Starting an Outdoor Herb Garden

An outdoor herb garden brings the joy of fresh herbs right to your backyard. Imagine plucking vibrant oregano, basil, thyme and more whenever you cook. An herb garden not only spices up meals, but fills the air with amazing scents.

Starting an outdoor herb garden is easy for beginners. With a little planning, you’ll reap a bountiful harvest. Let’s explore how to design, plant and care for a thriving outdoor herb garden.

Selecting the Right Herbs

When starting an outdoor herb garden, choose herbs suited to your climate and space.

Popular culinary herbs like basil, thyme, sage, oregano, chives, parsley, cilantro, dill, and rosemary grow well outdoors. Mint is easy too, but plant it separately since its spreading roots can take over.

Here are tips on choosing herbs for your region:

  • Warm climates: Grow basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, chives, cilantro, and parsley year-round. Mint thrives too.
  • Cool climates: Opt for parsley, chives, thyme, oregano, and sage. Grow basil and dill during warm seasons. Protect rosemary and other Mediterranean herbs in winter.
  • Arid climates: Choose drought-tolerant rosemary, thyme, oregano, lavender, and sage.
  • Part sun areas: Good options include parsley, chives, mint, oregano, thyme, and cilantro.
  • Full sun areas: Try basil, sage, rosemary, dill, thyme and other herbs that need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily.
  • Small spaces: Favor compact herbs like thyme, oregano, chives, parsley, basil, sage, and cilantro.

Choosing the Best Spot

When selecting where to plant your outdoor herb garden, keep these factors in mind:

  • Sunlight: Most herbs need at least 6 hours of direct sun daily. Morning sun is ideal.
  • Soil: Well-draining soil enriched with compost is ideal. Avoid wet, dense soil.
  • Drainage: Ensure the area drains well so herbs don’t sit in water.
  • Convenience: Plant herbs within easy reach of your kitchen.

You can create an herb garden right in the ground or in containers on a patio, balcony, or doorstep. Potted herbs can move with the sun. In-ground herbs often grow larger and don’t need frequent watering.

Preparing the Soil

Herbs thrive in nutrient-rich, well-draining soil. Here’s how to prepare the ground:

  • Remove weeds, rocks and debris. Loosen compacted soil.
  • Work 2-4 inches of compost into the top 6-12 inches of soil. Compost enriches and loosens the earth.
  • Consider adding organic fertilizer for an extra nutrient boost.
  • For in-ground herbs, turn the soil over fully to aerate. Break up large clumps.
  • Just before planting, rake the soil smooth to create a fine bed.

For potted herbs, use a quality potting mix. Or make your own by combining compost with perlite and vermiculite for drainage.

Planting Your Herbs

Once your soil is prepped, it’s time to plant! Here are tips for planting an outdoor herb garden:

Starting from Seed

Growing herbs from seed is economical. Many herbs like cilantro, dill and parsley only live one season, so it’s best to sow new seed regularly.

  • Plant seeds in early spring after the last frost. Follow the seed packet instructions.
  • Gently press seeds into moistened, prepared soil. Cover tiny seeds lightly; large seeds can be buried a bit deeper.
  • Keep the area consistently moist until seedlings emerge in 1-3 weeks.
  • Thin seedlings so they’re 4-6 inches apart.

Using Herb Starters

For convenience, you can plant herbs from starters or small potted plants. Starters are available at garden centers in spring. Choose young plants with healthy leaves and roots.

  • Before planting, harden off starter plants for 7-10 days. Set them outdoors in filtered sun, gradually increasing light exposure.
  • Carefully remove plants from containers, loosen tangled roots, and plant at the same depth they grew in the pot.
  • Water each plant well after transplanting.

Direct Sowing Outdoors

Some herbs can be directly sown right into the garden bed. This works well for hardy herbs like parsley, chives, dill and cilantro.

  • Wait 2-4 weeks after the last spring frost date, when soil is warm.
  • Plant large seeds 1/4-1/2″ deep. Cover tiny seeds lightly with soil.
  • Sow seeds 6-12″ apart in rows or clusters, depending on the herb.
  • Keep the soil moist for faster germination. Thin seedlings.

Caring for Your Herbs

A well-tended herb garden rewards you with robust flavor and growth. Follow these tips:

Watering

  • Water herbs regularly with 1-2″ per week, adjusting for rainfall.
  • Water in morning so leaves dry fully. Wet nighttime foliage invites disease.
  • Check soil moisture 2-3″ down. Don’t let it totally dry out. Container plants need more frequent watering.

Weeding and Mulching

  • Pull weeds when young and roots are shallow. Weeds steal water and nutrients.
  • Apply 2-3″ of organic mulch like wood chips around herbs to deter weeds and retain moisture. Leave space near stems.

Fertilizing

  • Feed with organic fertilizer or compost tea every 2-3 weeks during the growing season.
  • Too much nitrogen causes excess foliage at the expense of flavor. Go easy on high-nitrogen fertilizers.

Harvesting

  • Snip leafy herb stems just above leaf sets where new growth will emerge.
  • Harvest often, taking no more than one-third of each plant’s foliage at once. Frequent pruning boosts growth.
  • Cut whole stems or individual leaves depending on the herb and recipe needs.
  • Harvest herbs in morning after dew dries for best flavor.

Common Herb Gardening Mistakes

When starting a herb garden, avoid these common errors:

  • Poor drainage – Herbs hate soggy soil. Ensure the area drains well.
  • Crowded planting – Give each herb enough space to grow. Follow spacing guidelines.
  • Wrong sunlight – Plant sun-loving herbs together and shade herbs together.
  • Overwatering – Too much moisture can cause root rot. Let soil dry between waterings.
  • Underwatering – Herbs need consistent moisture. Don’t let them wilt badly.
  • Waiting too long to harvest – For the best flavor, harvest herbs frequently.
  • Improper cutting – Don’t remove more than one-third of each plant’s foliage at once.

Growing Specific Herbs

Let’s explore how to grow popular herbs in an outdoor garden:

Basil

  • Planting: Sow seeds or plant starters after danger of frost. Space plants 12-15″ apart.
  • Care: Provide at least 6 hours of sun. Keep soil consistently moist. Pinch off flower buds to prolong harvest.
  • Harvesting: Cut whole stems just above a leaf set to encourage bushy growth.

Mint

  • Planting: Plant rooted cuttings or starters 12″ apart. Grow mint in pots to control spreading.
  • Care: Mint thrives in part sun to shade. Keep soil consistently moist. Cut back rampant growth.
  • Harvesting: Cut whole stems 2-3″ above the ground. Mint regrows vigorously.

Oregano and Marjoram

  • Planting: Start indoors 6-8 weeks before last frost, then transplant starters outside 12″ apart. Can also direct sow.
  • Care: Grow in full sun and well-drained soil. Allow soil to slightly dry between waterings.
  • Harvesting: Snip leaves and stems as needed. Prune lightly early on to encourage branching.

Rosemary

  • Planting: Transplant starters after danger of frost, spacing 2-3′ apart. Select cold-hardy varieties.
  • Care: Needs well-drained soil and at least 6 hours of sun. Drought tolerant but benefits from occasional deep watering. Bring indoors in cold winters.
  • Harvesting: Remove whole 6″ stems or snip flavorful needle-like leaves. Don’t cut into woody parts.

Sage

  • Planting: Transplant young starters 18-24″ apart after chance of frost. Can also sow seeds directly.
  • Care: Tolerates drought but produces best with regular watering. Cut back during growing season to prevent woody stems.
  • Harvesting: Cut whole stems as needed, trimming just above leaf sets.

Thyme

  • Planting: Transplant starters 8-12″ apart. Can also be seeded directly. Choose upright or creeping varieties.
  • Care: Prefers full sun and light sandy soil. Tolerates some drought once established. Prune often.
  • Harvesting: Cut whole stems to the base. Thyme flowers have flavor too.

Parsley

  • Planting: Soak seeds overnight then directly sow outdoors in early spring, 1/2″ deep. Sow again midsummer for fall crop.
  • Care: Grows well in part shade. Keep soil moist. Add mulch to retain moisture.
  • Harvesting: Cut outer stems 2″ above the ground. New growth will continually emerge.

Troubleshooting Herb Garden Problems

Even the best gardens encounter issues. Here are organic solutions for common herb garden problems:

  • Wilting plants – Increase watering frequency. Young plants need more moisture.
  • Powdery mildew – Improve airflow. Avoid wetting foliage. Remove affected leaves. Spray neem oil.
  • Aphids or mites – Knock pests off with strong spray of water. Wipe leaves with insecticidal soap solution. Attract beneficial insects.
  • Snails and slugs – Remove during cool mornings when active. Put up copper barriers. Trap in shallow dishes of beer. Dust diatomaceous earth around plants.
  • Plant fungus – Remove affected leaves. Improve drainage and airflow. Apply neem oil.

Creative Herb Garden Ideas

Looking for inspiration? Consider these unique herb garden ideas:

  • Plant a container herb spiral for vertical variety on a patio or deck.
  • Fill a windowsill planter box with compact herbs like thyme and parsley.
  • Create a geometric herb garden in a raised bed, with tidy rows or beds in fun shapes.
  • Include edible flowers like nasturtium, calendula and borage in your herb garden.
  • Interplant herbs, vegetables and ornamentals together in a mixed garden.
  • Make a tea herb garden with chamomile, mint, lemon balm, stevia, and aromatic herbs.
  • Designate pots just for culinary herbs used in cooking. Keep them near the kitchen.
  • Add herbs to your landscaping. Try rosemary hedges, thyme walkways, or parsley as a lush ground cover.

Enjoying the Rewards

One of the joys of growing an herb garden is savoring the fresh-picked bounty. Snip herbs to flavor meals all season, saving excess for drying or freezing. Brew flavorful teas from your garden mint, lemon balm and other herbs. Share the harvest with friends and family. Gardening and cooking with homegrown herbs will soon become a favorite ritual!

With proper planning and care, your outdoor herb garden will thrive season after season. The aromatic plants are beautiful to look at and a joy to use in recipes. Let your herb garden be a relaxing oasis that brings you closer to nature’s delicious flavors.