Growing Your Own Herb Garden

Growing your herb garden can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Fresh herbs add amazing flavor to meals, provide natural remedies, and fill your home with wonderful scents. With the right herbs and a little care, anyone can have a thriving indoor or outdoor herb garden. This guide will walk you through how to plan, plant, and care for the most popular and useful culinary and medicinal herbs.

Choosing Herbs for Your Garden

When planning your herb garden, first consider which herbs you cook with most and want to have readily available. Think about the cuisine you make regularly and what fresh herbs would enhance those dishes. Choose herbs that are relatively easy to grow, especially for beginners. Here are some top herbs to consider:

Culinary Herbs

  • Basil – The most popular herb for making pesto, adding to tomatoes, topping pizzas, and more. Many varieties available. Grows quickly.
  • Parsley – Fresh parsley adds brightness to dishes. Curly leaf parsley is commonly used in cooking. Flat leaf Italian parsley has an even more vibrant flavor.
  • Cilantro – The fresh flavor of cilantro is perfect for salsas, Mexican food, curries, and more. It grows fast.
  • Chives – These grass-like herbs have a gentle onion flavor. Snip them to top baked potatoes, salads, dips, and more.
  • Oregano – An essential herb for Italian and Mediterranean cuisine. Used in pizza, pasta, and much more.
  • Thyme – Adds an earthy, aromatic flavor. Commonly used in stews, sauces, roasts. Many varieties.
  • Mint – Choose peppermint or spearmint. Makes a soothing tea and adds flavor to sweets and drinks. Spreads rapidly.
  • Rosemary – This woody, pine-like herb complements potatoes, chicken, lamb, and more. Upright or trailing varieties.

Medicinal Herbs

  • Chamomile – Dried flowers make a calming tea. Grows low to the ground.
  • Lavender – Has a soothing scent and flavor. Used in tea, baking, and potpourri. Beautiful purple flowers.
  • Lemon balm – Makes a pleasant, citrusy tea. Attracts bees. Easy to grow.
  • Echinacea (Coneflower) – Stimulates the immune system. Purple daisy-like flowers.
  • Calendula – The flowers have anti-inflammatory properties. Add petals to salads.

Deciding Where to Plant Your Herb Garden

Herbs can be grown successfully either outdoors in garden beds or planters, or indoors in pots near sunny windows.

Outdoor herb gardens allow plants to reach their full sizes and yields. Some things to consider are:

  • Sunlight – Most herbs require at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Choose a spot that gets sun most of the day.
  • Soil – Herbs thrive in well-draining soil. In heavy clay soil, add compost or peat to improve drainage.
  • Accessibility – Plant herbs within easy reach of your kitchen door for convenient harvesting.
  • Plant spacing – Check herb plant tag for recommended spacing. Proper spacing prevents overcrowding.
  • Watering – Ensure there is a nearby water source for watering or irrigation system.
  • Containers – You can also grow herbs on a patio or deck in containers or raised garden beds with high quality potting mix. Ensure containers have drainage holes at bottom.

If outdoor space is limited, indoors herb gardens allow you to grow plants year-round on windowsills or under lights. Considerations include:

  • South or west facing windows provide the most light. Supplement with grow lights.
  • Use well-draining potting mix and containers with drainage. Water when soil is partly dry.
  • Rotate pots frequently so all sides get sunlight. Pinch off flower buds to encourage leaf growth.
  • Basil, parsley, mint, thyme, rosemary grow well indoors. Start seeds or get transplants.

Preparing Soil and Planting Herbs

Proper soil preparation helps herbs establish strong roots and thrive. Here are some tips:

  • Check soil pH with a test kit. Most herbs prefer slightly alkaline soil in the 6.5-7.0 range. Adjust if needed.
  • Mix in 1-2 inches of compost or well-rotted manure before planting to enrich soil with organic matter.
  • Remove any weeds. Herbs don’t compete well with weeds. Apply mulch later to suppress weeds.

You can start herbs from seeds or buy young starter plants. Here is how to plant them:

Planting from seeds

  • Start seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before your last spring frost. Give them lots of light.
  • Outdoors, sow seeds in prepared soil after danger of frost. Follow directions on seed packet for depth.
  • Water gently after sowing, keep soil moist. Thin seedlings when they sprout.

Planting starter plants

  • At nurseries, look for stocky, green, healthy herb plants without flowers.
  • Carefully remove plants from containers, loosen roots if root bound.
  • Dig holes the width of the root ball and deep enough to match its depth.
  • Set plants in holes, fill with soil, water thoroughly after planting.

Caring for Herb Plants

Once your herbs are planted, it’s important to take good care of them throughout the growing season. Here are some tips:

Watering

  • Most herbs prefer consistent moisture in the soil. Water when the top few inches become dry.
  • New plants need more frequent watering until their roots establish. Then taper off.
  • Drought tolerant herbs like rosemary and lavender require less water once established.

Fertilizing

  • Use organic fertilizer or compost tea a few weeks after planting and every 3-4 weeks in spring and summer.
  • For container plants, supplement with a slow release organic fertilizer a couple times per season.

Pruning and Harvesting

  • Snip off flower buds to encourage more leaf growth. Exceptions are dill and cilantro which you let bolt for seeds.
  • Harvest frequently by cutting stems or individual leaves so plants remain compact and bushy.
  • Prune woody herbs like rosemary lightly in spring to shape bush and remove dead branches.

Pest and Disease Prevention

  • Help prevent disease by providing good air circulation and avoiding overhead watering.
  • Identify pests like aphids early and use organic neem oil spray or insecticidal soap treatment.
  • Clear away fallen leaves and other debris around plants to prevent fungal issues.

Overwintering

  • In cold climates, mulch herb beds with straw or leaves for insulation or bring potted herbs indoors over winter.
  • Prune back plants by 1/3 to 1/2 before frost season. Keep indoor herbs in cool spot with limited watering.
  • Perennial herbs may die back but their roots often survive winter if protected from freezing.

Harvesting and Preserving Your Herb Bounty

One of the greatest rewards of growing herbs is being able to harvest their flavorful bounty. Follow these guidelines for getting the most from your herb garden:

When to Harvest

  • Harvest herbs in the morning after dew has dried but before the midday sun. This captures the best flavor.
  • Harvest frequently, don’t strip all leaves off at once. Frequent trimming encourages new growth.
  • Harvest just before plants flower for peak flavor. Exceptions are dill and cilantro which can be harvested when flowering.

How to Harvest

  • Use clean, sharp scissors or garden shears to cut stems or individual leaves and sprigs. Make cuts above leaf nodes.
  • Handle herbs gently to avoid bruising. Use containers or baskets lined with paper towels to transport.
  • Rinse off soil and pat herbs dry with towels before use. Woody herbs like rosemary can be rinsed right before use.

How to Preserve

  • Store freshly cut herbs loosely wrapped in paper towels and ziplock bags in the fridge for a week or two.
  • Air dry herbs by hanging bundled stems or laying leaves on screens in cool, dark place. Then store in jars.
  • Freeze chopped herbs with a bit of water in ice cube trays. Pop out and store cubes in bags.
  • Make herb butters, oils, vinegars, pestos, and more. Use immediately or refrigerate/freeze for longer term storage.

Herb Garden Designs and Companion Planting

Once you’ve decided which herbs to grow, it’s time to map out your garden design. Here are some layout ideas and companion planting tips:

Formal herb gardens have geometric designs with orderly rows, brick paths, and boxwood dividers. Culinary herbs like basil, sage, thyme and rosemary are neatly planted in uniform patches. This orderly, decorative look works well in spaces like courtyards.

Informal cottage garden designs intermingle flowering perennials and ornamental grasses with herbs in free-flowing, naturalistic style. Curving gravel or stone paths connect the plantings. These casual designs work with rambling herbs like mints and oregano.

Raised beds and planter boxes are great for dedicated herb gardens or mixed with veggies. Choose weather-resistant wood like cedar or redwood. Line beds with landscape fabric to prevent weeds. Fill with a quality potting mix for excellent drainage.

Container herb gardens allow you to creatively combine herbs, flowering plants, and trailing greenery in pots on patios, doorsteps and decks. Choose a wide, shallow container for a variety of herbs. Include “thrillers” like rosemary, “spillers” like thyme, and “fillers” like parsley.

Companion planting certain herbs together can have beneficial effects:

  • Plant basil and tomatoes together. Basil repels pests and improves tomato flavor.
  • Chives near roses help deter aphids. Dill attracts predatory wasps that eat pests.
  • Parsley enhances the growth and flavor of asparagus when planted beside it.
  • Grow borage near tomatoes, squash and strawberries to deter pests like hornworms.
  • Oregano helps cabbage, kale and broccoli by repelling cabbage moths.
  • Marigolds interplanted with herbs deter nematodes and other garden pests.

12 Popular Herbs for Home Gardens

Here is more detail on cultivating, using and enjoying a dozen top herb varieties:

Basil – This quintessential Italian herb comes in many types. Sweet basil is the most popular for making pesto, adding to tomatoes and topping pizza. Let some plants flower for pollinators. Pinch off flower buds to prolong harvest. Bring inside to extend season.

Parsley – A versatile herb perfect for beginners. Curly leaf provides vibrant flavor and flat leaf offers even more zing. Superior source of vitamins A, C and K. Use generously in all kinds of cuisine. Cut often to prevent flowering.

Mint – Spearmint and peppermint add refreshing flavor to drinks, desserts, sauces and more. Grows aggressively – confine in containers unless you want it taking over! Cut back often. Dries and freezes well.

Oregano – An aromatic, woodsy herb that defines Greek and Italian food. Essential for pizza, pasta, salads and roasted veggies. Clip often to prevent flowering. Divide plants every few years to rejuvenate. Excellent dried.

Thyme – Dozens of types from lemon to creeping thyme. Woody stems with tiny fragrant leaves. Use sprigs to flavor soups, stews, meats and more. Prune plants in spring to maintain shape. Drought resistant once established.

Rosemary – A Mediterranean native with needle-like leaves and piney scent. Roasting meats and potatoes brings out its robust flavor. Upright or trailing kinds. Thrives in hot sun and well-drained soil. Protect from winter cold.

Sage – An aromatic, silvery leaf herb. Used fresh or dried for stuffing, sausage, stews, beans and turkey. Provide well-drained soil and prune annually to maintain shape. Harvest before flowering for best flavor.

Lavender – Prized for its floral fragrance and beauty. Use buds dried or fresh to flavor desserts, drinks and jellies. Extract lavender oil through distillation. Prefers dry soil and full sun. Trim back stems after flowering.

Chives – Fine, grassy leaves impart a gentle onion flavor. Snip with scissors to top baked potatoes, dips, omelets and more. Pretty purple flowers attract pollinators in spring. Chives self-seed readily. Freeze chopped leaves to preserve.

Cilantro – The fresh, citrusy taste essential for salsas, Mexican and Asian dishes. Direct sow in garden. Bolts quickly in heat – make successive plantings for continual harvest. Let some plants flower/seed for coriander spice.

Dill – A favorite for pickling cucumbers and making dill dip. Use seeds for flavoring breads and vinegars. Direct sow in either spring or fall. Flowers attract beneficial insects. Let some plants go to seed.

Chamomile – Delicate daisy-like flowers make calming herbal tea. Prefers partial shade and moist, well-drained soil. Harvest flowers just after blooming by cutting stems near ground. Dry immediately – flowers crumble when handled.

Conclusion

Growing your own herb garden is an easy, rewarding way to add beauty and abundant flavor to your home. With the right selection of herbs for your climate and needs, proper planting techniques, attentive care and regular harvesting, you can enjoy your very own gourmet herb garden. Start with a few beginner-friendly herbs like parsley, basil and mint, then expand your collection as you gain experience. Soon you’ll be cooking and entertaining with the wonderful flavors and scents of fresh garden herbs.