Organic Gardening: Beautiful Easy Herbs with Laurence Sombke

Last Editorial Review: 3/24/2004

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Event Date: 06/08/2000.

Love fresh herbs but just can't seem to grow them at home? Join Laurence Sombke, author of Beautiful Easy Herbs, for an in-depth discussion on making your backyard or windowsill into a chef's dream.

The opinions expressed by Mr. Sombke are his and his alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Greetings all and welcome to WebMD Live! Our guest this afternoon is Laurence Sombke. Sombke is a garden expert who appears on television, radio, and at gardening events nationwide. Sombke also is a garden writer for the New York Daily News. His latest book is entitled Beautiful Easy Herbs: How to Get the Most from Herbs--in Your Garden and in Your Home. Can one find your columns on the web?

Sombke: I have my own web site,  I hope in the near future the newspaper will start posting them at Herbs are the easiest garden plants to grow. And in my opinion, they are also the most useful, flavorful and healthy.

Moderator: Great! I would like to ask the first question. Do herbs need preparation and care that differs from vegetables?

Sombke: No, not really. herbs are so easy. All they need is plenty of sunshine, at least six hours per day. They are not attacked by bugs and they don't get diseases. Even the most novice gardener can grow herbs like a pro.

Moderator: Here is a question from a WebMD member.

mold28_webmd: Is it best to grow herbs from starters or from seeds?

Sombke: For annual herbs like dill, basil and arugula, seeds are quite easy to grow and quite cheap, but seedlings from the garden center are faster and not very expensive.

tenuli_webmd: Are there sources for heirloom herb seeds? I'd like a wider variety of basil than is carried locally. Can you recommend any good sources for ordering organic savory and lovage plants and/or seeds?

Sombke: Probably the best organic seed catalogues are and 

Moderator: Can herbs and vegetables occupy the same garden space?

Sombke: Absolutely. That is how I like to grow them anyway. Some people believe that growing them together actually creates a symbiotic relationship that defends the vegetables from insects. Give it a try.

tenuli_webmd: If you were going to have just one window box of herbs, what would you have (what combination)?

Sombke: I would fill a window box with rosemary, thyme, chives, parsley, and nasturtium because I like to cook with them, because they are all compact plants except nasturtium which I would grow because the leaves are edible (they taste like watercress) and because they bring a bright fun color to the pot.

tenuli_webmd: The basil plants I've grown the past few years have been plagued by something that is making the leaves curl under. Do you know what it might be and how to treat it organically?

Sombke: I have heard about this problem with basil. I don't have this problem and I think it is because I use organic methods. I make sure there is plenty of natural organic compost in the soil, I don't use any chemical pesticides, the plants are in full sun, I don't plant them until the weather is fully warm. If you follow all of these tips, I think you will avoid this basil problem, too.

she-rah_webmd: Regarding basil plants, where is the best spot on the plant to pick off the leaves when I need them for cooking?

Sombke: I tend to pick them off from the top of each branch, pinching them back, so that the plant gets bushier than ever.

mold28_webmd: Are there perennial herbs?

Sombke: Yes. Thyme, winter savory, sage, mint, oregano, tarragon, chives, wild strawberry, sorrel, lemon balm, lovage and lavender are all perennials.

she-rah_webmd: How do I get seeds and starts that haven't been genetically modified. Are they labeled? I sure don't want to be eating roundup!

Sombke: As far as I know at this time, herbs are not genetically modified. Corn and soybeans and other big production crops are the target of this new science. There is not enough money in herbs for big business to get involved.

she-rah_webmd: In the fall, how do you recommend trimming the perennial herbs? Last year I trimmed mine down to between six and 12 inches.

Sombke: to be quite honest, I don't trim mine for any other purpose than to harvest them. When I do harvest them, I trim them down to six to 12 inches.

she-rah_webmd: What is the best way to identify that the ground you are planting in is free from pesticides and other carcinogens? Is there a test that I myself can do?

Sombke: This is a tough one. It is hard to tell by looking. Look in the yellow pages of your phone book. There is likely to be a soil testing lab. If not, contact your cooperative extension office. They can point you to a lab that can conduct these tests for you.

she-rah_webmd: I have sage plants and other herbs like catnip that like to flower early. Is it OK to nip off the buds through out the summer so that the plants will keep growing instead of going to seed so fast? I did that last year and it seemed to work and then towards the fall, I finally let them flower and go to seed.

Sombke: That is exactly how I take care of those plants in my garden. Herbs like to be snipped and nipped. It makes them happy.

beetneck_webmd: I recently purchased a cilantro plant from my local nursery (I am in northern California along the coast) and put it into my garden. It was doing great and then one day the leaves started vanishing. After about three days, all the leaves on the plant were gone. They didn't fall off, they simply vanished!

Sombke: That is weird. It could be the plant went through a transplant shock. Did they return? My big problem with cilantro is that it went to seed way too fast. I found there are types of cilantro that are grown for their leaves and not their seeds, i.e., cardamom. carries the seeds for cilantro leaves.

beetneck_webmd: Help! I am so happy to have my herbs in the ground. So far I've got two kinds of thyme, rosemary, cilantro, dill and roman chamomile started. Unfortunately, the slugs love it, too. I know they are tenacious little pests. Any advice for what works best? I've heard of the beer traps. Is there any other better alternative?

Sombke: A better alternative is diatomaceous earth, a completely safe form of ground diatoms that the slugs avoid like the plague. It is readily available in any 'better' garden center or at or or

saralg_webmd: I have heard that one can cook with lavender. Does it matter which variety it is and do you have any tips?

Sombke: Lavender is one of the fines herbes of southern France. I do not find the flavor of this herb to be of service in my cooking. I remember riding my motorcycle through the lavender fields of Provence in late summer. What a fragrance! I like lavender for its fragrance, not its flavor. If you must, it doesn't make any difference what type of lavender you grow.

she-rah_webmd: Is it OK to put your food remains (apple cores, veggie pieces and such) directly into your garden soil?

Sombke: Yes. They will become compost as surely as if you put them in a compost bin, although they might be a bit unsightly as they decompose.

goldendee_webmd: Does the diatomaceous earth get rid of most pests or just slugs?

Sombke: Diatomaceous earth is effective against crawling insects. For other insects I recommend insecticidal soap, sun spray or neem oil.

she-rah_webmd: I am growing garlic for the first time. What's the best advice you can offer me for a fruitful supply!

Sombke: Make sure you grow the right kind and plant it at the right time of year. In the northeast and middle west where winters are cold, you plant stiff neck garlic in late fall to overwinter, ready for harvest the following summer. Warmer weather gardeners can plant the braidable garlic. garlic likes to be kept weed free and evenly watered.

Moderator: Here is a question regarding insecticidal soap and sun spray.

goldendee_webmd: Where can I get these other products, and how much do they cost?

Sombke: You can get these products at your local "better" lawn and garden center or by ordering them online from, or Plan to spend $10 to $15.

she-rah_webmd: I also have herbs growing on pots on my porch. Do those need to be watered more often than the ones actually planted in the ground?

Sombke: Yes. Terra cotta pots tend to dry out faster than hard plastic pots. during the heat of the summer, you may have to water your potted plants as often as once a day.

she-rah_webmd: In Oregon, after harvesting, is it good to plant fava beans to ready the soil for the next spring planting?

Sombke: Yes. Fava beans are a legume which transfixes nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen is one of the important elements of plant food. When I lived in Spain, the farmers would plant fava beans under the trees in orchards of almonds.

Moderator: Well, our time is about up. Mr. Sombke, do you have any parting comments?

Sombke: Yes. Be sure to look at my book, Beautiful Easy Herbs, and visit my web site Finally, grow herbs, eat herbs, make herb garlands and enjoy your life

Moderator: Thank you Mr. Sombke. That was great!

The opinions expressed by Mr. Sombke are his and his alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors