Whether you enjoy cooking or simply like to eat beautifully seasoned meals, nothing tastes as good as a dish you have grown and made yourself. Herbs are an excellent addition to cooking as well as useful in decorating and crafting. Having a separate herb garden is wonderful, but one of the best things about growing an herb garden is that they can be blended with vegetables and/or flowers and they can be grown anywhere. If you are new to gardening, an herb garden is an excellent way to start and the following tips will help you grow a fragrant and satisfying bounty of herbs.
Seeds or Plants?
Herbs are available in both seeds and plants. Although seeds are typically less expensive, they must be started indoors a month or two before it is warm enough to move them outside, so most beginners find it easier to start with plants. If you opt for seeds they can be started indoors in small pots, placed in a sunny window or under a grow light and then transplanted in the garden or larger containers. To start herb seedlings:
- Choose containers that have good drainage and are large enough for the roots to spread.
- Use potting mix instead of potting soil. Potting soil is lighter and made primarily with organic matter, which will give the plants the drainage they need.
- The potting mix dries out quickly, so you will need to water the herbs frequently. To check the soil, put your finger in about one inch beneath the surface and if it feels dry, add water.
- Use a standard houseplant fertilizer at about half of the strength recommended or you can use a slow-release fertilizer when you first plant the seeds.
- When the seeds begin to sprout, pay close attention to the leaves. Avoid using fertilizer after sprouting to prevent the growth of flowers. Harvest the leaves often by removing the oldest stems with scissors.
- When spring arrives and there is no chance of a frost, your herbs are ready to plant in the garden or to be moved to larger containers and placed outdoors.
Herbs for Beginners
One of the most difficult parts of starting an herb garden is choosing which herbs to grow. There are hundreds upon hundreds to choose from and the majority of herbs are easy to grow, so simply choose which ones you enjoy the most. Some of the best beginner herbs include:
Container Herb Garden
Growing herbs in containers is an excellent way for new gardeners to learn as they go, while also getting an abundant and readily available supply of fresh and aromatic herbs. Herbs are great for a container garden, because they grow easily in containers and they are low-maintenance plants, so they can thrive almost anywhere. Using these easy steps, you will soon be on your way to a thriving, container herb garden:
- Use only containers that have drain holes. The holes do not have to be large.
- Fill the bottom of the container with stones, gravel or wood chips to help ensure the soil doesn’t escape and to serve as the drainage system.
- Whether you choose to use seeds or plants, keep the one-inch rule in mind. This means that all plants and/or seeds need to be at least one-inch apart in order to be healthy.
- Fill the pots with quality soil or a soil mix designed specifically for vegetables and/or flowers. When filling the soil, it should be loose so the plants will be able to get the nutrients they need and to give the roots room to grow.
- When planting seeds, bury them about 1-inch from the top of the soil. When planting seedlings, plant them as deep as the container that they came in. Place containers in a sunny area (most herbs require about 6 hours of full sun each day).
- Check the moisture daily and water each time the soil is beginning to feel dry. Avoid over-watering.
- Harvest regularly by removing the flower buds just before they bloom. Leaves should be firm and removed from the top half of the plant.
Planting an Outdoor Herb Garden
Now is the perfect time to start your outdoor herb garden. Most beginning gardeners find that starting their gardening experience with herbs is a great way to become familiar with caring for a garden and you can reap the rewards of your hard work fairly quickly. Before starting your outdoor herb garden, here are a few tips to help you get started:
- The first step is to decide the size of your herb garden, which primarily depends on the amount of various herbs you want. Typically, an herb garden is about 20 feet by 4 feet, with individual plots that are about 12 by 18-inches within the area that will be used for separating herbs.
- When selecting the site for your garden, it is important to consider the soil fertility and the drainage. One of the most important factors of a successful herb garden is appropriate draining.
- To improve drainage in the herb garden, remove the soil to a depth of about 16-inches. Place a layer of crushed stone, rock or wood chips (about 3-inches thick) in the bottom of the site. Mix some compost and/or sand with the soil before returning it back to the garden bed, which will help lighten the texture of the soil. Refill the garden plot with a bed of soil that is slightly higher than it was originally, which will allow for the ground to settle.
- It is recommended that you draw a diagram of the area and label each section for the type of plants you want. This will help you keep the perennial and annual herbs separate.
- If you want an herb garden that is more for show, choose plants that have excellent scents, such as basil, rosemary, lavender and/or thyme. If you will be using the plants for cooking, plant the herbs that you use the most often. For example, if you enjoy Italian herbs or plan on making homemade spaghetti sauce, plants such as basil, oregano and parsley would be ideal.
- Whether you are planning a garden that includes both vegetables and herbs or only herbs, the tallest plants should be planted at the rear of the bed, intermediate height plants belong in the middle of the bed and low-growing plants should be planted at the front. This will allow all of the plants to get the most light.
- Depending on the plants you choose, you may be able to plant a large amount of one herb close together, otherwise you should leave 6 to 12 inches between each plant. Keep in mind that some plants, such as mint, grow and spread like crazy, so it is best to keep these kinds of herbs in their own container to prevent them from taking over your garden.
- Make sure the herb garden is in an area where it will get plenty of sun. The majority of herbs needs at least 6 hours of sun each day.
- When planting your herbs, consider planting colorful and frequently used herbs, such as basil and/or parsley, as bordering plants.
- Keep an eye on the weather and on those in-between days of rain, it is best to lightly sprinkle the plants with a garden hose. During the peak of the summer and in areas where you do not get a lot of rain, make sure to give the herb garden a good watering about every 4-5 days, with light sprinkling in between.
- Check for and remove all weeds at least once each week.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Herbs typically have the best flavor in their leaves just before they bloom. Pinch back annual herbs, such as basil to prevent them from blooming.
You can harvest the majority of herbs for fresh use throughout their growing season. Most perennial herbs, such as sage, thyme and rosemary need to have actively growing shoots clipped in lengths of 4 to 6-inches. You can collect the leaves from annuals as you need them.
If you are harvesting herbs to preserve for later use, wait until the plant has the strongest aroma and pick it early in the morning. If you notice any dust on the plant, wash it the day before you plan to harvest.
The easiest and most common way to preserve herbs is by hang drying them. To dry your herbs, snip the stem about 4 to 5-inches from the top of the plant. Place the stem upside down in a paper bag, close the bag and seal with a rubber band. Hang the paper bag in a warm, dry area, such as the laundry room.
Another way to preserve herbs is by freezing them. Simply place the herbs on a tray and place the in the freezer to quick freeze, then remove and place in individual plastic bags, seal tight and store in the freezer.
If you want to grow herbs that do well in a shady area, there are several great choices, including:
- Angelica-these plants grow to be about 5 feet tall and have lime green flowers. The leaves and stems taste great in vegetable soup, meat sauces and salads.
- Bergamot-this plant, also known as Bee Balm, goes to be about 3 feet tall, with red, orange, white, purple or pink blooms. It grows well in partial shade and the leaves make an excellent tea. The aroma of bergamot tea is supposed to help clear a head cold and hummingbirds, bees and butterflies love this plant.
- Lemon balm, which also attracts bees, grows about 2 feet tall and spreads by seed. The plants should be well watered and divided every two years to keep the under control. Lemon balm tastes great when infused with honey or to make lemonade.
Most herbs are easy to grow and require very little care (other than weeding and watering). Before you start your herb garden it will be beneficial to do a little research and learn about the different types of herbs and to make sure the soil and the sun in your area will meet their requirements for growth. Whether you choose to start your herb garden with seeds or seedlings, have fun and let all of your senses enjoy the smells, tastes and textures that come along with having your own herb garden.