Starting a Herb Plot
Rather than choosing only one herb that is currently popular, growers should consider growing more than one crop (four to six), particularly if it is a perennial herb that will not be harvested for several years.
A field should be chosen with a soil that is suitable for the crops to be grown. Some things to consider are:
Direct-sowing: A number of companies offer young herb plants called plugs which have been grown in greenhouses. Growers should carefully consider costs of using plugs, keeping in mind that market prices may drop between planting and harvesting. In addition, not all plugs will grow to a saleable size, particularly if the crop is susceptible to diseases such as aster yellows. If a greenhouse is available, growers may choose to start their own plugs. Care should be taken to ensure that the plugs are not excessively root bound before transplanting, especially for root crops. Transplanted herbs may require some irrigation to get them established, particularly if the weather is hot.
- Root crops are best grown on light to medium textured soils to facilitate digging;
- Leaf crops may be more adapted to heavy soils;
- Access to irrigation may be desirable for some herbs, although some growers may use only portable tanks and passive drip systems. Crops like echinacea or Chinese milk vetch may need little or no watering; and
- The land chosen should be as weed-free as possible.
- Some herbs are slow growing and very poor weed competitors Plastic mulches can be utilized to help control weeds, but organic growers should check with their certifying agency before purchasing plastic, as not all may be approved. The plastic may need to be removed in the fall of the first year in order to prevent excess moisture build-up.
- Some herb crops are very susceptible to diseases that attack field crops such as canola.
- For this reason, growers may wish to avoid planting herbs in fields that were recently planted to canola or even adjacent to a current canola crop. The field and any irrigation water should also be free of herbicide and pesticide residues.
- Where practical, direct-sowing of seed may be more economical, particularly if irrigation is used.
Transplanting can be done by hand or by mechanical transplanters, such as the water-wheel transplanter which places and waters the plants in one operation.
Weed and insect control
Weed control is generally done by hand or with small cultivators, as there are few herbicides registered for herb production. Roguing is commonly practiced to remove diseased plants as they occur. For insect control, some organic growers use repellent sprays such as cayenne, but growers should always check with certification authorities to determine what, if anything, is permissible.
Harvesting times vary according to the crop. It may occur before or during blooming season. When aerial parts are harvested, the grower must know at which stage to harvest. Some crops will re-grow and produce a second harvest in the fall. Root crops are usually harvested in the fall after the first frost. Specialized equipment may be desirable to dig the crop, but it can be costly. Equipment may be available for rent from other growers.
Post-Harvest Handling of Herbs
Depending on the market, herbs are handled in various ways.
Fresh-cut culinary herbs (and potted plants) are:
- Often sold at farmers’ markets, directly to restaurants and stores or to wholesalers;
- Packaged according to the needs of the buyer, but may vary from five to 30 g poly bags, to one to three kg packages;
- Packaged close to their markets when produced as Fresh herb in order to consistently supply good quality product;
- sometimes refrigerated on a short-term basis; and
- Must also be clean and free of insects.
Dried herbs are:
- Not required to be marketed as quickly (feverfew is a notable exception) but are generally meant to be sold within three to 12 months, as quality of some may deteriorate after that time; and
- May need separate drying and storage facilities, such as some particularly aromatic herbs (e.g. feverfew), to prevent the odour being absorbed by other herbs.
Washing: Washing is necessary to remove soil particles from root crops. If the roots are large, chopping or slicing may be desirable to allow for quicker drying, although it may be detrimental to the quality of some root crops. The drying and storage areas should be inaccessible to rodents, birds and pets.
Drying: Growers need to determine the accepted methods of drying for each herb they grow. While some herbs may be dried outdoors in the field, greater quality control can be achieved by drying herbs indoors. In some instances, fans may be all that are required, while in other cases where rapid drying is desirable, dehumidifiers or artificial heat may also be used. The need for heat depends on the crop itself, relative humidity and temperature of the drying area. Exposure to sunlight while drying may be detrimental to the quality for some herbs. Special dryers are used by some growers, but grain bins and shaded greenhouses have been utilized. Where passive drying methods are used, the herb material is spread out on screened shelves to maximize exposure to air. It is important that the material dries quickly enough so that moulding or heating does not occur.
Shipping, storage or further processing: Following drying to a moisture level of 10-12 per cent, the herbs are ready for shipping, storage or further processing. The latter may involve chipping of roots, cutting and sifting or grinding of the herb, depending on the ultimate market and the needs of the buyer. There are markets for bulk sales of unprocessed, dried and baled herb products, but small-scale growers may not find these markets accessible or profitable.
Growers who wish to make their own value-added products might consider making skin-care products, teas, herb and spice mixtures, potpourris, ornamental products such as wreaths and swags, pictures, floral arrangements, as well as tinctures. Another market is the sale of herb seeds.