How to Grow a Small Herb Garden Outdoors

Growing your herb garden is a fun and rewarding way to add fresh flavor to your cooking. With just a small amount of space, you can have an endless supply of herbs right outside your door. Follow this guide to learn everything you need to know about starting and caring for a thriving outdoor herb garden.

Selecting the Right Herbs

When planning your first herb garden, it’s best to start with just a few hardy herbs that are relatively easy to grow. As you gain experience, you can add more delicate and finicky herbs to your garden. Here are some great starter herbs to consider:

Basil

A warm-weather annual, basil is one of the most popular herbs for cooking. It’s easy to grow from seed or transplants and thrives with plenty of sun and rich soil. Try growing different types like sweet, Thai, and lemon basil.

Chives

An easy-to-grow perennial, chives add a mild onion flavor to dishes. Plant chive bulbs or transplants in a sunny spot with well-drained soil. Harvest by snipping leaves as needed. Chives will spread rapidly, so contain them or divide the clumps annually.

Cilantro

Known for its pungent leaves, cilantro grows best in cool weather and often bolts in summer heat. Successive sowing every 2-3 weeks extends the harvest. Both the leaves (cilantro) and seeds (coriander) are used in cooking.

Oregano

A Mediterranean herb, oregano thrives with at least 6 hours of sun and dry conditions. Start with transplants or divisions, as oregano can be slow-growing from seed. Trim it back to encourage bushy growth.

Rosemary

An attractive evergreen shrub, rosemary adds delicious flavor to meat, vegetables, and more. It prefers warm climates with excellent drainage. Prune rosemary in spring to shape the plant and boost growth.

Thyme

A hardy perennial, thyme grows well from transplant or cuttings. It does best with full sun and dry conditions. For continuous harvest, shear thyme back halfway through summer to promote new growth.

Mint

Extremely vigorous, mint will take over your garden if not contained. Plant it in a pot sunk into the ground to restrict its spreading roots. There are many mint varieties to choose from, like peppermint and spearmint.

Choosing the Right Location

Most culinary herbs need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. An ideal herb garden location is a raised planting bed or container garden along a sunny patio, deck, or entrance. This ensures excellent drainage and puts your herbs within easy reach for harvesting. Just make sure your container or bed is large enough to accommodate the herb’s mature size.

If planting in the ground, select a spot with nutrient-rich, well-drained soil. Avoid soggy areas or dense clay soil. For in-ground herbs like mint that spread aggressively, plant them about 2 feet away from lower-growing vegetables and flowers.

Preparing the Soil

While herbs tolerate less-than-ideal soil quite well, they will thrive in soil that has been amended with compost or other organic matter. Before planting, mix 1-2 inches of compost into the top 6 inches of native soil. You can also add small amounts of complete organic fertilizer or aged manure.

Container gardens will need a high-quality potting mix. Look for a mix formulated for herbs and vegetables, which contains compost as well as nutrients to support plant growth.

Planting Your Herbs

Herbs can be planted in spring once the danger of frost has passed. Fall planting is also an option for perennial herbs like thyme, oregano, and rosemary. Here are some tips for getting your herbs off to a vigorous start:

From transplants: Carefully remove plants from containers, loosen the roots, and plant at the same depth they were growing in the pot. Water well and provide shade for a few days until established.

From seeds: Sow seeds according to packet directions and barely cover with soil. Keep the soil consistently moist until seedlings emerge. Thin seedlings to the recommended spacing.

From cuttings: Take 3-4 inch cuttings from healthy plants. Remove leaves from the lower half and dip cut end in rooting hormone. Plant in potting mix and water lightly. Cover with a plastic bag until roots form.

From divisions: Use a shovel to divide established perennial clumps and replant divisions 12-18 inches apart. Keep them well watered while roots recover from division.

Follow recommended spacing guidelines to allow your herbs adequate room to reach mature size. Intersperse herbs with low-growing edible flowers like pansies, nasturtiums, and calendula which make beautiful companions.

Caring for Your Herb Garden

While herbs are generally quite drought tolerant, consistent water and occasional fertilizer will keep them thriving. Here are some tips for ongoing herb garden care:

  • Water established herbs about 1 inch per week, adjusting for rainfall. Allow soil to dry between waterings.
  • Apply a balanced organic fertilizer or compost tea monthly during the growing season.
  • Prune herbs frequently to encourage bushy growth. Remove flower heads to prolong leaf production.
  • Weed regularly when plants are young. Apply mulch later to suppress weeds.
  • Monitor for pests like aphids, snails, and whiteflies. Remove by hand or use organic sprays as needed.
  • At the end of the season, trim back herbs by 1/3 to 1/2 before first frost. Mulch perennial herbs for winter protection.
  • Bring container gardens indoors over winter. Transplant perennials into larger pots for indoor growing.

Harvesting and Preserving Herbs

One of the joys of growing herbs is having their fresh flavor ready to harvest whenever you need it. Here are some harvesting guidelines:

  • Snip leafy herb stems just above leaf nodes where new growth will emerge.
  • Take no more than one-third of the plant at a time to avoid stressing it.
  • Harvest before plants flower for the best flavor.
  • Time harvesting for mid-morning on dry sunny days.
  • Rinse herbs and pat dry before use.

Preserve abundant harvests by air drying, freezing in ice cubes or oil, or pureeing and freezing in ice cube trays. You can also infuse herbs in vinegar, salt, sugar, or butter. Properly stored dried or frozen herbs will retain excellent flavor for months.

Common Herb Garden Problems and Solutions

Don’t be discouraged if you encounter a few issues while caring for your herb garden. Even experienced gardeners deal with problems now and then. Here are some common herb garden challenges and how to resolve them:

Leggy growth: Increase sun exposure, pinch back stems, or move to a location with better air circulation.

Poor germination: Ensure seeds are planted at the correct depth and keep soil evenly moist.

Yellowing leaves: Apply balanced fertilizer and monitor watering. Could indicate overwatering, underwatering, or nitrogen deficiency.

Wilting/drooping: Check soil moisture and water if dry. Could indicate underwatering or root damage from overwatering.

Leaf spots/discoloration: Improve air circulation. Remove affected leaves and treat with organic fungicide if disease is severe.

Chewed leaves or plants: Apply row covers to exclude pests or hand pick beetles, slugs, snails. Spray insecticidal soap for aphids.

White crust on leaves: Treat powdery mildew with neem oil or potassium bicarbonate spray. Improve air circulation.

Plants decline/die: Rule out root rot from overwatering. Improve drainage and do not overcrowd plants.

With attentive care and persistent troubleshooting, you can overcome any challenges that arise in your herb garden. Don’t hesitate to replant if a certain herb struggles in your conditions.

Designing a Small Space Herb Garden

Lack of yard space shouldn’t stop you from enjoying fresh herbs just outside your door. You’d be amazed how productive a small space herb garden can be! Here are some tips for maximizing herbs in a tiny garden:

Grow upright. Choose tall, narrow pots or trellises for growing vertical. This saves precious square footage. Good vertical herbs include chives, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and mint.

Go portable. Plant your herbs in lightweight containers that can be moved to capture sunlight or protect from harsh weather. Add wheels to larger pots.

Use wall space. Install wall-mounted planters or build stacked shelves on sunny walls or fences. These can house a high volume of herbs in very little space.

Plant in borders. Tuck herbs into spots along pathways or edges of planting beds. Trailing herbs like thyme work well in flagstone walkway joints.

Pick dwarf varieties. Opt for miniature or dwarf cultivars that stay under 12 inches tall but yield full flavor. ‘Spicy Globe’ basil and ‘Baby Dill’ are two dwarf herbs perfect for small spaces.

Combine with edibles. Mix herbs in with other edible plants like lettuce, kale, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. This results in a high-yield edible landscape.

Go vertical. Train vining herbs like nasturtium up trellises and poles. Use hanging baskets for trailing rosemary and thyme.

With a bit of creativity, you can tuck flavorful herbs into the tiniest corners of your outdoor space!

Best Herbs for Outdoor Container Gardening

One of the easiest ways to grow herbs is in containers. Potted herbs can be positioned in convenient sunny spots and provide a bountiful harvest on a small balcony or patio. Here are some top choices for container herb gardening:

Oregano – Does well in pots and loves hot, dry conditions. Choose compact Greek or Italian varieties.

Thyme – Slow growing and hardy, thyme thrives in containers with at least 6 hours of sunlight.

Chives – Easy to grow and productive, chives add a nice vertical element to pots. Limit water to prevent rot.

Parsley – Curly leaf parsley produces abundantly all season long. Choose flat leaf or Italian parsley for stronger flavor.

Rosemary – This attractive woody herb grows slowly, so select a mature plant or dwarf variety for containers.

Sage – Adapts well to pots as long as adequate sunlight is provided. Grow dwarf garden sage for containers.

Mint – Invasive in the garden, mint is easily contained in pots. Give it rich soil and consistent moisture.

Basil – A warm weather annual, basil thrives in containers and produces prolific leaves. Go for compact types.

Tarragon – Known for its intense flavor, tarragon must be grown from transplants as seeds are sterile. It does well in pots.

Bay – Limit size by pruning this large Mediterranean herb. Grow it in a tub or very large planter.

With the right selection, you can grow an abundance of flavorful herbs in decorative pots on your patio or balcony.

Best Herbs to Grow in Hot Climates

If you live in a region with extremely hot summers, choose heat-loving herbs that will thrive in your climate. Some herbs actually need high temperatures, low humidity, and lots of sun to fully develop their signature flavors. Here are the best choices for herb gardens in hot environments:

Basil – This summer favorite requires warm conditions. Opt for heat-tolerant varieties like ‘Genovese’ and ‘Sweet Thai’.

Oregano – Native to Mediterranean regions, oregano thrives with high heat and drought conditions.

Rosemary – Excellent drainage is key for rosemary to survive hot and humid summers. Select heat-tolerant cultivars.

Sage – Grow hardy garden sage varieties like ‘Berggarten’ and ‘Icterina’ that withstand heat and humidity.

Lavender – Prefers hot, sunny spots with very well-drained soil. Search for heat-tolerant lavender cultivars.

Lemon verbena – Needs consistent heat to produce the strongest lemon flavor. Give it the hottest spot in your garden.

Bay laurel – This Mediterranean herb needs hot temperatures and low humidity. Provide afternoon shade in extreme heat.

Thyme – Tolerates high heat and drought extremely well. Just ensure adequate moisture until established.

Chives – One of the best herbs for hot climates. Thrives in heat and tolerates drier soils.

With some thoughtful plant selection, your herb garden can thrive despite soaring temperatures and high humidity.

Extending the Growing Season for Herbs

One challenge with growing herbs is their relatively short season in cool climates. While annual herbs like basil thrive only in summer’s warm temperatures, you can extend the harvest for hardy perennial herbs from early spring through late fall with these techniques:

Start seeds indoors: Get a head start by sowing parsley, cilantro, and dill seeds indoors up to two months before your last expected frost date. Move them to the garden after hardening off.

Use cold frames: Temporary cold frames or cloches over your herbs will protect them from light frosts, allowing you to plant earlier and harvest later into the seasons.

Plant early and late: Put in a first crop of cool-tolerant herbs like chives, thyme, and oregano in early spring. Reseed a second crop in mid to late summer for fall harvesting.

Choose slow bolting varieties: Select slow bolting cilantro and parsley varieties suited to colder conditions so they last longer into winter.

Grow in containers: Potted herbs are easier to protect from cold temperatures. Move them to sheltered areas or indoors as needed to maintain harvests.

Mulch perennials: Apply a 2-4 inch organic mulch layer over soil around perennial herbs in fall. Remove in spring after last frost date.

Prune and fertilize: Pruning and fertilizing herbs in later summer will stimulate tender new growth that lasts longer into autumn.

With the right techniques, you can harvest garden-fresh herbs up to two months longer on each end of the growing season.

Best Herbs for Beginner Gardeners

The most rewarding herbs for novice gardeners are those that are unfussy, forgiving, and low-maintenance. Here are some of the best options if you’re just getting started with herb gardening:

Chives – Extremely hardy and prolific. Thrives in nearly any condition.

Oregano – Vigorous and trouble-free. Tolerates poor soil and drought.

Thyme – Low maintenance and grows readily from cuttings or transplants.

Greek Basil – The easiest basil variety. Less fussy about water and fertilizer needs.

Dill – Quick to germinate and grow. Reseeds itself each year.

Garlic Chives – Spreading perennial that grows reliably from divisions.

Rosemary – Adaptable woody herb once established. Drought and pest resistant.

Sage – Grow hearty garden sage varieties. Forgiving of less-than-ideal care.

Lemon Balm – Very hardy perennial that spreads readily. Great starter herb.

Mint – Thrives despite neglect. Just contain its rampant growth habits.

When starting out, go for dependable herbs that will reward you with prolific harvests in spite of beginner mistakes. Your skills will grow as your herb garden flourishes!

Troubleshooting Common Problems Growing Herbs

Don’t let a few pesky problems stop you from succeeding with herbs! Here are some effective troubleshooting tips for common herb growing issues:

Slow growth: This usually indicates inadequate sunlight. Move pots or rotate outdoor plants to increase daily sun exposure to 6-8 hours.

Leaves curled, chewed, or discolored: Identify the pest and use row covers, insecticidal soap, neem oil, or hand-picking to control infestations.

Powdery white coating on leaves: This powdery mildew thrives in damp, shady areas. Improve air circulation and treat with neem oil spray.

Flowers and bolting: Pinch off flowers to prolong harvests. Some herbs like cilantro bolt in heat – make successive sowings for continuous supply.

Woody growth: Prune regularly and properly to encourage new growth and prevent excessive woodiness.

Leggy or spindly plants: Give herbs more sun and pinch back stems to encourage bushy growth habit.

Poor germination: Ensure seeds are planted at the correct depth. Keep soil moist but not saturated for best sprouting.

Wilting/drooping: Check soil moisture and water thoroughly if dry. Could indicate underwatering or overwatering damage.

Leaf spots or yellowing: Avoid wetting foliage and improve drainage. Remove affected leaves and dispose of debris.

Stay vigilant for any issues and take prompt action to get your herbs back on track for health and productivity.

Creative Ways to Use Fresh Herbs

Don’t let your bountiful herb harvest go to waste! Here are some creative ways to use fresh herbs straight from your garden:

  • Make herb-infused oils and vinegars to use all year long in recipes. Great for seasoning or marinades.
  • Stuff whole herbs, edible flowers, and aromatics into empty tea bags for fresh flavorful tea.
  • Whirl up flavorful herb pestos and sauces. Basil, cilantro, arugula, and parsley all make great pestos.
  • Toss chopped herbs into scrambled eggs, omelets, and frittatas just before serving.
  • Skewer herb leaves, veggies, and fruits to infuse grilled kabobs with flavor.
  • Mix chopped herbs into softened butter. Chill in a log shape and slice to use on bread, corn, or anywhere you’d use butter.
  • Stir minced herbs into yogurt, cottage cheese, and cream cheese as a fresh, healthy topping for baked potatoes, chicken, toast, or crackers.
  • Make herb-filled compound butters by blending fresh chopped herbs with softened butter.

With a little creativity, you’ll find endless ways to enjoy the fresh flavors from your herb garden!

In Conclusion

Growing your own herb garden is an extremely rewarding experience that will bring you an abundant supply of garden-fresh flavor all season long. Start out with a few hardy herbs like basil, oregano, thyme, and chives which are simple to grow in beds, containers, or even indoors. Pay close attention to each herb’s optimal site conditions and care needs. With practice, you’ll master how to keep your herbs thriving and overcome any challenges that arise. Get creative harvesting and preserving your herb bounty.