Herbs and diversified farming: how to do it

Allée Bleue started growing and selling herbs on a small-scale in 2000, but driven by high consumer demand the estate is flourishing.

Herbs and diversified farming: how to do it

Photo: Denene Erasmus
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Allée Bleue Estate – situated near Franschhoek – is best known for its award-winning wines and export fruit production.  But for the past decade, herb-growing expert, Lario Moolman, who has more than a decade of experience, has been helping the farm add some zest with its herbs and diversified farming model.


READ: Success with hydroponics

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How  to begin with herbs and diversified farming 

Just over 80ha of this 145ha estate is under cultivation and produces 27ha of wine grapes, 8ha of olives and about 50ha of fruit. But to make better use of some of the more marginal areas, the farm started experimenting with growing vegetables and other produce in tunnels. Lario, the estate’s herb production manager, says they initially started trading with a variety of products, including; baby vegetables, mushrooms, frozen berries, dried herbs and even nasturtium flowers, but eventually decided to consolidate their efforts and focus on fresh culinary herbs.

Since then, what started out as a small side business for the farm has turned into a successful and growing venture,  this herbs and diversified farming model now comprises just over one hectare housing 28 tunnels. The farm produces about 30t of fresh herbs a year and supplies over 20 different lines of herbs, but some of them get outsourced to other growers willing and able to abide by the strict production practices that Allée Bleue requires.

This gives Lario the opportunity to look at the herbs and diversified farming model and focus on the main herbs that account for the bulk of their sales, such as chives, parsley, coriander, rocket, thyme, rosemary, mint and basil. Almost all of Allée Bleue’s herbs go to retail chain stores and it also supplies a few speciality stores and restaurants in the Western Cape.

Lario Moolman, Allée Bleue’s herb production manager.

Hydroponic herbs
“All our herbs are grown hydroponically, in tunnels, for protection and to ensure a constant supply of high quality produce.”
Lario explains that the temperature and humidity in the tunnels is controlled by opening and closing the doors and curtains, as needed, along the sides. “During summer, we also make use of misting irrigation to bring the temperature down.”

In their production system, Lario says, hydroponics means producing the herbs without soil and instead, using another natural medium to grow them in. “The medium we use is called coco peat, which is coconut husk that has been composted and treated. We supply all nutrients that the herbs need directly to the medium through the drip irrigation system.”

Perennial production and growth cycle
Under Lario’s guidance and thanks to the tunnel production system, Allée Bleue is able to produce fresh herbs year round, but she says most of them grow very slowly in winter and some, like French tarragon, are completely dormant in winter. “Basil is extremely difficult to cultivate in winter because it is very sensitive to cold temperatures and needs extra heating.”

Lario buys all the seeds used for herb production from reputable companies in the industry and outsources the farm’s seedling production to a specialised company near the farm.

“Coriander and dill are the only lines I sow directly into the medium because they tend to bolt [flower] too soon when grown from seedlings.” The time it takes for herbs to grow from seed to a harvest-ready plant varies greatly from one herb to the next, as well as according to the season.

“For example, rocket seedlings take two weeks from planting to harvest whereas thyme will take at least eight weeks. In summer, coriander takes about four weeks from when the seeds are sown to harvest but it will take eight weeks in winter before the leaves can be harvested.

“Once big enough, most herbs are harvested every few days until they start to flower when they are replaced with new stock,” says Lario. Coriander and rocket have productive life cycles of about three to four months while parsley’s productive life cycle can last between eight and 10 months. On the other hand, Lario points out, perennial herbs like mint and chives can be harvested for years if looked after properly.

Pest and disease control
“The main pests affecting herbs are aphids – they seem to love them as much as our customers! To keep these and other pests under control, we follow an integrated management programme where we concentrate on alternative methods instead of chemical control.”

This includes crop sanitation, weeding around the production area as well as using correct plant density and harvesting methods. “I have also adopted a programme where we use beneficial bacterium and fungi to help control pests and disease.”

Irrigation and fertiliser
The herbs are irrigated with dripper lines installed on top of the plant beds. A computerised irrigation control system allows Lario to input different schedules (times and lengths of the cycles) for each tunnel.

“During summer, plants are irrigated four to six times per week, depending on the variety and growth stage. “During winter, herbs grow much slower and need less water, and are irrigated on an ad hoc basis. “All the nutrients the herbs need are added to the irrigation water.”

The fertiliser is mixed in a concentrated form and stored in large tanks. It is transported via an automated system controlled by the computerised irrigation system. It is diluted with fresh water from an on-site reservoir and then transported to the tunnels to be applied to growing medium. “The computerised irrigation system allows me to give each tunnel a different ‘strength’ [diluted to a lesser or greater extent with water] of fertiliser as different herbs have diverse needs.”

Despite years of experience growing herbs, Lario is not afraid to admit that some remain difficult to cultivate. “All herbs can have their challenges from time to time but what I find most difficult is to extend the basil growing season. Basil is extremely sensitive to cold temperatures so without a heating infrastructure, you can only grow it during summer. You want to start growing it in early spring but if you start too early, you can damage your seedlings and have a poor crop,” she adds.

“And then again when autumn arrives and your basil crop nears the end of its productive life cycle, it becomes very susceptible to fungal diseases.”  According to Lario, to get the best out of your basil crop, you need to time the planting right and build the plant’s immune system to make it more resistant to diseases.

Growing demand
The local demand for culinary herbs has increased tremendously over the past few years. “Cooking with fresh ingredients has become fashionable and people are more health conscious. The focus has shifted to healthy and nutritional dishes,” Lario says.

She believes the demand for herbs in South Africa is still growing but adds that it is also changing with consumers demanding greater variety. “We see an increase in sales every year, but along with growth, we also see changes in the market. We plan to keep up with the trends and supply exactly what our consumers demand,” she concludes.

Fiona de Bruin (front) and Marna Daniels (back) busy in Allée Bleue’s herb packhouse where the processing team packs and distributes herbs to supermarkets.

A herb garden at home
According to Lario, there are three important things needed to successfully grow healthy herbs in your own garden:

  • Location: “Most herbs prefer a sunny to semi-shaded area, so before you start, spend time in your garden and watch where the sun hits certain areas throughout the day. This will help you decide what to plant, and where. You can also plant herbs in large pots that you can move around to see where the plants thrive.”
  • Soil: “Some herbs, like parsley, are heavy feeders and prefer rich soil while others, like rosemary and thyme, will still be happy in poorer soil. Water them regularly but always ensure that your soil drains well as herbs do not like wet feet.”
  • Seedlings: “Make sure your seedlings are strong and healthy. If you start with poor seedlings you will always struggle with diseases and pests.”

Allée Bleue herb tours
In June, the Allée Bleue Estate started hosting unique weekly herb tours every Friday. Anyone interested in how herbs are grown or learning more about them is welcome to join the tour under the guidance of the estate’s resident expert, Lario Moolman. The tour allows visitors to see, first-hand, how herbs are nurtured from seedlings to fully-grown, harvest-ready plants, as show you how one can establish a herbs and diversified farming business model.

Each tour group will have Lario as their guide and after a walk through the tunnels, visitors will be treated to a three-course, herb-inspired lunch with each dish paired with one of Allée Bleue’s wines. Tickets for the tours, with lunch and welcome drinks included, cost R185 per person. For bookings, call 021 874 1021 and for more information, visit www.alleebleue.com.

Contact Lario Moolman on 021 874 1021 or email [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 19 July 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.