Consider another option for additional revenue
Farmers are forever in a quest to make extra money, find extra markets and make a little more with a finite amount of land. An herb garden can be a low-maintenance way to do this. Either as “edible landscaping” around barns or sheds, or as a way to cover the compost bins at the corner of the orchard or simply making use of an odd parcel that otherwise isn’t doing anything, herbal gardens can add to farm income.
Herbs can be used in a wide variety of ways, from fresh culinary herbs to potpourri to dried crafts. Many herbs can be used for other purposes, such as repelling pests naturally or benefitting plants grown nearby, including trees. Direct marketing, U-pick and farms that sell at farmers’ markets can all benefit, and profit, from the addition of herbal gardens. If you are making use of agritourism, it’s a way to grow marketable products that are also attractive to visitors.
Additionally, herbal spots on the farm need little maintenance once established. This makes an ideal way to benefit the farm in income, attracting bees for pollination and adding another “layer” to the harvest.
Most herbs need six hours or more of light per day and dry, well-drained soil around them. There is a balance between well-watered and too much. Because many herbs are perennial, once established there is little to do for maintaining the herb bed.
Even annuals such as marigolds are known for having abilities as natural pest repellents.
Low-maintenance herbs can take care of themselves, but some of these can be quite invasive.
Although many picture herb gardens as showpieces, the herbs themselves often aren’t fussy. There may be options as simple as a few dozen plants in a bare patch or a sitting area with a bench between the yard and the orchard.
Here are some low-maintenance herbs that may be suited for an extra cash crop:
Mint is extremely easy to grow. Several varieties are available, and while spearmint and peppermint are most popular, there is also apple mint, lemon mint and chocolate mint, as well as many others. Mint relishes rich soil and is best in a contained area, such as-raised bed. It spreads easily and can take over an area if left unchecked. Mint can be used many ways in the kitchen.
Rosemary can be a prolific producer once established and is easy to dry. Air-drying or use of a commercial dehydrator can produce many of the pine-like needles that lend themselves to an edible crop. Depending on the variety, they can grow from 1 foot up to 6 feet tall. A rosemary patch in the corner of the orchard can be harvested as fresh or, as mentioned, dried for an “off-season” crop. It prefers more alkaline soils for best growth.
Basil is another herb that comes in many varieties, including sweet, lemon, licorice, cinnamon and Thai, as well as the unique appearance of varieties like purple ruffles. The best flavor is maintained by pinching off the flower spikes as they form, harvesting as they are ready. They may be dried or brushed with olive oil and frozen. Basil needs a richer soil that is well-drained, as it is a somewhat heavier feeder than many other herbs. Basil is a sun-loving plant, but will get by in light shade. This is a plant that loves water, providing it’s well-drained. Trickle irrigation will keep the plants happy.
Thyme is another useful herb that is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and is known for attracting bees and butterflies, increasing pollination for the orchard. It can handle rocky or sandy soil with organic matter and good drainage. Popular in French and Italian cooking, thyme is a common kitchen herb with few pest problems.
Chives are a slender, oniony tasting plant, often snipped and used fresh. Garlic chives are another option for herbal gardens. Chives do well in containers, making them ideal as a “useful ornamental” outside the home or near processing sheds. Best started with division from other plants, chives need well-drained soil and will self-sow aggressively.
Sage is another popular kitchen herb, growing 1 to 3 feet in zone 4. It’s versatile in the kitchen in pasta and vegetable dishes. Flowers are edible in salads and, like many herbs, they’re known for attracting bees.
• Winter Savory
Winter savory is one of two types of savory. Summer savory is a subtle-flavored annual, while winter savory is a stronger-flavored perennial. Used in flavored vinegars, herb butters, tea and soup or bean dishes, savory is hardy to zone 6. A low-growing plant about a foot tall, it is good for mass plantings along a basil garden.
Lavender loves well-drained soil and full sun. The fragrant qualities of lavender make it ideal in potpourri and sachets. With use of compost around the plants, fertilizing is usually not needed. An occasional extra-humid summer or cold snap may get a plant or two, but for low maintenance, this is a great plant for an herbal garden area. Blooms may vary from a lavender-gray to a bright purple, and they can be started from seed, but take a while to germinate. English lavender is the hardiest and with mulching can survive to zones 4 and 5, while the French variety prefers the warmer zones of 8 to 10. Flowers are edible and have been used on fruit plates, salads, ice cream and other desserts, and even in lemonade and tea.
Oregano is native to arid regions, making this another good option for southern orchards. During dry periods, watering once a week is enough to keep them happy. It fares better in well-drained soil, does not need fertilizer and has many uses. So popular is it in spaghetti sauce and pizza, it is easy to overlook its uses in a variety of other recipes, stews and soups. Keep the flower buds picked, as the leaves become bitter when the flowers bloom.
More of a challenge can be found with some other herbs such as ginseng, goldenseal and ginger. Still other herbal options are “weeds” that are often killed. Burdock, plantain, dandelions and tansy are but a few that are hardy and actually useful. Although normally destroyed as weeds, looking from a different view these are cash crops that may be overlooked.
In the South, many herbs benefit from afternoon shade, especially in plots of soil that are well-drained. Raised beds are another way to cultivate herbs. Beds a foot high or more can contain mint to keep it in the area wanted.
If you’ve looked at the cost of fresh herbs at the market, it’s incentive to make the effort to create this extra income for your farm. If you have a roadside stand or attend farmers’ markets, it is one more option. Many herbs have an additional bonus as well: if they don’t sell fresh, simply allow them to dry out, as they’re still a marketable crop with little processing needed.
Many of the taller herbs or those that continue year to year can be difficult for keeping in small areas, so a permanent location near the orchard is ideal.
The market for herbs is strong. With available area, little effort to establish and almost maintenance-free, it’s a way to use, and profit from, odd patches of land in the orchard. It uses little labor or resources and adds another crop. This makes it worth a look for many, especially in these challenging times.
Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer and new contributor to Growing. She is based in Alabama.