Question: I’ve bought a new house and want to plan my first large herb garden to go in next spring. Where do I start?
Answer: Planning a garden is rewarding work. The more you prepare, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to get your hands dirty.
A haphazard, spontaneous approach to putting in new gardens works fine for some people, but others can end up wasting time, money, and hard work without achieving the garden they really want. Here’s a simple checklist of things to think about in winter months, long before you’re ready for the shovel.
1. To begin, ask yourself what you want from your herb garden. Make a list and prioritize it.
Do you enjoy cooking and want the classic culinary herbs to flavor every dish you make? Are you wild about ethnic cuisines such as Thai or Japanese, and need herbs with exotic flavors that are not always available fresh at your grocery store? Do you also want to dry or freeze your homegrown herbs in quantity and have a supply of them through winter?
Are you interested in herbs for their medicinal value and in a supply of good, organic herbs to treat simple ailments for you and your family? Do you enjoy the traditional herbal fragrance crafts such as wreaths and potpourri? Do you want your garden to be a beautiful, fragrant retreat from the workaday world and provide you with a supply of fresh-cut flowers for the house?
You can easily incorporate all those functions and more into one herb garden, but it may help to set your goals on paper so that your priorities can sift themselves into place in your mind.
2. Look at your yard and think about the general size, shape, and location of the herb garden that you want.
Take into account that you can build your garden in stages, expanding as you find the time and money. Getting a garden started can be a lot of work, so ask yourself how big an area you can handle. I find that it helps to start small and learn as you go but to have a workable, ultimate shape in mind so that you don’t end up redoing beds and wasting effort.
Here are some things to keep in mind in determining location:
• Look carefully at the daily sun exposure of each area of the yard, and think about how the sun shifts in the sky over the seasons. While there are many herbs that will grow in a shaded or partially shaded spot, your choices multiply if you have a site that gets full sun for at least five or six hours a day. Most of the common culinary herbs require a sunny location. Sun exposure determines the success or failure of many a garden.
• Consider the location of your water source. Unless you have a sprinkler system, you’ll probably be hauling hoses around. With good planning, you can put the plants that require the most water closest to the water tap, with drought-tolerant plants at the far edges, but all plants will require adequate water and careful attention until they’re established.
• Think about convenience. Those herbs that you use daily in cooking are obviously best planted in a readily accessible spot, but remember that you must be able to get to all the plants. If the garden shape you’ve chosen is deep or wide, you’ll need paths or walkways.
3. What herbs do you want to grow and where are you going to get them?
Most nurseries and even the discount department stores with garden centers now carry basic culinary herbs, and you can get some good deals come springtime. Check around, and think now about where to get the healthiest plants and the best selection. Chances are your wish list includes some unusual herbs that you’ll have to hunt down.
Start ordering plant catalogs from reputable mail-order companies. These catalogs can be treasure troves of ideas, even if you never order from them! Look through the pages of this magazine for the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of mail-order nurseries that specialize in herbs. Their spring catalogs are coming out just about now. I have a basket in my house where I toss them and save them to pull out and rummage through at my leisure. You can while away many a winter’s night with the delightful job of browsing through plant catalogs. Your list will grow and grow and grow.
More next time on turning your thinking into an action plan!
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a long-time herb gardener now living in Las Vegas, where she is a freelance writer and editor.