The Herb Revolution

August 8, 2003 - 07:56

These misunderstood crops can be an edible or ornamental treat.

Having just finished a great group of educational programs
at the Southeast Greenhouse Conference, I feel obligated to focus on a group of
crops that are often misunderstood and sadly shy of production information.

Herbs offer most growers a huge opportunity to make some
extra money. They can be used in many of the same ways that ornamentals can and
(theoretically) you can eat them as well, but when growers move into the herb
market, there are a few production issues to consider. Additionally, cultivar
selections make a big difference in the greenhouse and the landscape.

Production issues

Most growers mix their herbs with bedding plants and grow
them under the same conditions, which implies that they are being grown for
ornamental use. The question becomes: Are you growing edible or ornamental
herbs? Semantics? You should consider the question carefully because if you
grow edible herbs, you will need to use different pesticides than you would
with ornamental crops. (There are not a lot of chemicals labeled for edible
herb production.) Herbs fall somewhere in the gray area between ornamental
crops and vegetables, currently they are a little bit of a red-headed step
child, as chemical labels usually do not mention any herb crops. So, to be both
moral and profitable, you'll need to check with experts and see what is labeled
for these crops. A good reference is the article by Dr. Jamie Gibson listed
under the resources portion of the article.

Want to grow organic herbs? It is a great niche, but you
need to know what is required to get organic certification for your crops. For
organic certification, you will need to use different fertilizers and manage
the crop entirely separate from any ornamentals. Check out the publications
from ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), an organization
funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; their organic herb production
publication is a great overview at
http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/PDF/om-herb.pdf.

Marketing Issues

Producing and controlling a 4-inch crop of herbs is
challenging; sales can be unpredictable, and overgrown pots can be difficult to
move. Most 1-gal. herbs are too large for consumers to rationalize buying a
full complement of varieties, so how can you maximize on this high dollar
market? The market is moving to the herbal mixed container, and here's where
you can really add value to your crops. Decorative containers, window boxes and
hanging baskets with a complement of the more common herbs are hot items right
now; even apartment dwellers can be potential customers when they can get an
instant kitchen garden. You will need to speak with your suppliers, select
cultivars with compatible growth habits and avoid large forms. I have never
seen a good looking hanging basket of dill, which doesn't mean it can't be
done, but the point is to look for plants with a growth habit that will look
good and last in mixed or specialty containers.

Vegetative or seed? It gets a bit confusing as to which
herbs to grow from seed and which to grow from cuttings. Here's a short
breakdown: Vegetative propagation of certain herbs is recommended for a variety
of reasons. Seed produced forms may vary too much in flavor and habit to get
reliable quality. Many of the variegated or foliage interest types do not come
true from seed, plus some herbs are a bit tricky to propagate, so buying in
your liners may be the best bet. Examples of herbs produced from cuttings would
be lavender, rosemary, tarragon, certain basils, marjoram, oregano, mint, sage
and thyme. Herbs easily produced from seed include chives, cilantro, dill,
fennel, parsley and some of the hybrid basils.

Types of Herbs

Basil (Ocimum basilicum and hybrids). style='font-weight:normal'> Lots and lots of cultivars are available, both
vegetative and seed produced. How do you select which is right for you? Most
growers look for the dwarf forms, as they have a better pack or 4-inch
performance, but some of the larger forms are nice as well. There are some new
cultivars with colorful flowers on the market so that the herb and ornamental
crossover of these crops is really nice. Just because you are going to eat them
doesn't mean they can't be good looking as well.

Two highly flowered cultivars of Ocimum basilicum are
available. 'Magic Mountain' and 'Kasar' have large, salvia-like spikes of pink
to violet flowers and good flavor. 'Purple Ruffles' is an older cultivar with
purple ruffled foliage; newer purple forms are less disease (Fusarium) prone
and may do better in production. Ocimum x 'Spicy Globe' and other similar
cultivars have a clove/cinnamon taste and a compact habit. 'African Blue' is
larger cultivar with green leaves splotched purple and pale blue-white flowers.

Cilantro or culantro.
These are totally different plants with very different growth habits, but both
have the soapy taste of cilantro. If you are growing cilantro (Coriandrum
sativum) -- by the way, it is the
same herb as coriander; coriander is the seed, cilantro the foliage -- this
herb has a habit of bolting when under any stress, such as heat, drought, insect
pressure, etc., so maintain cool, bright light conditions. Cilantro is very
fast growing, so cut back on fertilizer when plants are 2-21/2 inches in
diameter to keep them from outgrowing their pots and to reduce stretch. As with
most seed-produced herbs, it is best to drop multiple seeds per cell so that
you get a fast, full pot that will be ready to sell as soon as possible.
Culantro (Eryngium f?tidum) is a much slower crop with fewer hassles, but
it is also not as well known and may be a bit tougher sell without some effort.
The foliage has a stronger flavor that is used in most Caribbean cooking.

Dill (Anethum graveolens), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
and parsley (Petroselinum crispum).
These
are all closely related genera with similar requirements in production; cool
temperatures and bright light are essential. All are quick crops from seed, or
they can be purchased as liners to make them a 2- to 3-week turnover crop.
Again, in 4-inch production, cut back on fertility when plants are 2-3 inches
in diameter so they don't overgrow their containers.

Lavender. There is a
proliferation of new lavender hybrids on the market. Lavender is a
Mediterranean crop, meaning it prefers low humidity, good air circulation and
lower water levels. In general, you want to avoid afternoon watering, as most
of the disease issues arise from water on the foliage for extended periods.
English and French lavenders are the connoisseur's choice Á for
fragrance. Spanish lavenders (Lavandula stoechas) have colored petals arising
from each spike like rabbit's ears and are good, tough garden or container
crops. For Southern growers, most lavenders will suffer in the summer; best
options for Southern growers include Fernleaf, French and sweet lavenders. Note:
Lavender does better with a slightly higher pH than most other herbs; 6.5-7.5
is best. Other forms to look for include Lavandula dentate, which is good for
northern and western climates, and the Madeira series (Lavandula stoechas).

Mint. There are many
flavors, growth habits and foliage colors. Mint (Mentha species) is usually a
very vigorous crop, so 4-inch production is difficult because the plants grow
in so quickly that they have a short sales window. This is a great crop to sell
as a 6- to 8-inch or 10-inch basket. Other forms to look for include Mentha x
gracilis, Mentha piperita 'Variegata' and pineapple mint, a variegated form
with a pineapple-like fragrance.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) and marjoram (Origanum
majorana).
Both of these crops are from
the same genus Origanum, and taxonomists debate if they are even different
species; their growth and production are very similar. Easily grown from seed
or purchased as liners, they are sold without flowers and can be turned over
very quickly. Gourmets will tell you that the best oreganos are those produced
vegetatively, as they retain superior fragrance and taste. Look for cultivars
with variegated and yellow foliage, which acts to boost sales and also makes
for a great component plant in mixed containers. Other forms to look for
include Origanum aureum 'Crinkle Leaf'; Origanum onites 'Aureum'; gold pot
marjoram; Origanum dictamnus or Greek oregano, ornamental not culinary;
Origanum rotundifolium 'Kent Beauty', also ornamental, totally different look
with nodding green bracted spikes of pink flowers, good in baskets.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). normal'> This group of herbs is less well known in many markets. In general, it
prefers very dry, well-drained conditions and low humidity, but the plants are
very tough and cold hardy. Thyme needs some air, so it is not the best choice
for mixed containers where crowding will lead to disease problems, but it is a
great plant for use between stepping-stones in the landscape. Other forms to
look for include Thymus x citriodorus 'Doone Valley', which has gold and green
foliage and pink flowers, and Thymus praecox or creeping red thyme, which has
deep pinkish red flowers and green foliage.

Chives and shallots.
Of these two onion relatives, only chives (Allium schoenoprasum) seems to have
a really strong market. Easily grown from seed or purchased as liners, this is
a very quick crop in the greenhouse. From liners, production takes 3-4 weeks
for a 4-inch crop. Mostly sold when still juvenile, the flowers of chives are a
real plus later in the season. Leaves and flowers are edible, and given bright
light, chives are tolerant of a variety of production conditions. Shallots
(Allium cepa) are less commonly grown, but the crop is sold as the mature leaf
base used in cooking. As a result, it is primarily grown in the field and sold
dry packaged. Shallots offer a small gourmet niche, but not necessarily as a
greenhouse crop. Other forms to look for include a yes"> new chives series called Buster.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus hybrids). normal'> Luckily, rosemary is an easy-to-grow crop. It prefers very bright
light, slightly drier soil conditions and good air circulation. Large, upright
garden forms are available that merit 1-gal. production, and creeping or
prostrate types are excellent in hanging baskets. In the West, rosemary makes
an excellent landscape plant; for those of us in the North and South, a good
annual. Southern growers will want to make sure plants are protected from
afternoon rains to avoid disease problems. Other forms to look for include
Rosmarinus officinalis 'Albus', a white flowered form; Rosmarinus officinalis
'roseus' a pink flowered form; Rosmarinus officinalis 'prostratus' or weeping
rosemary; and Rosmarinus officinalis 'Haifa', another prostrate form.

Sage. Oh for a sage
that would thrive in the Deep South. Luckily, the rest of the country has a lot
of wonderful alternatives. From the classic, seed-produced Salvia offinalis to
all the wonderful new vegetative forms, there is a lot to select from. Purple
foliage, variegated, large leaved, small leaved, etc. Check with your suppliers
and see what is available locally. In general, the more variegation on the
plant, the slower it will grow, and for this crop, bright light is essential.
Other forms to look for include Salvia officinalis 'Icterina', a yellow green
variegation.

Tarragon (French, Russian, and Mexican). style='font-weight:normal'> Here is the problem child of the herb group, True
French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa) is the undisputed tarragon
of choice. Best flavor but lots of production issues, and dormancy-related
problems mean you really need to get this plant in as a vegetative liner.
Bright light, cooler conditions and low fertilization produce best results.
Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus subsp. Dracunculoides) is not
considered to have the good qualities of French Tarragon but is more readily
available. If you have a high-end market, you'll want to stick with French
tarragon or commit the horrible social gaffe of supplying the inferior variety.
Lastly, for those of us in the Deep South who cannot keep either of the above
two growing all season, try Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida), which is a tough
marigold relative with a similar flavor and a lot better performance under heat
and humidity. You won't fool Emeril, but you'll have a good substitute for
yankee tarragon.

Conclusion

Any way you slice it, you will definitely be attracting a
new audience by offering herbs as well as ornamentals. If you are going to
invest in an herb program, do it right. Make selections that will do well in your
region of the country, provide the right conditions for optimal growth and, for
the sake of all of us, use the correctly labeled pesticides on these crops.
Once the product leaves your nursery, even something sold as an ornamental is
likely going to be used as an edible crop or at the least handled by customers
who assume that the crop is pesticide free. If you are a retailer, stress the
importance to customers of washing any herbs well before using them. We can all
appreciate a well-grown plant, but a huge part of the gardening experience is
smell and taste as well, so realize this and plan accordingly.

About The Author

Rick Schoellhorn is extension specialist at the University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. He can be reached by phone at (352) 392-1831 or E-mail at rksch@mail.ifas.ufl.edu.

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