (wind or sun damage, not enough water). However, if you follow some simple steps, your herb garden can be as lush as New Mexico’s lilacs in the spring.

• Location: Find a space that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. Santa Fe’s sun is strong and having herbs exposed to too much of it can be a killer. Rosemary plants are different than the smaller herb plants and can tolerate more sun. Make sure to read the label as some plants have different care requirements.

• Space: Give plants ample space to grow. Do not overcrowd in small containers or plant too close together in the ground.

• Soil: Most herbs need a neutral to alkaline soil. If you are adding herb plants to a garden, make sure the soil is amended with digested compost. Raised garden beds are preferred. If you are planting in a container, use good potting soil. Never use our ordinary garden soil.

• Water: Water herb plants in the early morning daily so the plant can drain. If the wind is strong during the day, check the soil and water again in the afternoon, but try not to water at night as this can cause fungal diseases.

• Fertilizer: As herbs are harvested, use a light, all-purpose fertilizer. A compost tea applied weekly gives plants a great energy boost.

Varieties of herbs vary as much as the purpose for which they are planted. According to the Royal Horticultural Society’s chief horticulturist, Guy Barter, the 10 best herbs for your garden are basil (Ocimum basilicum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), mint (Mentha spicata), coriander (Coriandrum sativum), dill (Anethum graveolens), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and sage (Salvia officinalis).

Between the rapidly evolving global influence in cuisine and the re-immergence of medicinal herbs for healing, rare and exotic herbs are becoming staples for many savvy gardeners. Sweet cicely (used in the making of Chartreuse liqueur), epazote (a popular herb in Mexican cooking), perilla (commonly used in Japanese and Chinese cooking), chocolate mint (used in drinks and cakes or as a digestive aid), French sorrel (used medicinally for strengthening the immunity system and to prevent digestive problems and heart disease), borage (used medicinally for fever, cough and depression as well as culinarily in salads), Mexican tarragon (a Central and South American herb used medically and culinarily), and anise hyssop (used medicinally and as a tea in Chinese medicine as well as with Native American tribes) are all gaining popularity and can be found at many local nurseries or on-line seed catalogues.

Regardless of what herb you grow, the important thing is always its care. Care for it and it can live a long, healthy life while it cares for you.

Carole A. Langrall has been in the floriculture industry for over 20 years, from working with South American flower growers to opening floral event studios in Santa Fe, NM and Baltimore, MD. As a Master Gardener, she educates and lectures on the importance of native plants, beautification projects and environmental art. She is available for demonstrations, classes and special events. Contact her at: www.flowerspy.com