Demand for herbs has increased exponentially over the last few years, and growers are faced with opportunities created by a growing population of herb enthusiasts. While there certainly are good opportunities for increased herb sales, diligent research, planning and risk management are required.
In a simple world, the way things were before this increase in herb demand, the consumer would plant popular items like basil, mint, rosemary and lavender in mid to late spring. They made herb gardening easy for themselves. But as herbs became a trendy item, demand has increased for new, unique varieties, and people want them at times of the year when it may be considered unreasonable for them to be successful.
So how do we manage our variety selection and pot sizes to ensure success for both growers and consumers in late winter and early spring? In my experience, retail herb sales revolve around one main herb: sweet basil. If you can provide quality sweet basil year-round, there will be demand for an entire line of herbs.
The problem is basil does not grow well in cold conditions and heat is expensive. This is where variety selection comes into play. There are different varieties of sweet basil, and some have more success than others depending on the time of year. In late winter, while days are shorter (in Texas we have many overcast days) and soil dries out much more slowly, your generic Italian leaf sweet basil will stretch and grow leggy. Pinching can help but it is not the best solution. Pinching increases labor, delays the crop time and may not prevent the plant from having a leggy look.
Instead, research different varieties of sweet basil. Compact varieties may stretch less, but there are also a couple varieties that are more suitable for the cool, damp conditions of late winter and early spring. Find the ones that work best for you.
Once you are able to identify the varieties that can grow successfully in your late winter climate, how can you maximize the consumer’s chances of success? The answer here varies tremendously depending on your geographic location.
In cities like Chicago, no one is going to be successful with basil outdoors in late winter. Houston, on the other hand, offers a much greater chance of whipping up some fresh basil pesto at the end of February. And you can manage your consumer’s success by modifying how you package your product. In colder, less forgiving climates, grow windowsill planters or patio pots that can be brought inside when it gets too cold.
Herb combination pots can be enticing to customers but are not entirely necessary. After all, how many times can someone harvest basil leaves off one basil plant in a combination pot? Twelve-inch bowls of basil can be inexpensive to grow and are a much more enticing product to home chefs. In areas with less harsh winters, you can follow the same steps just mentioned, as well as grow in 1-gallon pots–or even 3-gallon pots–that will have deeper root systems and increase the plant’s chance of survival.
Successfully growing basil in late winter or early spring is only the start of developing an herb program at that time of year that is profitable for you and rewarding for consumers. Do the same research on varieties and adjustment of pot size for all other items in your herb program. Some are easier than others, of course, as they are more cold tolerant or hardy (i.e. rosemary, lavender, mint).
Yet, some are more challenging to root during the cooler, damper times of year. Finding local suppliers or taking cuttings from your own healthy stock plants maximize propagation success as you decrease shipping time. Now that you have a few herb tips for late winter/early spring, it’s time to get started on your research and put together a late-winter herb trial program. Good luck!