Marjoram Plant Care: Tips For Growing Marjoram Herbs

Marjoram Plant Care: Tips For Growing Marjoram Herbs

By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden

Growing marjoram is a great way to add both flavor and fragrance in the kitchen or garden. Marjoram plants are also great for attracting butterflies and other beneficial insects to the garden, making them ideal for use as companion plantings. Let’s look at how to grow marjoram.

What is Marjoram?

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is an easy to grow herb well suited for growing in containers as well as the garden. There are generally three varieties that are commonly grown: sweet marjoram, pot marjoram, and wild marjoram (also known as common oregano). All types of marjoram are popular for use in the kitchen as seasoning for numerous dishes. They’re also grown for their enticing fragrance.

How to Grow Marjoram Herbs

Although marjoram plants are tender perennials, they are typically treated as annuals as freezing temperatures will cause serious injury or death to the plants.

When growing marjoram plants, it’s generally best to start the seeds indoors during late winter or early spring. Push seeds just below the soil surface. Seedlings can be transplanted outdoors once all threat of frost has passed.

Marjoram should be located in areas receiving full sun with light, well-drained soil. Likewise, marjoram plants can be grown in containers indoors and treated as houseplants.

Marjoram Plant Care

Established plants require little care, other than occasional watering. Since marjoram is tolerant of drought, it makes an exceptional plant for beginner herb growers. If you forget to water it, that’s okay.

There’s no need for fertilizer either when growing marjoram herbs. It’s hardy enough to basically care for itself.

During mild weather, marjoram plants grown indoors can be taken outside and placed in a sunny area. However, container-grown plants should always be moved indoors or to another sheltered location once cold temperatures or frost is imminent.

Harvesting and Drying Marjoram Plants

In addition to growing marjoram herbs for aesthetic purposes, many people harvest the plant for use in the kitchen. When harvesting marjoram, pick the shoots just before flowers begin to open. This results in the best flavor, as fully opened blooms produce a bitter taste. Bundle marjoram cuttings and hang them upside down in a dark, dry, well-ventilated area.

When you know how to grow marjoram, you can add it to your herb garden.

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Tips to Grow Your Own Herb Garden


With a little planning, herbs can add flavor and flourish to your garden all season long.

Want spice? Herbs are what savory is all about. They add zing to your meals, as well as aroma to your outdoors. Without herbs, you might as well skip the squash—it will be a singularly boring side dish. Forgo the lavender in your linens, and your nose will never forgive you. The good news is that herbs are refreshingly easy to host in your garden. Plant an herb early in the season, and the rest of the year is going to smell and taste delicious.

These botanical workhorses go way beyond pleasing your senses. Herbs are attractive, as well. Although the plain vanilla version of many herbs is certainly handsome, you can up the ante with improved cultivars.

The time-honored cooking sage Salvia officinalis is all well and good, with its slender blue-gray leaves, but you could grow Salvia officinalis “Berggarten” and get larger, thicker, hardier foliage that is even more pungent than the prototype—plus it remains green until the plant disappears under snow. Like thyme? Thymus vulgaris, or English thyme, is deliciously pungent. But go for the golden lemon version (Thymus citriodorus “Aureus”) or silver-hemmed “Silver Posie” for more color and flavor. Rosemary can be upright or creeping. Oregano comes in variegated, white-leaved types in addition to the plain green. There’s a tender marjoram with plentiful, colorful topknots of white flowers that beats all its winter-hardy kin on the yummy scale. And if you haven’t encountered curly parsley, where have you been? The ferny-leaved version long ago usurped straight-stemmed parsley’s thunder.

But be sure to check before eating herbs. Not all herbs are used for culinary purposes, and some common names can be deceptive. For example, curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) is not used in curry and is not normally employed as a culinary herb.

Not only are herbs handsome, tasty, and aromatic, they are also incredibly adaptable in gardens. Most herbs are sun worshippers, preferring as much bright light as possible. Mints are the exception to this rule, as they tolerate partial shade (and can do just fine in soggy conditions, by the way). Well-drained soil also tops the list of druthers for most herbs, and most can grow without complaint on a rocky ledge.

No need to throw on the plant food when growing herbs their essential oils are more pungent when the plants are grown in lean conditions. In fact, herbs will gladly grow where more finicky perennials fail. They are ideal for problem areas. Even the hell strip is fine with most herbs (although you might think twice about eating herbs grown where cars and trucks are constantly rumbling close by). Herbs tend to like a sweet soil rather than acidic conditions. Annually amending the planting bed with lime will get the soil up to speed.

Many herbs are stoically hardy. English thyme, oregano, cooking sage, lovage, winter savory, English lavender, chamomile, tarragon, peppermint, spearmint, and lemon balm are all winter hardy in our region. However, sweet basil, rosemary, knotted marjoram, sweet bay, parsley, summer savory, and stevia are too tender to reliably survive the winter here. Basil is particularly cold sensitive. Don’t bother to plant it until nighttime temperatures are consistently above 40°F, and you can expect to lose it in the first frost of fall.

Devote an entire garden to herbs, and it will look ravishing. Harness your creativity. No need to limit the design to the traditional four-square English herb garden. Herbs create a compelling picture en masse, but herbs can also serve as handsome bedfellows with other plants. Liberate herbs from cohabitating solely with their aromatic kin and sprinkle them into perennial borders and vegetable gardens. Their simple beauty has a calming effect their heady aromas add nose appeal and the local pollinators will thank you.

Herbs Contained

The pot is simmering on the stove, but your pasta would taste so much better with a sprinkling of freshly plucked oregano or tarragon still warm from the sun. Unfortunately, the last thing you have time (or energy) for is a sprint down to the garden for a few savory sprigs. The solution is to grow herbs in containers just a few steps from your kitchen door. Put a container of herbs on the picnic table, and the family will think you just completed a chef’s course. Here are a few pointers for growing herbs in containers.

Many herbs fare well in pots. Thyme, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, and winter savory are just a few likely candidates for container growing.

Select a container with sufficient depth and width to accommodate your herb. Although many herbs endure tight quarters, they will dry out frequently, and the stress might court opportunistic diseases and insects.

After purchasing an herb, repot it into a container that is 1-2 inches wider and deeper than the original pot. Terra cotta works beautifully.

Select an organic potting soil mixture, especially if you plan to eat the herb.

Don’t try to cram many herbs into a combination pot. Herb roots tend to be dense, and they’ll be competing for space in no time.

Water regularly. Most herbs can endure occasional drought, but you don’t want to push their good nature.

Harvest often. Most herbs love frequent cuttings, and they’ll branch luxuriantly as a result. More leaves and fewer flowers is when herbs do best.

Bring your contained herbs indoors when fall threatens frosts. Those tasty plants will make all the difference for winter feasts.

How to Grow Marjoram (Origanum majorana)

Marjoram is an easy-to-grow, flavorful, and aromatic herb. Finding room for a marjoram plant or two in your kitchen garden comes with a few perks. Not only will it be a welcome addition to your future culinary endeavors, marjoram plants also attract butterflies, and other beneficial insects, is an excellent companion plant, and marjoram plants also have a strong but pleasant aroma which you can enjoy throughout the season.

Hailing from the mediterranean, marjoram is a tender perennial, hardy to USDA zones nine and ten, and is commonly grown as an annual in regions with cooler weather. Growing from eight inches to two feet high in a compact clump of upright stems which are red when young, but turn slightly woody as they mature. From mid to late summer, marjoram forms small, delicate, lavender, white, or pink flower clusters. The plant’s leaves are small, hairy, and sweet-smelling, and are light-green on the top side and greenish-gray on the underside. The scoop-shaped foliage forms along multi-branched stems.

Once established, marjoram plants practically care for themselves. They are drought tolerant, so they will be very forgiving if you forget to water, and since the herb doesn’t need fertilization, watering is really the only care that must be provided. During mild weather, your marjoram plants will thrive in a nice sunny location. Growing your marjoram in containers is smart because it allows you the ability to move your plants around with ease. Marjoram is highly sensitive to cold weather, and should be moved indoors when the weather gets chilly, especially if a frost is on the way.

Marjoram is a common ingredient in many Greek and Italian recipes. The aromatic herb is often found in lamb and pasta dishes, and is often used as a substitute for oregano. When substituting marjoram for oregano, use one-third more marjoram than the recipe calls for oregano. When using oregano to substitute for marjoram, use one-third less oregano than the recipe calls for marjoram.

Marjoram’s healing power can be attributed to its high antioxidant content. The leaves of marjoram can be brewed to make a soothing tea that can be used to fight upset stomach issues. The versatile herb also has anti-microbial properties, and is commonly used to make antimicrobial skin cleansers.

Varieties of Marjoram

Three main varieties of marjoram are commonly cultivated in herb gardens. These three are sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana), pot marjoram (Origanum onites), which has a more pronounced flavor than sweet marjoram, and wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare), which is commonly called oregano. There are several named varieties of oregano as well, including Italian oregano, and Sicilian oregano. All varieties of marjoram are cultivated for their culinary use, as well as for their enjoyable fragrance.

Growing Conditions for Marjoram

Marjoram will die if it is exposed to cold temperatures or freezes. Because of this, it is commonly grown as an annual in cool weather climates. Though they will tolerate a little bit of shade, marjoram needs a location with full-sunlight exposure and a light, well-draining soil medium. Before planting, till the soil so that it is light, loose and well-draining. Marjoram will tolerate just about any type of soil as long as it is well-draining. Though it will adapt to whatever soil it is put in, marjoram prefers a soil medium with a pH between 6.7 and 7.0.

When growing marjoram in the garden, we suggest starting your plants inside during the last few weeks of winter or the first few weeks of spring to get an early start on the growing season. Marjoram seeds should be buried just beneath the surface of the soil. Transplant your healthiest seedlings into the garden only after the threat of frost has come and gone. Alternatively, marjoram can also be grown in containers indoors, or in a greenhouse. Marjoram grows well indoors where it is protected from cold fronts and freezes and can be treated like a typical houseplant.

How to Plant Marjoram

Get a head start on the season by starting marjoram indoors four weeks before the average last frost date in spring and transplant out after last frost. Marjoram seeds are rather slow to germinate, so to insure the best possible outcome, the ideal temperature for germination is 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bring your transplants outdoors on the last day of frost in the spring. You can also get new marjoram plants by root division, which should be performed during the fall, overwintered indoors, and moved outdoors on the last frost day, just like the seedlings. If you don’t get a head start on the season, you can still direct sow your marjoram seeds just under the surface of the soil, no more than one-fourth of an inch deep, also on the last frost date in the spring.

Spread plants out six inches to one foot apart in rows spaced one and a half to two feet apart. Because marjoram’s fragrance attracts butterflies and other beneficial insects, the herb is a great companion plant for a wide variety of species. Marjoram pairs very well in garden beds with all vegetables and herbs, and will do well planted sporadically throughout the garden. Marjoram grows very well when planted next to sage, rosemary, garlic chives, and chamomile and supposedly improves the health, aroma, and flavor of other herbs grown in its vicinity.

Care for Marjoram

There’s not much that goes into caring for marjoram, as it requires very little care or attention. Other than occasionally providing water during dry spells, there’s nothing to do. Marjoram is drought tolerant as well, so even forgetting to water your marjoram every now and then is forgivable.

Marjoram will grow very well even in poor quality soils, so it doesn’t need to be fertilized, and aside from occasional watering, the only care marjoram plants need is a little trimming from time to time. Trimming the leaves back throughout the growing season and cutting the plants to the ground after flowering will keep your marjoram plants focused on creating new growth.

In zones nine and above, marjoram can be grown like a perennial and left in the ground, but in zones eight and below, marjoram plants should be potted up and brought indoors to set up residence on a sunny windowsill during the cold season.

How to Propagate Marjoram

Marjoram can be propagated well from seed and through root division. To propagate marjoram from seed, sow them indoors six weeks prior to the average last frost in your area. Alternatively, marjoram can be directly sown in the garden during the fall, or planted in the winter using a cold frame or a greenhouse.

Marjoram can be propagated quite easily through rootball division from either softwood or semi-hardwood cuttings. Cuttings should be taken in autumn, overwintered in pots indoors, and moved into the garden on the average last frost in your zone.

Garden Pests and Diseases of Marjoram

Marjoram is one of the few lucky plants that suffer from no serious pest or disease issues. Occasionally, you might find aphids or spider mites hanging out on your marjoram plant, but they can be easily deterred with a quick blast of water from the garden hose. Wet or soggy soil conditions with poor drainage can lead to damping off and root rot.

How to Harvest Marjoram

About 60 days after planting, Marjoram leaves are ready for harvesting. Fresh leaves should be trimmed with a garden pruner or a sharp, clean pair of scissors whenever needed after the plants become four to six inches tall. Once the leaves reach full size, cut them back for a cut-and-come-again harvest. The occasional trimmings will reinvigorate the plant and keep it focusing on new growth.

The more your marjoram plants are exposed to heat, the more flavor the leaves will contain. However, heat exposure will eventually lead to flowering. For the best flavor, harvest marjoram leaves before the plant flowers. Remove flower buds when you first notice them forming in order to prolong harvest time.

How to Store Marjoram

Fresh marjoram can be kept in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for around three to four days. Dried marjoram surprisingly retains quite a bit of its aroma and flavor. To preserve your marjoram, dry the leaves by spreading them out on a baking sheet and covering them with a paper towel and then putting it into the fridge to dry.

Marjoram leaves can also be dried out by placing them into an uncovered bowl and stirring them daily. This process can take anywhere from two to seven days. Leaves can also be dried by storing them in a mesh bag placed in a dark, warm, dry location. Once leaves are fully dried, place them in an airtight container.

Marjoram is an excellent herb to plant in random places all around your vegetable and herb garden beds, as it is a great companion plant, benefiting its neighbors in multiple ways. Aside from its usefulness in the kitchen, it’s an easy-to-grow herb that provides a sweet-smelling aroma throughout the growing season, and that aroma, as well as it’s tiny flower clusters, attract beneficial insects like butterflies to your garden.

There are lots of reasons why marjoram deserves a place in your veggie and herb garden. There are no reasons to leave it out of the rotation. Now that you know the ins and outs of how to grow marjoram, it’s time to receive those perks.

Essential herbs

Fresh herbs are easy to grow and can be an attractive addition to your garden, either in pots or beds and borders.

Spring sees a great influx of pot grown herbs on sale in garden centres, DIY stores and a variety of other retail outlets. They also occupy a fair amount of space on seed racks and mail order sites.With increased interest in more adventurous cookery herbs are appealing to grow.

Even if many are readily available in the supermarket veg. section, herbs freshly picked from your garden have to be tastier and cleaner than those out of packets. However, before you rush out and fill your trolley with a great variety of culinary herbs there are a few consideration that will ensure success and greater enjoyment.

What to grow?

In the first place choose herbs you are likely to use and ones that you find attractive. There are a handful that you are bound to use if they are easily accessible, so, if starting out, they are the ones to choose.

Many herbs are easily raised from seed, however, how many plants do you actually want? A single sage plant would produce enough leaves to satisfy even the most avid sage consumer. Likewise a pot of chives is plenty for most people, rather than a whole row on the vegetable patch.

Buying herb plants

Herb plants are sold in a variety of sizes. The smallest in 9cm (3ins) diameter pots are cheap to buy and a good bet if the plants are really fresh. 1 litre (10cm or 4ins diameter) pots have a longer shelf life and are generally the best size to go for. Larger herbs may seem appealing, but most of these plants grow quickly and the smaller ones soon catch up.

Rosemary is worth buying as a larger plant, also a named variety if available.There are many named cultivars which grow to different sizes and with very different habits. Rosmarinus ‘Tuscan Blue is a good bet also ‘Roman Beauty’. Both are bushy plants which flower well and are not too tall.

Where to grow herbs

If you are growing herbs to use in the kitchen they have to be close at hand when you are going to use them. Grow them on the vegetable patch at the far end of the garden and you just will not bother they are ideal in pots near the house, or as part of the planting around the patio.

Herb plants ready for potting

Different herbs require different growing conditions and also have very different growth habits. The woody herbs: sage, rosemary and thyme are Mediterranean natives. They like sunshine, good drainage and tolerate poor soil. This suppresses the amount of growth, but intensifies the oils which give them the flavour.

Parsley and chives on the other hand like fertile soil and hate drought. You need to encourage lush leaf growth for best results.

Mint can be the most difficult to position. Ideally it likes good soil, but is quite happy in a neglected corner of the garden where it can run amok. If you want to keep it under control grow it in a pot on its own, it will soon smother other subjects.

Growing herbs in pots

Most herbs make good subjects for pots if you give them a good growing medium and remember to water them regularly, even the drought tolerant ones! The secret is to choose a large enough container which provides good soil depth. The containers sold as herb pots, usually made from terracotta with holes in the sides are useless. The plants look awkward in them, they are impossible to water and nearly always dry out causing failure of the plants.

A mixed herb planter makes an attractive feature for a season, but usually the plants need to be separated when they get larger.

Rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano work well together. The oregano (or marjoram) needs cutting back regularly to maintain it as a neat cushion.

How long do herbs last?

Some herbs are long-live plants that last for years, others only for a season or two. The woody herbs: sage, rosemary and thyme are dwarf shrubs that live for years. However they eventually get woody and need replacing. Regular harvest and light pruning after winter encourages new growth which helps to keep plants in good condition.It also produces young shoots which are nicer to use.

Sage can look very sad after harsh winter weather and thyme may lost its leaves, however, be patient. It usually recovers and soon produces new growth that is the time to tidy the plants by removing dead shoots and giving a light trim.

Parsley is a biennial. So in the second season it produces flowers and seeds and the plant declines.If you use a lot, grow it from fresh seed. If just a little, buy a couple of plants.Flat-leaved or French parsley tastes better, curly parsley is more attractive as a garnish. Parsley seed must be fresh to germinate. It is also important to maintain moisture during germination.

Curled and Flat Leaved Parsley

Sweet Basil is one of the most popular and useful herbs, however it is not hardy and needs warm conditions to thrive. Most of us will have more success on the kitchen windowsill or in a conservatory, only moving the plants outside in mid-summer.

Can I grow supermarket herbs in the garden?

Pots of growing herbs are sold in most supermarkets. The growth is soft and the plants are crowded. They are grown in this way to give a quick crop of leaves for use in the kitchen, not for the success of the plants. You may well have success keeping pots of parsley, chives and some others going in the garden, particularly if you carefully separate the plants to thin them and replant in fresh compost.

However this is a bonus and not the best way to start new plants. It is always best to buy healthy fresh plants from a garden centre or nursery.

If you want to learn how to grow a variety of herbs, and find out new ways to incorporate new flavours into your diet, book a place on Dr. Rachel Petheram's online course The Herb Garden.

Andy McIndoe

. Read more Andy McIndoe is our Chief Blogger, and teaches five courses on the site. Andy has over thirty years experience as a practical horticulturist and consultant. He has designed and advised on gardens of all sizes and was responsible for the Hillier Gold Medal winning exhibit at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower for 25 years. A regular contributor to magazines, newspapers and BBC Radio, Andy lectures widely at home and abroad. Special interests include hardy shrubs, trees, herbaceous perennials, flower bulbs, wildlife and garden design he has authored books on all of these subjects. A keen gardener Andy and his wife Ros have a two acre garden in Hampshire, U.K. that is open to groups by appointment. Started from scratch fifteen years ago, the garden is naturalistic in style, with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting. The emphasis is on foliage to provide colour and texture. W W . Read more

How to Grow an Herb Garden

­Herbs are probably the most popular and intriguing group of plants in existence. Undoubtedly, the explanation for this is that over the centuries herbs have been used in so many dif­ferent ways. They flavor our foods, perfume our homes and bodies, decorate our gardens, and cure our ills. One way or another, herbs touch each of our lives.

In this article, we'll show you how to grow an herb garden.

Count your blessings if you're lucky enough to have a garden with rich fertile soil, which is deep and easy to work. Good garden soil is not easy to find, and most beginning gardeners soon realize they must improve on one or more conditions of the soil. Herbs can survive in a wide variety of soil types, but by making some simple preparatory changes, your garden soil can become as easy to use and productive as you'd like. Good soil must be guarded by proper management. In this section, we'll teach you the basics.

Now that you know what you need, you're ready to enroll in the soil-improvement program. In this section, you'll learn how to test your soil for texture and fertility. Then, you'll see how to improve soil deficiencies. There's no need to worry if you're not satisfied with the results of your testing. Improving your garden soil is easily accomplished and is a regular part of gardening. Remember, all of the soil-improving process doesn't have to happen in the first year of gardening. Take time working with your soil, and you'll reap the benefits of many years of fruitful production. We'll show you how to improve your soil, fertilize, and recycle soil to give your herbs the best chance at growth.

Sooner or later, most of us decide to try our hand at growing a few favorite herbs. If we haven't prepared our soil, it usually starts with a pot of parsley on the kitchen windowsill or a short row of dill in the vegetable patch. Once started, most gardeners find themselves increasing the number of herbs they cultivate simply because so many of them flourish with little care. In this section, we'll discuss the best methods to start an herb garden.

Like any other garden, you have many different options for layout and design when planting your herb garden. Do you prefer a container garden close to the kitchen for the aromatic herbs that you love to use in your gourmet recipes? Do you like rows and rows of lacy anise to sway in the breeze on a windy day? Does a wistful sigh escape your lips every time you pass an intricate knot garden? Would you rather plant a mixed garden full of herbs, vegetables, and even edible flowers? In this section, we'll explore the different herb garden options and help you lay out a garden plan to get you ready for planting.

Whether you like to cook or like to eat, nothing tastes as good as something you've made yourself. Your herb garden will be a source of fragrant, delicious seasonings for your favorite meals. Let's get started by preparing the soil for herb garden planting.

Preparing Soil for Herb Garden Planting

Good soil is the key to an easy-to-maintain garden. While most herbs are pretty hardy and require little care, you'll still find that a little preparation goes a long way.

Improving Your Garden Soil

Good soil is 50 percent solids and 50 percent porous space, which provides room for water, air, and plant roots. The solids are inorganic matter (fine rock particles) and organic matter (decaying plant matter). The inorganic portion of the soil can be divided into three categories based on the size of the particles it contains. Clay has the smallest soil particles silt has medium-size particles and sand has the coarsest particles. The amount of clay, silt, and sand in a soil determine its texture. Loam, the ideal garden soil, is a mixture of 20 percent clay, 40 percent silt, and 40 percent sand.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Good soil is key to healthy herbs.
See more pictures of culinary herbs.

Some people choose to add vegetables into the herb garden. In the interest of harvesting a bigger and better crop of herbs and vegetables, you'll want to improve the texture and structure of your soil. This improvement, whether to make the soil drain better or hold more water, can be accomplished quite easily by the addition of organic matter.

Organic matter is material that was once living but is now dead and decaying. You can use such materials as ground corncobs, sawdust, bark chips, straw, hay, grass clippings, and cover crops to serve as organic matter. Your own compost pile can supply you with excellent organic matter to enrich the soil.

Each spring, as you prepare the garden for planting, incorporate organic matter into the soil by tilling or turning it under with a spade. If noncomposted materials are used, the microorganisms that break down the materials will use nitrogen from the soil. To compensate for this nitrogen loss, increase the amount of nitrogen fertilizer that you incorporate into the soil.

The next step in your soil-improvement program is to have the soil tested for nutrient levels. The local county Cooperative Extension office can advise you on testing the soil in your area. Your soil sample will be sent to a laboratory to determine any deficiencies of the necessary nutrients needed for successful plant growth. Instructions for taking and preparing soil samples can be found in our article How to Prepare Soil for Planting .

Be sure to tell the laboratory that the samples came from an herb and/or vegetable garden plot. The test report will recommend the amount and kind of fertilizer needed for a home garden. Follow the laboratory's recommendations as closely as possible during the first growing season. We'll talk more about fertilizing below and in the next section, Herb Garden Soil Preparation Techniques .

The necessary nutrient levels are relative to the soil type and the crop being grown. Although different herbs have varying requirements, the soil test institution calculates an optimum average for fertilizer and lime recommendations.

The results of the soil test will indicate the pH (acid-alkaline balance) of the soil as well as the nitrogen content, phosphorus content, and potassium content. The pH is measured on a scale of 1 (most acid or sour) to 14 (most alkaline or sweet), with 7 representing neutral. Most vegetable plants produce best in a soil that has a pH between 5.5 and 7.5.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
To check your soil texture quickly,
squeeze lightly moist soil in your hand.

The pH number is important because it affects the availability of most of the essential nutrients in the soil. The soil lab will consider the type of soil you have, the pH level, and the crops you intend to produce and make a recommendation for pH adjustment.

Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels will be indicated by a "Low," "Medium," or "High" level. High is the desired level for herb and vegetable gardens for both nutrients. If your test results show other than High, a recommendation of type and amount of fertilizer will be made.

Although nitrogen (N) is also needed in large amounts by plants, the soil nitrates level is not usually routinely tested because rainfall leaches nitrates from the soil, which easily results in low levels. Additional nitrogen through the use of a complete fertilizer is almost always recommended.

Tests for other elements are available on request but are needed only under special circumstances.

The soil test results may advise you to raise the pH by adding a recommended amount of lime to the soil. Ground dolomitic limestone is best and can be applied at any time of the year without harm to the plants. You may be advised to lower the pH by adding a recommended amount of a sulfur product. Ammonium sulfate is the sulfur product most commonly used. Spread the lime or sulfur evenly through your garden and incorporate it into the soil by turning or tilling.

Fertilizing: How & Why To Do It

Many inexperienced gardeners think that since their herbs have done fine so far without fertilizer, they'll continue to do fine without fertilizer next year. But it's not quite that simple. Although your plants will probably provide you with herbs without using fertilizer, you won't be getting their best effort. Properly fertilized plants will be healthier and better able to resist disease and attacks from pests, providing more and higher-quality herbs.

There are two types of fertilizers: organic and inorganic. Both contain the same nutrients, but their composition and action differ in several ways. It makes no difference to the plant whether nutrients come from an organic or an inorganic source as long as the nutrients are available. However, the differences between the two types are worth your consideration.

Organic fertilizers come from plants and animals. The nutrients in organic fertilizers must be broken down over a period of time by microorganisms in the soil before they become available to the plants. Therefore, organic fertilizers don't offer instant solutions to nutrient deficiencies in the soil. Dried blood, kelp, and bone meal are types of organic fertilizers.

Manures are also organic. They are bulkier and contain lower percentages of nutrients than other natural fertilizers. However, they offer the advantage of immediately improving the texture of the soil by raising the level of organic matter.

Because organic fertilizers are generally not well-balanced in nutrient content, you'll probably need to use a mixture of them to ensure a balanced nutrient content. The table below, as well as the directions on the package, may be used as a guide to making your own mixture. Incorporate the mixture into the soil while preparing your spring garden. Apply it again as a side-dressing midway through the growing season.

When you fertilize with an inorganic fertilizer, nutrients are immediately available for the plant's use. Any container of fertilizer has three numbers printed on it, such as 5-10-20, to indicate the percentage of major nutrients it contains. Nitrogen is represented by the first number (5 percent in this example) phosphorus is represented by the second number (10 percent) and potassium by the third (20 percent). The remaining 65 percent is a mixture of other nutrients and inert filler. A well-balanced complete fertilizer consists of all three major nutrients in somewhat even proportions. A complete fertilizer is recommended for herb and vegetable garden use as long as the nitrogen content isn't more than 20 percent. A typical complete fertilizer used in edible gardens is 10-10-10.

Analysis of Organic Fertilizers

Fertilizer Nitrogen - Phosphorus - Potassium (N-P-K)
Dried Blood
13 - 1.5 - 0
Kelp3 - 22 - 0
Cottonseed Meal
6 - 2.6 - 2
Cattle Manure
0.5 - 0.3 - 0.5
Horse Manure
0.6 - 0.3 - 0.5
Chicken Manure
0.9 - 0.5 - 0.8

This is only the beginning in our discussion on fertilization. Keep reading to learn the two-stage program for fertilizing your garden, as well as composting and soil recycling.

Herb Garden Soil Preparation Techniques

Beyond the chemical requirements for fertilization, you also want to make sure that you are supplying the right nutrients for your herb garden.

Fertilizing Your Garden: A Two-Stage Program

    Broadcast Fertilizing.

When you're preparing the bed for spring planting, apply a complete fertilizer -- such as 10-10-10 -- evenly to the entire garden according to the soil test recommendations. Do not overfertilize. A hand spreader helps keep the job neat as it distributes the granules. Turn the fertilizer into the soil with a hand spade or tiller and smooth out the surface to prepare for planting. This first fertilizing step will see most of your herbs and vegetables through their initial period of growth. Halfway through the growing season, the plants will have used up a lot of the nutrients in the soil, and you'll have to replace these nutrients.

As the nutrients are used up by the plants, a second boost of fertilizer will be needed to supply the plants with essential elements through the remainder of the growing season. Use the same complete fertilizer at the same rate as used in the spring, but this time apply it as a sidedressing to the plants. With a hoe, make a four-inch deep trench along one side of the row, taking care not to disturb the plant's roots. Apply the fertilizer in the trench and then cover the trench with the soil you removed. Rain and irrigation will work the fertilizer into the soil, becoming available to the plants.

The Gardener's Recycling Plan

The backyard compost pile is the ideal way to reuse most of your garden and kitchen waste and get benefits galore. Composting is essentially a way of speeding up the natural process of decomposition by which organic materials are broken down and their components returned to the soil. The decaying process happens naturally but slowly. The proximity, moisture, and air circulation of a compost pile encourages this process. Composting converts plant and other organic wastes into a loose, peatlike humus that provides nutrients to growing plants and increases the soil's ability to control water.

Composting can save money you would otherwise spend on soil conditioners and fertilizer. It can save time, too, since it gives you a place to dispose of grass clippings, weeds, and other garden debris.

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This compost pile serves many uses in the vegetable garden.

Garden waste can be turned into good compost in less than a year if the pile is properly managed. When the compost is ready -- coarse, dark brown, peatlike material -- it can be used for many purposes. Compost can be added to potting soil for starting garden seeds indoors. It can also be used as a mulch to protect a plant's roots from the hot, dry summer sun. Compost is also an excellent material to incorporate into garden soil to help control moisture: either increasing the water-holding capacity in sandy soils or improving drainage in heavy clay soils. The more organic matter you add, the more you improve the texture of the soil. Blend the compost into the soil to a depth of 12 inches, making sure it is evenly dispersed through the entire planting area. When compost is added to the soil, it will absorb some of the soil's nitrogen. To compensate for this, organic or inorganic fertilizer and work it into the soil with the compost.

Except for diseased and pest-laden materials or materials that have been treated with herbicides, almost any type of garden waste can be composted. You can also use such kitchen leftovers as vegetable and fruit peels, vegetable tops, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and eggshells. Don't use meat products or greasy foods, which tend to smell bad and attract animals. Composting material should be kept moist but not soggy, and it should be supplied with a nitrogen fertilizer (manure, dried blood, bone meal, or commercial fertilizer) to keep the microorganisms active for faster decay.

Compost forms as organic wastes are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. These microorganisms don't create nutrients they just break down complex materials into simple ones that the plant can use. Soil microorganisms are most active when soil temperatures are above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and most of them work best in a moist, slightly alkaline environment. Microorganisms work fastest on small pieces of organic material.

There are two basic types of microorganisms: those that need air to work (aerobic) and those that don't need air (anaerobic). It's possible to compost in an airtight container, thanks to the microorganisms that don't need air. A tightly covered plastic trash can will convert an enormous amount of organic kitchen waste into compost in the course of a winter. The classic outdoor compost pile should be turned regularly (about once every two weeks) with a pitchfork to provide air for the microorganisms that need it.

There are several handy composting devices on the market. Each has its own advantages, but a compost pile need not be fancy to work well. A simple bin made with old cinder blocks, lumber, or fencing material can be used. Tucked aside, but not too far from the garden, the bin can be square, rectangular, or round. It should be four to five feet across and about three feet high.

There are almost as many different methods of composting as there are gardeners. Follow these basic steps of composting to be a success.

How to Start a Compost Pile

    Start with either a one- to two-foot pile of leaves or 6 to 12 inches or more of compact material, such as grass clippings or sawdust. You can compost hay, straw, hulls, nutshells, and tree trimmings (except walnut). However, unless they're shredded, they'll take a long time to decompose. Use any organic garden or kitchen waste (except meat scraps), as long as it contains no pesticides or diseases.

Over this initial pile spread a layer of fertilizer. The nitrogen will help activate the microorganisms, which in turn will speed the decay of the organic materials. Add about 1/2 cup of ground limestone (most microorganisms like their environment sweet). Then add several shovelfuls of garden soil, which will provide a starter colony of microorganisms. It's handy to have a small pile of soil nearby when you start the compost pile.

Water the pile well. The pile should be kept moist, like a squeezed sponge. Keep adding garden waste to the top of the pile as it becomes available. As the layers become thickened and compacted, repeat the layers of fertilizer, lime, and soil.

  • About once every two weeks, turn and mix the pile with a pitch fork or digging fork. This will ensure that all the components of the pile, not just the center, will heat up. As the temperature in the compost pile increases, weed seeds and harmful disease organisms are killed, and the decay process will not be delayed.
  • Now that your soil is ready for your herbs, let's talk about how to plant and grow herbs.

    Growing Your Own Marjoram

    Marjoram cannot tolerate subfreezing temperatures, so it usually is grown as an annual, but it can be carried over because it is one of the easiest herbs to propagate from stem cuttings (described below), and it grows beautifully indoors in winter near a sunny, south-facing window.

    In the garden, marjoram never grows more than 15 inches tall, and the soft stems tend to sprawl as they mature, so this herb makes a good edging plant. You can start with seed sown indoors in late winter, but germination usually is only about 50 percent, and early growth is very slow a faster option is to buy new plants in spring.

    Most marjoram plants are grown from cuttings, so they are well rooted and ready to grow as soon as you transplant them into warm soil. After the last spring frost, set out plants in full sun, in soil that is gritty and fast draining with a near-neutral pH. Alternatively, you can grow marjoram in containers it's a good plant to mix with other culinary herbs such as basil and thyme.

    Feed your marjoram plants monthly with an all-purpose organic plant food, or more often if you're growing them in containers. Take care not to overwater marjoram, but watch closely for signs of drought stress, too. Plants that wilt for more than a few hours in midday need more water. Cut stems back often to encourage your plant to branch, or wait until just before the flower buds form to harvest them in bulk by shearing the whole plant back by two-thirds its size. Sufficient stems for a second cutting should develop by early fall.

    Take cuttings to root in midsummer: Cut several 3-inch-long stem tips that show no flower buds, remove all but the six to eight topmost leaves and set the cuttings to root in moist seed-starting mix. Placed in a shady spot and kept constantly moist, they should develop vigorous, new root systems in about three weeks. At that time, transplant the rooted cuttings, two each to a 6-inch pot filled with potting soil. A few weeks later, pinch back the tops to encourage branching.

    With casual care, marjoram will continue to grow through fall and winter, and into the following spring. Soon after moving the plants outdoors, take cuttings from your overwintered marjoram, allow the cuttings to develop roots and then transplant them to the garden in early summer. This way, you can keep a strain of marjoram indefinitely, and always have plenty of fresh sprigs for use in the kitchen.

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