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Thyme in the garden

Herbs can be used for culinary or medicinal purposes and, with a little effort, you can grow your own.


Gina Hartoog


Herbs are seed-bearing plants available in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are plants which, over many years, have been used in cooking, for medicinal reasons and for their fragrance. 

Culinary herbs are used either fresh or dried. The leafy parts of the plants are used to spice or flavour food. Other parts of the plant – including the seeds, fruits, stems, bark or roots – may also be used fresh or dried. Parts used for medicinal purposes will depend on the type of herb and ailment being treated. Herbs are found in all different types of plants - from low-growing groundcovers to shrubs, perennials, annuals and large trees.


Herbs in your garden

Herbs are relatively easy plants to grow in the garden, either in a herb or vegetable patch or alongside other plants in the garden. Most enjoy a sunny spot with well-drained soil but herbs will also adapt well to containers and window boxes. This means that anyone can enjoy the benefits of a herb garden in the home – even if you only have a small balcony or townhouse garden. With regular water and plant food most herbs will thrive.


If you have a vegetable garden you can choose companion herbs to plant alongside your crops. This is an ancient form of pest control and, when chosen correctly, the companion plants help to repel insects and protect crops.


While most herbs enjoy the sun, there are some varieties that prefer a little shade. Group your herbs according to their needs – sun-loving herbs together and those that prefer shade in another spot.  


Herbs for sun to semi-shade: Fennel; garlic; mint; sage; catnip; lemon balm.


Herbs for sun: Lavender; basil; bay; coriander; dill; rosemary; tarragon; thyme; sweet marjoram


Herb companions: Carrots with dill; strawberries with borage; broccoli with mint; cabbage with rosemary; tomatoes with basil, thyme or peppermint.


Preparing the beds

Once you have chosen your spot with good sunlight and out of the wind, it is time to prepare the beds. Mark out the area and remove any grass and weeds. Turn the beds to a depth of 30cm. Break up any large clumps to add air and lighten the soil. Use a garden fork for this task. Next, add good quality compost to the bed and dig over well. After tilling, water the bed well. If you want to set up an irrigation system for the herb garden now would be the time to do so.


Shopping for herbs

Although you can grow herbs from seed, small potted herbs are also available from the local nursery. Here are some guidelines as to what you should look out for:


* Decide what you want to plant beforehand. Check how much sun these herbs need and if they will fit in with the location.

* At the nursery, inspect the plant. Does it look healthy? Leaves shouldn’t be yellowed or have black spots on them.

* Check the soil. It should be damp, never dry. If the soil is pulling away from the sides of the pot, reconsider the purchase. Never purchase a pot with wilted leaves and stems.


Planting time

Don’t wait too long to plant out your herbs once you bring them home from the nursery. Check the spacing required and mark out the holes. Avoid overcrowding the plants or they will compete for water and nutrients. Also consider the water requirements and move those herbs that don’t require a lot of water away from those that do. Sage, thyme and lavender don’t require too much water and can be grouped together.


The ground should be moist at planting time. If it seems dry give it a light shower before digging your holes. If the weather is very hot, plant early in the morning or late in the afternoon. If rain is imminent, rather plant before the shower. Dig a hole slightly deeper than the plant pot. Place some compost in the base of the hole. Remove the plant from the container by gently pressing on the side of the container to release the plant. Keep the root ball intact. Gently loosen the roots at the base of the ball before placing it inside the prepared hole. Back fill and water well.


Using containers

Most herbs make outstanding container candidates. They are ideal for a sunny patio, braai area or deck. Some herbs will even thrive indoors on a sunny windowsill.


The container you choose will depend on the size and variety of the herb. It should be deep enough to accommodate the roots of the plant. You can start off with a 15-20cm plastic, terracotta or glazed pot. In a larger pot you can plant a selection of herbs for a mini herb garden. Drainage must be good. Cover the bottom of the pot with broken crocks or stones. Add bonemeal to the potting soil. Plants in containers need regular watering, especially in hot weather.


General care

* Get to know the water requirements of your plants. If you have grouped them according to their needs, watering will be easy.

* Container plants require more water than plants in the garden as the containers tend to dry out. Check the soil every day and water when                    necessary.  

* Feed growing herbs at least once per month with organic plant food. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and don’t overfeed. Liquid plant food     will stimulate healthy leaf and root growth.
* To help stimulate new, bushy growth, pinch back growing tips and prune after flowering. Cut herbs in containers back on a regular basis to keep       a nice shape.
* Harvest herbs for use in the morning. Break off leaves with your fingers or use a sharp pair of secateurs.
* Some herbs are frost hardy, but others will require some frost protection in winter.

* Annuals can be discarded after the growing season, but perennials will sprout again in spring time. If pots are very congested or roots are                     protruding from the base of the pot, you will need to repot into a larger container. You can also divide and replant in spring. Water well during           this new growing phase.

* Herbs seem to escape the onslaught of pests and disease. If you do have pests, mix dishwasher soap into a jug of warm water and add crushed            garlic. If you want to use a commercial product, go organic.  


Revamp an old plant stand

We’ve taken an old, forgotten plant stand and revamped it to make a snazzy herb garden. Before you start the project, decide where you want to place your plant stand. This will dictate what herbs can be used – those for sun or herbs for partial shade.


What you need: An old plant stand; wire brush/sandpaper; rust inhibitor; primer and top coat (we used Oxirite 3-in-1 in Metallic Dark Grey); paint brushes; mineral turpentine; planting pots, potting soil; herbs in pots; electric drill (with a tile bit); broken tiles/crocks or pebbles; clothes pegs; small cuttings of veneer or Masonite; blackboard paint; glue gun or craft glue; chalk.


Step-by-Step guide


The old stand

Step 1: Prepare the metal surface well. We used a wire brush to rub down the stand to remove all loose bits of rust and old paint. Also sand down the item to ensure a smooth surface.


Step 2: Depending on your chosen product, you will need to treat your stand for rust. Before painting the top coat, prime the metal surface with a suitable primer. We used Oxirite, a 3-in-1 antirust paint, which can be applied directly to rust. The second coat can be applied within one hour of the first, but must be applied within eight hours. Carefully follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for your product and adhere to drying times.


Preparing the pots

Step 3: While the first coat was drying, we prepared the pots. If your pots do not have drainage holes, you will need to use an electric drill with a tile drill bit to make a hole at the base of the pot. Drill into a piece of paper or masking tape to keep the drill bit from slipping. Once the drill pushes through the base of the pot, turn it over and complete the hole from the other side. This will help to prevent chipping of the glazing.


Step 4: Add peddles or broken crocks/tiles to ensure good drainage. Add a little potting soil mixed with bonemeal.


Step 5: Remove the herbs from their plastic pots and place inside the prepared pot. Fill in with potting soil and press down firmly. Add a little compost to each pot and water well.


Making the peg boards

Step 6: Cut the veneer or Masonite and paint with blackboard paint.

Step 7: Use a glue gun to paste the board to the peg and allow to dry.


Final steps

Step 8: Once the stand is completely dry, place it in position and assemble your pots.

Step 9: Write the name of the herb on each board and peg in place.



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