Real experts who have grown real gardens in the real world on the Front Range tell you what you need to know to have you rooting for your very own crop of successes this summer season
By Quincy Snowown, Staff Writer
The devil’s lettuce may hog more than its share of the green spotlight in Colorado, but it certainly isn’t the only leafy herb that should be on residents’ minds as they fill window boxes and front yard soil beds this spring.
Myriad herbs grow well and in abundance in the Centennial State and can provide a facile introduction to the world of growing your own food and medicines — even for those with the brownest of thumbs.
Colette Haskell, an Aurora-based horticulturist, has been the self-proclaimed “herb guru” at Nick’s Garden Center & Farm Market on South Chambers Road for more than a decade, providing both novice and expert herb growers with an ever-expanding arsenal of gardening tips and tricks.
In general, Haskell recommends sticking perennial herbs like lavender and mint in the ground and keeping annuals — greens that won’t come back after that first freeze of the fall— in mobile pots or containers. The annuals — plants like basil, cilantro and rosemary — are a bit more fragile and may require some tinkering to get the right sunlight or to avoid a late-season cold spell. She said those plants shouldn’t be potted before the temperature is all but assured to stay above 45 degrees, even at night.
“With annuals, I would watch out if a snow storm’s coming,” Haskell says. “Pull it into the garage or the house for a few days and put it back out once it gets nice again.”
When planting her own herbs in her Aurora yard, Haskell, a graduate of Rangeview High School, says she always uses a spot of compost for perennials in a garden bed — to combat the state’s finicky, often clay-based soil — and organic potting mix for the annuals. She’s a particular fan of Dr. Earth’s Pot of Gold or Black Gold Organic Potting Soil.
Unless a customer has a particularly sun-drenched home, Haskell tries to steer Coloradans away from growing herbs indoors as the plants can be temperamental without ample sunlight.
“It’s hard to provide that light inside unless you have a bay window or a really sunny southwest-facing window,” she says.
Bugs and fungus are inevitable challenges all gardeners will face at some point, according to Haskell, but she warns that any battles waged against those plights should always involve organic agents, like rosemary ,coriander or thyme oils. Essentially, you don’t want to dump chemicals onto something you will likely be ingesting some time down the road.
These days, Haskell says that the majority of her customers at Nick’s are looking for herbs to use in cooking, particularly in Italian or Thai dishes.
“Some people will put together a Thai pot, that’s really popular,” she says. “Pho is really popular lately for people who want to make their own soups with Moroccan mint, Thai basil, lemongrass and the parsley or cilantro that’s thrown in. Some people will make a pot just for those recipes they want.”
She adds that using herbs to brew homemade teas has risen in popularity in recent years, too.
When cultivated and brewed with care, betony, catnip, coriander, fennel, lemon balm and verbena and, of course, chamomile, all make for satisfying cups of tea, according to a blog post by Evelyn Gaspar of The National Gardening Association.
Herbs can also be used for homemade medicines and ointments, although creating those concoctions often requires more knowledge than the average weekend warrior coated in dirt possesses, Haskell warns.
“You have to know what you’re doing,” she says of turning herbs into cure-alls. “You have to mash it with a mortar and pestle … add some oil — it’s not as simple as making a tea.”
No matter the eventual use, Haskell says Italian basil is consistently her best seller — and the most maltreated.
“The most common plant purchased is Italian basil and it’s the most commonly destroyed,” she says. “People don’t realize it is easily over-watered and it’s not a cold-season herb. People over-water it more often that not, but it likes to dry out — so let it.”
In general, Haskell recommends sticking perennial herbs like lavender and mint in the ground and keeping annuals — greens that won’t come back after that first freeze of the fall— in mobile pots or containers