If I were to rank herbs in terms of my difficulty in growing them, I would say rosemary is at the top of my list. This herb originated in the mediterranean region where there are usually mild winters and hot summers. In other words, the herb thrives best in very dry conditions. Here in the tropical Philippines, where the climate can be humid (yet extremely hot) during summer months, while very wet during the rainy season, I found it a challenge at the start to grow rosemary successfully in the Philippines.
I bought my first seedlings from a garden shop more than a year ago, and out of the 4 seedlings, only one plant survived as of today. This is not a reason for me to be discouraged, as I still consider rosemary a must-have in my organic food garden.
Watch out for the heavy rains
Rosemary is one of those herbs that do not enjoy being soaked. Too much water causes the roots to rot, and with not enough healthy roots to support it, the plant will eventually wither and die.
Unfortunately, in the Philippines, rainy seasons can mean really heavy downpours for several days. It’s a good thing that the herb grows well in containers, so they can easily be moved indoors once the rainy season sets in. When moving them indoors, choose a spot by the window where the plants can get some amount of sunlight. As soon as the sunny weather returns, move the pots outside where they could receive at least 6 hours of sunlight.
Alternatively, wrap the pot with a plastic bag (or garbage bag) as shown in the photo. This serves like a “raincoat”, in case of sudden rains and you don’t have time to move the pot indoors. Make sure the “raincoat” is open at the bottom to allow air and water to flow through. When the rainy season is over, you may unwrap the pot.
Watering the rosemary is quite tricky. To know if watering is already needed, feel the soil up to about an inch deep. If it feels dry, then the plant needs water; otherwise, wait another day. This means that watering can be done once or twice a week only. However, do not wait for the soil to dry out as lack of water may also kill the rosemary. Watering should be done in the morning, making sure that the soil doesn’t get too soaked or soggy.
The rosemary can not withstand the full strength of our tropical sun. So place the container in an area with dappled shade or a partially shady part of the garden where it will still receive around 4 – 5 hours of morning sun.
This herb rarely produces seeds, so the best way to propagate rosemary is through cuttings. Cut a few stems (4 – 5 inches long) and remove the lower leaves. Choose the soft portion of the stem and not the woody part.
Soak the cuttings in about an inch of water and change the water every 3 days. In less than 2 weeks, the new roots will start to appear. Wait another 2 weeks or until the stems have fully rooted before transplanting the cuttings into a well-draining pot. Water the plant once and then thereafter only when the soil feels dry.
The rosemary plant grows slowly at the start. Wait until the newly – rooted cuttings develop new stems or branches before transplanting them permanently into a bigger pot. When transplanting, be careful that the roots are not disturbed too much.
Choose a medium sized container (or bigger), with at least 6 -8 inches in diameter and depth. The bigger the container, the taller it grows. In other countries, a mature plant can reach more than 3 feet. Here in the Philippines, I have seen these plants grow up to about 1- 2 feet in height when grown in containers.
Make sure to punch enough holes at the bottom of the pot to allow excess water to drain properly, and use a well-draining potting soil. Ordinary garden soil has a tendency to harden or compress, which could prevent proper drainage of water.
Add compost material to the soil sparingly every 3 months. Rosemary is a hardy plant and it can survive even with minimal nutrients in the soil. They are rarely prone to pests but regular spraying of organic pesticide solutions can help minimize pest infestation.
While rosemary is my favorite culinary herb, I would not suggest it for starters in gardening. It takes a little patience to successfully grow this herb in the tropics. With some practice however, growing rosemary can definitely be a rewarding experience.