How to Start a Herb Garden

herb garden
Herb Garden Photo by Dominus Vobiscum

Growing your own herbs is one of the easiest garden projects possible. Most herbs are tenacious, hardy plants which thrive in a variety of conditions. In fact, many herbs do best in poor soil with little attention. How simple is that?

Getting Started

Many of the same conditions apply to an herb garden as apply to a vegetable garden. They require fairly level ground, well-drained soil, and abundant sunshine. However, herb gardens are best when grown close to the house. When you are in the middle of making pizza, you don’t want to have to race across the yard to grab some oregano. Put your herb garden as close to your kitchen as possible. Most herbs are perennials, meaning that they continue to grow year after year. No need to replant them every year. A few exceptions: basil, parsley, dill, and chamomile. No yard? That’s okay. Herbs will also grow well in pots on a sunny balcony. In very cold winter areas, bring your pots inside to overwinter. Potted herbs, even perennials, will not survive extreme winters. To learn more about how to plan and prepare for a garden, see Vegetable Gardens and Flower Gardens.

What Kinds of Herbs to Grow?

What kinds of herbs do you use in your cooking and around the house? If you enjoy baked potatoes with sour cream and chives, grow chives. If you make a lot of Italian food, grow oregano, basil, and thyme. If you love rosemary roasted potatoes and lamb, grow rosemary. If you love chamomile tea, why not grow chamomile? Some herbs are grown just for their lovely scent. Lavender is very easy to grow, looks beautiful, and fills the garden with its distinctive aroma. Its buds can be harvested, dried, and sewn into cachets. Lemon balm, mint, sage, and feverfew are just a few herbs that are grown for their scents. Other herbs are grown for their ability to repel insects. Basil, sage, rosemary, lavender, catnip, mint, and sage all have scents which put off mosquitoes, flies, and gnats. Grow them around your back door as an invisible bug shield.

Grow Your Herbs

Once you have selected the placement of your herb garden, whether it be a sunny corner of the garden or the pots on your back porch, plan for the herb’s placement. Taller herbs (such as basil, sage, and catnip) should not be placed where they will shade other sun-loving herbs. For beauty’s sake, try mixing colors. Place a lovely pink echinacea next to yellowy lemon thyme or a lavender. Most herbs enjoy dry sunny heat. Many of our most commonly eaten herbs originated in the Mediterranean area, which provides long, hot, often dry summers. Plants such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, and thyme thrive in heat and sun. They will tolerate occasional summer downpours, but not marshy conditions. There are a few exceptions: lemon balm, mint, and sweet woodruff prefer shady condition as opposed to direct sunlight. Chives, parsley, and cilantro enjoy sunshine, but are less drought-tolerant and will require more frequent waterings. Note: Mint and herbs in the mint family (such as lemon balm, ajuga, and pennyroyal) can be quite invasive. One little mint plant will quickly take over any shady area, crowding out all other plants in its path. If you do not want your mint to become a problem, make sure when you plant mint that its roots are contained. You can either plant mint still in its pot (leave some of the pot above ground to contain surface runners) or line your mint garden with an impermeable border, which sinks at least a few inches into the ground and two inches above ground. You may still have some mint which escapes, so keep a close eye on it. The upside to this is, that if you want a thick, healthy groundcover in a shaded portion of your yard or garden, mint will fill in these areas quite well.

Harvest Your Herbs

Enjoy your herbs all season long. Below is a list of most commonly grown herbs and their harvesting methods.

Basil

Basil

Basil Photo by Tillwe

Fresh:

Pick the biggest leaves directly off the plant, leaving the stem. Chop into sauces or lay whole on pizzas. Puree with pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan to make delicious pesto. Pesto can be frozen and eaten for up to a year.

Dried:

Cut the basil off at ground level and hang the plants upside down in a dark, dry room. After six weeks, strip the leaves and store in an airtight container.

Oregano, Thyme, Parlsey, Sage, Mint, Catnip, and Rosemary

Thyme

Thyme Photo by Yashima

Fresh:

Harvest by sprigs. That means, cut a long stem off the plant. Strip the leaves and use whole or chopped.

Dried:

Harvest by sprigs and wrap stems in rubberbands. Hang upside down in a dark, dry room. After about six weeks, strip the leaves and store in airtight containers.

Chives

Chives

Chives Photo by Yashima

Fresh:

Harvest by cutting a section of stems off at ground level. Rinse with cold water before using.

Dried:

Chives can be dried in a warm oven, but they lose most of their flavor when dried. A better option: Lay dry chives out on a baking sheet and place in the freezer. Once frozen, place them into a freezer-safe container and use all year.

Chamomile

Chamomile

Chamomile Photo by Dominus Vobiscum

Fresh:

The flowers can be used as a garnish for salads and also used for tea. The leaves can be cut up and mixed with butter or sour cream and used a topping (such as baked potatoes).

Dried:

Harvest new flowers and dry on a sheet of clean paper, indoors and out of direct sunlight. Once blossoms are dry, store in a paper bag in a dark cupboard.

Lavender

Lavender

Lavender Photo by Steve Parker

Fresh:

Use cut flowers stalks in bouquets around the house.

Dried:

Lavender should be cut at the base of the flower stalk at full bloom. Grab up a bunch of flower stalks and slice through the stems with a knife, leaving the bottom part of the stem where the leaves grow. Wrap a rubber band around the flower stalks and hang upside down in a dark place for six weeks or until dry. When you are ready to use, place the flower stalks into a bag and carefully remove flowers. Discard the stems. Sew the flowers into sachets or place in a pretty potpourri bowl.

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