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Winter and Spring, 2015

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Culinary herbs: tough and hardy

If gardening in Colorado is a new and unsettling experience for you, consider the lowly culinary herbs. It’s hard to go wrong. Many love the dry Colorado climate and, although some, like sweet basil and rosemary, are not winter hardy, even those will flourish as annuals.

Herbs grow abundantly in Colorado’s dry summers and prefer our lean, rocky soil. That’s because most originated in the Mediterranean, and the Front Range supplies nearly all their needs with one important difference: our winters are cold and windy. Mulch will help ease the rigors of winter and your herbs will thrive.

“We have less fungus problems—mints, oregano, rosemary—those are susceptible to mildew elsewhere,” says Karin Winans, founder of the Rocky Mountain unit of the National Herb Society. “We don’t have problems here like the South has, where herbs die out from wetness. In fact, stressing herbs slightly by not watering too much will concentrate their oils.” (See Karin's complete interview).


Although sweet basil (Ocimum basililcum) is associated with Italian pesto, the plant originated in the Pacific islands, not in the Mediterranean. It’s sensitive to frost and requires five hours of full sun with a moist soil that drains readily. Soil should be amended with compost and new growth pinched to encourage a bushier plant. Your best bet is to plant it in a large container or among vegetables. Similarly, parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is in the carrot and parsnip family. By nature, it's a biennial, but it flourishes best as an annual in the vegetable garden.

Other herbs belong by themselves in an herb and perennial bed where they will not be heavily watered. In the Mediterranean, rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a shrubby evergreen, but not usually in Colorado. It may survive extremely mild winters, but the general rule is to dig up rosemary and winter it indoors in pots. Germination is low for seeds, so buying a plant is recommended. Rosemary needs five hours of sun and slightly damp soil. Allow the soil to dry out before watering.

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a perennial in Colorado. It needs five hours of direct sun in well drained soil. Seeds are slow to germinate, so buying the plant is advised. Every four or five years, in the spring, divide the woody clumps to rejuvenate the plant.

Thyme is particularly hardy in Colorado and comes in many varieties. The common garden culinary herb is Thymus vulgaris. Again, germination of seeds is slow, so buy the plant. Cut back the plant by half in the spring to encourage new growth. Mulch plants during the winter. All thymes require excellent drainage. Water soil until moist, allow to dry before the next watering.

Mints (Menta spicata for spearmint, Menta piperita officinalis for peppermint) are hearty herbs that may become invasive. They grow best in five hours of sunlight or partial shade. Renew the plants every three years by dividing. Soil can be moist but not soggy. Spearmint is the most strongly flavored and there are many flavors such as pineapple and chocolate. Some gardeners submerge the entire terracotta pot in the ground to prevent the roots from spreading.

French tarragon will grow taller each year until it's reached over three feet. Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa grows under the same conditions as other Mediterranean herbs. And it's recommended to buy a plant rather than seed.

Lavender (Lavendula angustafolia) should be mulched during the Colorado winter and some varieties are not winter hardy here. They grow well in direct sunlight, in dry, sandy, well-drained soil. Planting lavender is heavy clay is a disaster. Clay holds too much water around the roots and lavender is sensitive to rotting. Avoid excessive fertilizer. See growing lavender in Colorado for more details.

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