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Growing Herbs Successfully: Advice from a Local Gardener

March 3, 2021

Are you ready to get growing again?

The Nashville Public Library Seed Exchange is back after a brief winter hiatus, and we cordially invite you to borrow seeds for your spring, summer, and fall gardens. If you're not already growing herbs, let the Herb Society of Nashville's Todd Breyer inspire you! Breyer, who is a landscape architect and life-long gardener, kindly answered my questions.

Crystal Deane: Talk about when you first became fascinated with plants. How has your life been influenced by gardening? 

Todd Breyer: I have been interested in both plants and animals for as long as I can remember. I begged my parents when I was five or six years old to have “my own” garden bed next to their half acre vegetable garden. It was a little oval plot in which I grew touch-me-nots and marigolds from seed. Though my family were all professionals, each had a particular interest in the botanical world. My mother did roses and perennials. My father tended a wildflower / native garden. My grandfather taught me about the trees of the forest and had an acre or two of vegetables and fruit. My uncle was a horticulture professor and had two degrees in horticulture and a doctorate in forestry. Everyone thought I was on track to become a surgeon growing up, but ultimately I decided on gardens and design, so my organic chemistry, biology, calculus, etc. all became “electives” when I transferred to landscape architecture school. 

Have you always been a Tennessee gardener or do you have experience growing herbs, flowers, & vegetables in other plant hardiness zones? 

I grew up in Tennessee, and my grandfather’s family were some of the very first settlers here in the Beersheba Springs / Sewanee area. But my parents grew up in Chicago and St. Louis. And I was born in Denver. They settled back here once my father finished his residency, so it is all I remember. I studied plants in Indiana and Georgia, as well as studies abroad in the Tuscany Region of Italy where I learned European and Mediterranean plants. My first job out of college was in northern California (San Francisco). So I enrolled in additional college courses there to learn their native plants, as well as more Mediterranean and Australian plants which thrive in their climate (here I mostly use those as wonderful container plant accents for summer). And we got all those lovely pacific north-west plants down from the nurseries in Washington and Oregon. 

You are a member of the Herb Society of Nashville. What is the society’s mission?

Yes, I have been involved with this terrific organization since the early 1990’s but only became an official member in 2015. We are a Unit of the Herb Society of America and one of, if not the largest, and most active unit in the country  Our mission is to promote the use and education about herbs. Plus it’s just a lot of fun. We have a host of activities for our members and for the general public such as Herb Day, our plant sale, and website. We maintain two beautiful, labeled gardens that are open to the public, one behind the Art Center in Centennial Park, and the other at Cheekwood. Our annual plant sale at the Fairgrounds Expo Center is held each year in mid April where we custom grow and offer herbs and vegetables that you can find no where else. Unfortunately this year’s sale is cancelled since the fairgrounds is closed until June due to the pandemic. But we’ll be back for 2022!

Garden at Centennial Park Art Center 2019
Garden at the Centennial Park Art Center, maintained by the Herb Society of Nashville. Photo taken by Todd Breyer in spring of 2019.

What do you find is the most common mistake among beginning herb gardeners?        

Generally you’ll want to be sure you are giving your herbs as much sun as possible and good drainage. With most gardening, everything starts with the soil. A lot of herbs like sharp drainage and do not need a soil that is overly fertile. They also do well in containers and pots, which can fit into almost any landscape and can be positioned to maximize the sun, or to be convenient to the kitchen door.

Of the herbs you grow in your own garden, what is the easiest to grow? And the fussiest?

Most are easy and my favorites are Basil, Chives, Mint, Oregano, Dill, Fennel, Parsley, Rosemary and Thyme. Lavender can be tricky to overwinter unless your drainage is really good, as can Sage and Thyme in our climate.  

What herb is your personal culinary favorite?

I love growing various types of Basil that we offer. Some have different flavors, or even are just beautiful plants: Genovese, Green Columnar, Spicy Globe, Variegated, Siam Queen, Holy, African Blue, Cardinal, Lemon, Lime, etc. You can eat fresh, chiffonade, cook into sauces and other dishes, make pesto, oils, and more. 

What should Tennessee herb gardeners be working on in February and March? 

Dreaming over seed catalogs and planning. Starting seeds indoors to get a jump on the season if you are so inclined. Cleaning up last year’s garden if you haven’t done so already, which helps prevent disease and pests. Getting your pots and supplies ready for the early May planting season.

I am a big fan of Rosemary, but sadly, I’ve lost several plants over the years during the cold of winter. Can Tennessee gardeners successfully grow Rosemary outdoors?

‘Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’ are two cultivars that are particularly grown for hardiness as we are on the northern edge for the plant. Also well drained soil and microclimate can play a huge part. With our warmer winters, we are often having regular Rosemary survive outside for several seasons. But sitting it in a protected courtyard or against a south facing wall can also help.

Nashville Public Library’s Seed Exchange includes seeds for herbs such as cilantro and dill. What other herbs have you grown successfully from seed?    

Most can be done from seed: chives, basil, lemon balm, parsley, fennel, oregano, garlic chives, chamomile, poppy, sesame, feverfew, lemon verbena, just to name a few.

And I would be remiss if I didn't ask you this question: do you have a favorite gardening book?

There are so many good ones, as well as a wealth of information and blogs on the Internet. Learn as much as you can, and join the Herb Society.  

Basil growing in a container.
Basil can be easily grown in a container. Picture courtesy of the Herb Society of Nashville.

Thanks so much to Todd for taking the time to share his gardening story. For more information, visit our websites: Herb Society of Nashville and  Nashville Public Library Seed Exchange.

Keep your thumbs green!

Crystal with large racoon


Crystal Deane is a librarian in the Popular Materials Department. She likes mysteries, cookbooks, and cats. She dislikes spoilers, and won't include any in her reviews.


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