Growing Herbs in the High Country

When we moved from a small town on the plains to the Black Hills near Custer, locals told me to “forget gardening.” The man from whom we bought our house direly proclaimed that “nothing will grow here,” and even if I managed to coax some feeble plants from the ground “the deer will eat everything.”

Thus sufficiently warned, I immediately began building an herb garden which flourished even during my first summer. Since our home is situated on a large hunk of granite, topsoil is thin-to-nonexistent; I hauled in bags of topsoil and manure for the raised bed made from scrap lumber. My efforts that first spring were focused on the herb bed, so I grew vegetables in containers on my deck, saving their raised beds for another year. To increase the amount of sun the plants would receive, I trimmed off two branches from the large pine tree next to the bed.

Finally, I was ready to plant. Tarragon, mint, chives, oregano, and parsley thrust down roots and surged with life. Basil, sage, and chervil took a bit longer to get established, but once they did, they flourished as well. Our elevation makes for cool nights, so the basil and sage don’t reach their massive proportions they did at our former home; however, they go to flower less quickly, which is a bonus. Also, both dill and cilantro go to seed much slower here, actually extending the season for fresh herbs.

In fact, come late July when my other herb bed was always appearing a bit sun-scorched and bedraggled from days of 100+ heat, these herbs looked fantastically fresh and green. Quite frankly, my herb garden is better than the one I had at the lower elevation. And dealing with the deer isn’t as bad as predicted.

Yes, these whitetail deer will eat almost anything if given the chance, but lightweight mesh simply laid over the top of the bed discourages most nibbling. It also helps that I strategically placed the bed next to my dogs’ fence. My vegetable raised beds are now located in the backyard with the dogs, but I wanted the herb bed outside the yard where it can be seen as you drive up to the house. The deer don’t bother the herbs since the dogs can bark through the fence at them. Though I did have to learn the hard way not to forget the mesh before leaving with the dogs for the weekend. I realized that while deer love basil, parsley and chervil, they won’t eat tarragon, chives, mint or sage.

Growing herbs in the high country is eminently doable with a few basic skills:

*Used raised beds, not only do they make up for lack of topsoil; they warm up faster in the spring.

*Enrich the soil with manure and compost since local soil may be very nutrient-poor.

*Fence out or use mesh to keep snacking deer away.

*Be prepared to cover for early frosts. That first year we had our first frost on Labor Day weekend, but then had three straight weeks of warm weather with no need to cover.

*Mulch perennial herbs in the winter, this is essential for parsley and lavender.

*Don’t listen to doomsayers who lacked the energy and ingenuity to try gardening themselves.