A Handful of Handy Kitchen Herb Gardens

Learn how to grow a culinary herb garden in rough climates around the United States


Susan Strawn Bailey’s Colorado herb garden

Photography by Susan Strawn Bailey

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A window box, a big pot, a little patch of ground, the space ­partially sheltered by a backyard tree— each holds potential to provide the pleasure of kitchen herbs.

It took a lot of nerve to plant my kitchen herb garden on the north side of a two-story house, but I chose the site so I could pop out the back door of my north-facing kitchen to pick the freshest, most perfect herbs for cooking. With just a few steps, I can now gather tangy lemon balm for tea, crisp apple mint for fruit dishes, curly parsley and chive blossoms for salads, and an assortment of thymes and sages for homemade vegetable soup. The garden’s proximity to the kitchen encourages its frequent use.

With a few accommodations to the lack of sunlight on the site—many of which I’ve learned while working for The Herb Companion—my garden yields a delicious variety of fresh herbs throughout three seasons and enough for drying to last the winter. Other gardeners I’ve interviewed tell of even greater obstacles overcome to grow herb gardens with easy kitchen access.

A high plains kitchen garden

My kitchen herb garden on the high plains of Colorado, east of the Rocky Mountain foothills, hugs the north side of a covered brick patio. The soil is heavy clay, which I amended by double-digging mulch and sand into it. A towering maple tree and a large dogwood and lilac to the east and west allow the herbs only a few hours of midday sun in summer. However, a patio roof that stops 4 feet from the north end of the rafters lets in more light than a full roof would. Flat-leaved and curly parsleys, salad burnet, regular and garlic chives, and ‘Tricolor’, gold-variegated, and purple garden sages thrive in this bed. Many of the plants were donations from neighbors, which may account for their vigorous acclimatization to my urban forest.

Among them, I cluster clay pots of lemon balm and half a dozen different mints, which I move to sunnier spots after the summer solstice, when days begin growing shorter. Sweet woodruff spreads into the shade beneath the lilac and dogwood and blooms luxuriantly, white and fragrant, in spring.

In a 3-foot-diameter container on the patio itself, I experiment with varieties of thyme, including lemon and creeping thymes as well as the cultivars ‘Silver Queen’ and ‘Doone Valley’. They receive enough sun to produce prolific leaves, and most survive our Zone 5 winters, sheltered as they are by the patio cover. Each spring, I interplant the thymes with shade-­loving impatiens both for the spot of contrasting color and for a visual pun’s gentle reminder: abundant thyme surrounds impatiens.

In a sunnier spot 5 feet north of the patio is an 8-foot-diameter strawberry bed. The curving, found-stone footpath that surrounds it has proved to be an ideal location for sun-loving herbs: woolly thyme, cilantro, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, German chamomile, and basils including lemon-scented and Greek varieties along with ‘Dark Opal’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’. I’ve also grown dill and fennel here. Many of the plants found a home here after serving as photo models for The Herb Companion.

A bungalow kitchen garden in the city

Allene Robson’s tiny kitchen garden is squeezed between brick bungalows in suburban Chicago. A neighbor’s house stands 6 feet to the east and her own, 6 feet to the west. A 10-foot-tall lilac looms to the south. In this ­unlikely spot, in the middle of a ­broken-brick patio adjoining the steps from the kitchen door, Robson cleared a kidney-bean-shaped 3-by-5-foot space, outlined it with a brick border, and dug in extra soil.

The herb garden receives only a few hours of sun daily during the summer. “Oddly enough,” Robson says, that amount of light seems ample for the herbs I grow here: several basils, tarragon, summer savory, often some dill, common thyme, and marjoram, which spread over the brick edge happily.”

Curly parsley and chives, which Robson believes keep aphids off the roses, flourish a few steps farther down the path. Robson once planted lovage but removed it when she realized how tall it would become. Robson’s garden, though small, has allowed for plenty of playful experimentation. Pennyroyal, for instance, has proven to be both pesky and practical. Displaying its mint heritage, Robson’s first small bit of pennyroyal rapidly spread over the bricked area outside the herb bed. “When the pennyroyal gets too tall, I just pull it out. It always returns,” she laughs. Why not remove it completely from the garden? “It’s a great protection against mosquitoes when a sprig is rubbed on the skin or simply stuck into a shirt pocket—vital if I want to work in the garden after early June,” Robson explains.

These herbs fill the area to bursting come midsummer, and Robson uses them all, either fresh or dried. “I enjoy my very casual garden immensely. Herbs, besides being useful, are just wonderful, friendly plants.”

A culinary garden in the South

The long growing season of the southeastern coastal plain, where rosemaries bloom all winter, doesn’t ensure the success of a kitchen garden planted in poor soil. The term “soil” dig­nifies the situation Geri Laufer ­discovered at her midtown Atlanta, Georgia, home when she dug into the 3-inch layer of topsoil located 3 feet outside the kitchen door. Beneath the scraggly grass, she found a foot-deep layer of clinkers, hard black bits left over from burnt coal. Beneath the clinkers lay hard-packed, clay subsoil. Aboveground, huge trees and an ivy-covered fence surrounding the garden space allowed only a few hours of midday sun.

Nevertheless, Laufer and her husband double-dug the site, throwing clay to one side, clinkers to the other. These they amended with triple superphosphate, coarse river sand, 50 pounds of pulverized dolomitic lime (to sweeten the acidic soil), and well-rotted manure from the police horse stables. “We don’t have a pickup,” Laufer explains, “so we filled boxes lined with plastic garbage bags with manure and drove them home, a few boxes at a time, in the trunk of our car.”

The couple mounded the mixture back into the garden space and planted basils, thymes, sweet woodruff, and other herbs. Parsley, which is evergreen in Atlanta, is interplanted with pansies, a pretty pairing that provides salad herbs all winter. During the ­single month when frost threatens ­Atlanta, the brick house and garage adjacent to the garden offer some protection. And the few hours of sun? The herbs thrive anyway.

A Sonoran Desert kitchen garden

Cornelia Carlson has moved her kitchen garden between California and Arizona’s Sonoran Desert—twice. From Palo Alto, where expensive land meant a postage-stamp-sized front yard planted entirely to herbs, she moved to four acres of desert hillside outside Tucson, where she needed a wall and chicken-wire protection from rabbits and peccaries.

Back in Tucson after a stay in San Diego, Carlson has created a smaller kitchen garden. “My challenges are poor soil, low water, intense climate, moving plants between rich-soil and desert-soil regions, and critters,” she says. She began preparing the soil by pulling out rocks on her hands and knees.

A ramada, or roof of open-rafter grids, covers the patio garden near the house and protects strips of turmeric and ginger from the most intense summer heat and winter frost. Nearer the radiant heat of the house are pots of perennial spices: cinnamon, vanilla, allspice, black pepper and other members of the genus Piper, curry-leaf (Murraya koenigii), and Thai lime (Citrus hystrix). All of these do well except the vanilla, which, Carlson notes, is “a tough one to grow.”

In the walled garden outside the patio, a deciduous mesquite tree furnishes dappled light during summer to mints, rue, sorrel, burnet, borage, pineapple sage, and lemon verbena. A patch of parsley limps through summer here, but fall-planted chervil produces a fine winter and early spring crop. Thymes, sages, savories, and marjoram receive an intermediate amount of sun beyond the shade of the mesquite. “I could replace the mesquite with a mastic tree (Pistacia terebinthifolius) or pink peppercorn tree (Schinus terebenthifolius),” Carlson observes.

Perennials that can withstand heat populate the sunniest area: rosemary, oregano, scented pelargoniums, lemon grass, myrtle, Spanish lavender, epazote, and Mexican mint marigold. The last is a substitute for tarragon, which grows poorly in the desert.

For the cool season, Carlson plants dill, parsley, and cilantro, all of which would wither in the summer sun. Early spring crops of basils may grow 3 feet tall in full sun.

In summary, Carlson says, “I’m a real proselytizer for desert herb gardens, in part because the heat, while exacting penalties, does allow one to grow some fabulous plants you can’t grow elsewhere.”

Theresa Loe’s favorite herbs are closest to the kitchen. She uses hanging baskets, patio pots, trellises, and planters at every window to keep them within easy reach of the kitchen.

A kitchen herb garden by the beach

In the Southern California beach community of El Segundo, Theresa Loe grows a kitchen garden 10 feet from her back door, and she brings more culinary herbs closer still in hanging baskets and patio pots, on trellises, and in planters at every window. “Plants fill every square inch because we have such a small property—45 by 60 feet, including the house and front yard. In fact, I choose to grow herbs for their compactness,” she says.

Space limitations have required tough decisions and creative solutions. Space hogs like rhubarb, vining squash, and 7-foot-tall artichokes are out, replaced by productive apple trees espaliered against walls and roses trellised on sheds and fences.

Favorite herbs grow closest to the kitchen. Loe imagined reaching through the window over the kitchen sink to harvest chives, oregano, and nasturtiums from the planter outside, but invading insects soon necessitated a screen. Now she steps outside to harvest those herbs.

Mints fill another window box near the kitchen, and thymes, sage, oreganos, and marjorams fill hanging baskets. Loe adds pansies, Johnny-jump-ups, and nasturtiums for color. Garden fills every inch of the backyard.

The joy and bane of nearly year-round planting and harvesting often exhaust the enthusiasm of gardeners in Southern California. Loe jumpstarts her gardening devotion by choosing one garden section each year to “play” in. Last year, she redesigned her kitchen herb garden to resemble a patchwork quilt, alternating blocks of curly parsley with nasturtiums and regular chives with garlic chives for a changing pattern of contrasting foliage and blossoms.

So if you’ve been putting off starting an herb garden because you have only a tiny space for gardening or less light than the plant tags recommend, think again. These gardens prove that perfection is not a requirement for growing herbs. In fact, less-than-perfect soil, sunlight, and temperatures need not be obstacles to enjoying a handy kitchen garden.

A window box, a big pot, a little patch of ground, the space partially sheltered by a backyard tree—each holds potential to provide the pleasure of herbs.

Susan Strawn Bailey is an artist, photo stylist, and writer for The Herb Companion and other publications of Herb Companion Press and its sister company, Interweave Press.