Why Are All My Herbs Dying?
Here is another in my series on customers’ favourite questions. The short answer to this one is that, like us, plants have a finite lifespan. In a modern urban society, death is taboo, a sanitised image on computer screens and I am constantly amazed at the carry-over of this attitude even to plants. In my cynical way I suspect it is because everything in townee living is made of plastic and you can’t “kill” that stuff no matter how hard you try. With grand dad shunted off to dribble out his last days in a “home” and no animals, death is thus an unimaginable concept in the glorious suburban world of “life-style” where the majority of garden centre customers seem to live. Unlike puppies and whales though, plants have nothing like the RSPCA to save them from the abuses of the populace who either don’t understand that plants die naturally or that in many cases they are unwittingly killed off by their owners. However, with the way society is going, I can see that as plants are now credited with “feelings” and chat to royalty, it won’t be long before a “Plant Liberation Front” is set up complete with an anarchistic rent-a-mob enforcement organisation (they could ask the group with whom they share their acronym for tips perhaps?)
Anyway “Why has my Basil disappeared?” pops up with the greatest frequency, Basil, I am constantly told, disappears overnight without leaving even the smallest traces of its demise. Invariably, the answer is that the customer has stuck it in the garden. Basil does not like being stuck in gardens full stop; and I don’t care what your book says to the contrary. If the weather doesn’t get it, the slugs will. Simple as that. Basil is (usually) an Asiatic herb and it’s scarcely surprising that one of the earliest medieval references to it is being grown in Parisian window boxes rather than in the garden. Sometimes you can keep it going for a year on the kitchen window sill, and the neat little Greek species, Ocimum minimum, is the best for this but it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth. Or we can supply “African Blue”, a genuine perennial with a more pronounced aniseed flavour, but as its name suggests, it won’t tolerate cold.
Plants evolved in their own environment and so it’s no good planting a Siberian bog plant in conditions closer to the Namibian desert for instance, and shouting “you vill grow where I haf put you” like some demented Teutonic sergeant. The argument that all the plants seemed to grow happily together in the garden centre and should do so in a private garden will wash no more than its medieval equivalent, – that God created all plants for the garden of Eden and so all plants must flourish in similar conditions. In fact the immaculate displays you see in garden centres were probably housed in several Dutch controlled environment houses forty eight hours previously, so if you want plants guaranteed to survive, look out of your window and see what is already burgeoning happily in your neighbourhood, If you want something different you are going to have make some concessions to your plants.
Again, garden centre plants are the equivalent to the battery chickens found in supermarkets. Mass-reared plants are necessarily kept in sterile conditions under an optimum microclimatic regime or they are going to become infected with diseases unknown to ordinary mortals. The result is that they look great on the shelf but die as soon as they are let loose in the real world. I have a colleague who takes great pride in disinfecting all her pots and trays, but how many gardeners disinfect their gardens? We never do, I always say that a plant that survives me will survive most things a customer can throw at it. I have another colleague in Yorkshire who once described her plants as “pre-stressed” meaning they were grown in conditions resembling the real world than a laboratory; certainly the Rosemarys she gave me more than ten years ago continue to flourish, whereas the bright green ten litre pots of the stuff that looked such a bargain when unloaded from the Dutch lorry were all dead within twelve weeks. I cursed but not as much as the friend who planted an entire hedge from the same source in Rome.
The next question concerns coriander, which causes even more distress than Basil because of the glee with which it thwarts the will of the gardener. Although, like Basil, it is an annual, it sometimes needs to be sown three times in a year. This is because it is subject to “stress”. Nothing on Earth is more subject to “stress” unless it is a passenger stuck on a bus next to a chav with a mobile phone, or a traveller sat next to a lonely American on a Transatlantic flight(those passengers who complained about being left next to a corpse on a recent BA flight didn’t realise how lucky they were). Coriander doesn’t like being sown at the wrong time of the year; it dislikes rain, drought, sunlight, shade, excess fertilizer, poor ground, cold and heat. To any of these it will respond by running to seed or just going yellow and dying. To which I suggest altering your growing regime and then trying a different variety of seed, some Corianders are specifically bred to produce seed for the spice trade and are no use to you if you just want leaf. Your seed packet should have the name of the variety on it, if it just says “Coriander” in a vague kind of way, it could be any old rubbish swept off the floor, – and if the seed has little pin-prick holes in it, it won’t even germinate because it has been infested with Umbellifer beetles who have eaten the entire contents of the seed case. We use a variety called “Santo”; it was one of the first to be developed and remains one of the most consistently reliable. All the same, unless it is Autumn-sown and gets a good winter, it is unlikely to still be in sellable condition the following year. The seed and plants are cheap, so my advice is simply to bung them in, eat them as soon as you get hungry, and then start again. The same remarks apply to salad rocket, but at least with rocket you could use the perennial species instead.
Perennial herbs should give you less trouble. The first thing to say is to make sure they have roots on them. This may seem obvious, but the television punditry is so obsessed with pot-bound plants that the no-less undesirable matter of unrooted stalks is completely ignored. It goes without saying that you don’t want to purchase some wizened old wreck that you have to smash the pot to extract, on the other hand, garden centres and some wholesale growers need a quick turnover to stay in business and so send their cuttings out before they have grown proper roots. The tele-pundits advice is to turn the pot upside down prior to purchase to see what the roots are doing. It is obvious even to the most mentally-challenged vine weevil that if you do this, anything that hasn’t developed a rootball will drop onto the floor in a composty splat. If this does indeed happen, you may say with some justification that the owner is a dodgy crook and it serves him right, but supposing he is a normal decent skilled nurseryman like the rest of us, the plant will probably not fall out but on the other hand you will prove to him (i) that you are a yob wholly devoid of manners and he will have good reason to throw you out of his nursery (ii) That you are a complete prat, just right for ripping off (iii) that you probably too dumb to tell a root from a flower even if it bites you.
Again, mail order suppliers need to keep their costs down, particularly with regard to parcel weight and, aware that inexperienced customers are more inclined to look at top growth rather than the roots, send out something more akin to unrooted cuttings rather than garden-worthy plants. To a novice this may make the job of buying plants appear an expensive nightmare. It often is, but not if you go to a specialist nursery where the owner will be pleased to help because his livelihood depends on your future business. This sadly doesn’t apply to the big chains of garden centres who don’t grow their own plants and where the closest your “sales consultant” has ever come to real plants are the tea leaves she brewed up in the staff canteen.
“Why has my lavender died?” is the most familiar question asked about shrubby herbs. Equally usual is the answer, “You got it too wet”. One can expand on this, – too heavy ground, too much fertilizer, excess soggy mulch etc. Digging in loads of dung is an excellent way of killing it, fertilizer, if it doesn’t scorch the plant will encourage it to exhaust itself putting on a lot of soft growth that will be zapped in the first frost of winter, a leaf mould mulch rather than grit will rot the stems. In addition pruning too hard at the wrong time of the year will be fatal. Lavender is easy provided you give it really good drainage and don’t muck about with it all the time. Get a life instead!
Although it’s a short lived biennial rather than a shrub, many of the above remarks are also relevant to parsley, except that it does like a bit of fertilizer occasionally, especially if you keep eating it, remember you can’t get out more than you put in. If you make it too wet, it will probably get crown rot and it is also subject to bugs similar to those which guzzle carrots with such enthusiasm, so encourage a few clouds of hover flies about the place by planting Limnanthes…
Often people take me aside and whisper in the tones they would use to confess to an anti-social disease that their mint won’t grow. When I have patted them on the shoulder and they have blown their noses, I explain to them in my kindly paternal way, that they are not alone, a lot of people admit to failing with mint. Fortunately, the answer is simple and the same in every case. “Have you grown it in a bucket or otherwise confined it?” I ask.
“Of course” they reply “X’s book on how to achieve a hundred per cent success with every herb known to mankind tells me to put it in a bucket” This of course is the stupidest advice on the planet, tantamount to asking Osama Bin Laden to say grace after you have invited him to a hog roast. The mint will go round and round and round and round in the bucket until it eventually throttles itself – literally. And all you will be left with are a few woody, rotten blackened roots. Give it its head, let it romp joyously in the garden, it will make the place smell wonderful. Again, medieval writers showed their superior knowledge when in line 714 of the “Roman de la Rose”; the hero wanders along a path of mint in a garden filled with beautiful people. OK, the text actually says “Lors m’en allai tot droit a destre/par mi une petite sente/plaine de fanouil et de mente”, my medieval French may be a bit weak (read non-existent) but I don’t recognise any nonsense about buckets there. It will spread, but not as invasively as its reputation suggests and certainly not if you have a propensity for lamb and mint sauce every Sunday and Moroccan dishes in between. You may even find yourself having to give it a bit of a boost with some all-round fertilizer. And if it does get too much for you, dig a bit up and donate it to some worthy cause or give it to all your friends for Christmas, not any tatty old mint obviously, but a really good one like Tashkent or Moroccan or our very own Nile Valley.
So there you have it, some plants die just for the hell of it, but most from human intervention, or to put it simply, because you have messed them about or stuck them in the wrong place. If you must play God, try collecting your own seed, it will save you money and give you endless pleasure moreover it will be the closest you come to creating life outside the bed room. Not quite the same as being divine perhaps, but just as much fun and without the responsibility.