Judging from the tone of your e-mails, you people are busy this summer. I’ve had a flurry of questions from people who are undertaking some large, impressive garden project or another. If you’ve got questions about your garden, send them to me, and at some point in the not too distant future you might get an answer along the lines of:
Q: Every summer I plant an herb garden, but it seems like we never get enough herbs to even justify the expense of buying the seedlings. They either bloom right away and don’t put out a lot of leaves, or they disappear entirely. What gives?
A: It sounds like you’re talking about annual herbs, like basil or cilantro. These kinds of herbs should be easy to grow, but the fact is that they are a little fussy about temperature, and that can make them challenging on the North Coast. Basil, cilantro, parsley, and dill are fantastic herbs to have around as long as you’re willing to give a little thought to their needs. I recommend planting them in a pot so that you can move them around. On chilly days, they’ll want to be in the sun, but if it’s scorching hot where you live, they could use a little shade. The trick with these annual herbs is to make sure that they get steady water, protection from wind, and moderately warm temperatures. Too much heat and they’ll stop producing leaves and bloom; too much cold and they’ll sulk and refuse to grow at all.
It’s also important to know how to harvest annual herbs. Don’t just pick off a leaf or two when you need it. Instead, cut an entire stalk back to the base of the plant, leaving only a leaf or two on that plant. That way, you’ll prevent the plant from blooming and encourage it to put out more leaves. And if it does start to look like it’s blooming, pinch off the flowering stalk and consider moving it to a cooler spot.
Another advantage growing annual herbs in a pot is that you might stand a better chance of keeping the snails and slugs away from them. In my garden, I let the parsley bloom and set seed because snails don’t seem to like the taste of young parsley seedlings. But they do love basil, so the best strategy is to keep it out of the garden and on a patio or in a windowsill where you can keep it away from slimy predators.
That may sound somewhat complicated, and it is compared to perennial herbs. Rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano are freakishly easy to grow. All they need is a reasonable amount of sun—a little over half a day. They don’t care if your soil is horrible, and they don’t mind if you forget to water. Just stick them in the ground and watch them grow. If you don’t cut them, they will bloom and attract bees and butterflies to your garden. If you do cut them, they’ll just grow more vigorously than ever. Our local farmers markets have an incredible selection this time of year, so check it out.
Q: I’d like to attract more butterflies to our garden, but I have two small children and I’m afraid that we’ll get a lot of bees, too. Is there anything we could plant that would bring in some butterflies without making a lot of bees swarm around?
A. This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but really, there is absolutely no reason to be afraid of bees. Kids are never too young to learn that they shouldn’t hurt creatures that are smaller than them. That’s the only thing you need to teach them. Most of the bees that will turn up in your backyard if you plant butterfly friendly plants are native species of bumblebees that have absolutely no interest in you. The only reason they would sting you is if you trapped them and forced them to. Even if you manage to lure a healthy population of European honeybees, the species that is currently threatened by colony collapse disorder, I guarantee you that these creatures are far more interested in your flowers than they are in you. So yes, by all means, choose plants that will attract butterflies, and eliminate pesticides from your garden so that you don’t inadvertently hurt the good bugs. Go outside with your kids and just sit very quietly in the middle of all those flowers. Pretty soon, your insect population will buzz to life. It’s way more interesting than TV. And in the unlikely event that they do get stung, it’ll be a good story on the playground tomorrow.
Q: My husband insists on using herbicides on the weeds that spring up between the cracks in the sidewalk. He says it’s not a big deal because the chemicals are only going on the pavement. What do you think?
A. Yeah, you can probably guess whose side I’m going to take in this argument. Any chemicals you use around your house can end up on you, on wildlife, and in runoff that flows to the ocean– not to mention the environmental impacts of manufacturing, packaging, and shipping those chemicals in the first place. Besides, weeds that spring up out of pavement are too easy to deal with using non-toxic methods. Chop them down with a hoe or shovel — just think of all the money you’re saving on gym memberships — and if there’s any vegetation left, spray a mixture of white vinegar and water on them, or pour boiling water into the cracks. Easy, huh? And isn’t it nice to win an argument with your husband? Glad I could help.