Tips for Perennial Herbs in Butte

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

Chives. Photo: NCAT
Spearmint. Photo: NCAT

Perennial herbs are a nice option for a low-maintenance garden. With minimal maintenance, you can develop resilient plants that will be able to take on the coldest winters and the toughest droughts. We have four simple raised beds in front of our greenhouse that are designated for perennial herbs. Over the years we have grown a variety of herbs and some have passed the test of time with minimal weeding and watering. In fact, some may consider some of these to be weeds, depending on whether or not it has exceeded its boundaries. It is great to have fresh herbs on hand and, even when dried, they will provide much more flavor than store-bought spices.

Here are some tips to keep these herbs producing year to year with ease.

Chives. Just like other alliums, a little chive seed can go a long way. Their vibrant purple flowers are great for attracting pollinators. Each flower generates a lot of pollen and a lot of seed. After one year, chives can begin to get out of control. Though the unopened flower bud can be eaten, once the chives begin to flower, the scape will begin to go woody. If the chives have reached the capacity of your garden, then it is best to pick off all the flowers as they come in. This will keep it from reseeding itself and keep the scapes tender. The difference between scallions and chives is that scallions have a stronger onion flavor and are precisely the green part of a bunching onion. Chives are a different species all together and have a milder onion flavor with a hint of garlic. Though these two can be substituted in a dish, chives are typically used more as a garnish. They are great with potatoes, eggs, fish, or mixed in a salad.

Oregano. Photo: NCAT
Sorrel. Photo: NCAT

Spearmint. Mint thrives in cool and wet conditions and prefers light shade; however, it will bounce back from droughts. Its root structure is rhizomatous making it difficult to control its boundaries. Often it is grown in a container or a sectioned-off raised bed to prevent its roots from spreading. This is one reason it is easy to propagate. You can easily take a rhizome from an existing plant and transfer it. It is necessary to cut back the mint at the start of the year to take out the woody stems. The flowers can even be used for garnishes, but they do not tend to dry out well if you are drying the leaves. The leaves can be steeped for teas, chopped and made into chutney, or muddled into a cocktail.

Oregano. Related to marjoram, oregano is in the mint family. It is used widely throughout the Mediterranean and enjoys full sun and somewhat dry soils. It is commonly used as a pizza spice and goes well with roasted vegetables, meats, and fish. It has an immense amount of flavor concentrated in its leaves. Make clean cuts at the base of the plant to keep it growing uniformly and not turn woody. Often there is confusion between oregano and Mexican oregano. Mexican oregano is not in the mint family at all and is actually closer related to lemon verbena. Though both have a complex savory flavor, traditional oregano has a piney, rosemary flavor.

Sage. Photo: NCAT
4-H kids get a close look at Camille's worms.
Thyme. Photo: NCAT

Sorrel. One of the most prolific herbs in our plot, sorrel is the first to come up each spring. It is best harvested in spring before it begins flowering. If it does go to seed, you can save it to reseed more. Its dark green leaves almost resemble spinach. It has an astonishing lemon or even granny smith apple flavor. It is commonly used in a cream sauce that pairs well with any white fish. Another idea is to make a pesto with it.

Sage. Just look around the landscapes surrounding Butte and you will see sage for miles. There are many types of sage, and many varieties can be used for culinary purposes. The aroma is quite pungent when raw but if used sparingly and cooked, it can pair well with all kinds of things. It is great baked into breads, roasted on top of squash, or sprinkled into some homemade dressing. I like to save the sage for the fall and incorporate it into Thanksgiving dinner.

Thyme. The germination process for thyme is slow but once established, it is very hearty. Just a few little plugs can grow into a matted bush over time. It is important to cut the thyme back each year and let it breathe so it doesn’t get mildew. It is one of the easiest herbs to dry and even the flowers can be used as a garnish. Just a few sprigs will infuse an amazing amount of fragrance to anything it is cooked with.

Perennial herbs are a good choice for areas in your garden that may not warrant extra maintenance. The herbs grown on the SIFT farm have all been tested under extreme weather conditions, including harsh winters and drought. Despite these conditions, these plants are able to recover and are now flourishing with the extra moisture we have had this spring.

Posted on: June 6th, 2018