Mother Earth Living

Green Patch: Planting Your First Herbs

Part three of an ongoing series, Kathleen Halloran provides advice for beginning gardeners planting herbs outdoors.
By Kathleen Halloran
April/May 2001
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Question: I’ve bought a new house and want to plant my first large herb garden this spring. Where do I start? (continued) 

Answer: This is the third in a series, and if you’ve been following along, you’ve done the preliminary planning and you’ve got your soil dug up, loosened, weed-free, amended, and ready to go. Now’s the time for the best part—the plants!

You know what you want to plant and where you’re going to get them, whether it’s a local garden center with a good selection of herbs, a mail-order supplier from the pages of this magazine, divisions from friends’ gardens, or probably a variety of sources.

As you get each little potted plant, treat it tenderly at the outset. Let it get used to the outside world gradually by first putting it in a sheltered spot during the day and bringing it in at night, then leaving it out for longer periods, moving it a little closer each day to the conditions that exist where you want to plant it. If you take a plant from a pampered environment and move it immediately into a sunny, windy yard, it will struggle mightily, but after this gradual hardening-off process, it will stand up to anything it’s likely to encounter on its own. Keep the potting mix moist.

As you get more plants, you can nestle them together in flats to make them easier to carry, but don’t let water collect in the bottom of the flat. Most herbs don’t like their roots sitting in water.

Start up a list of your plants to help you organize yourself at planting time, jotting down what you know of what they need—sun exposure, growing space, their eventual height and spread. A list like this is a ready reference at planting time for what herbs you can group together according to their needs and how far apart to plant them.

When you’re buying plants from a nursery, look for sturdy growth, good color and shape, and healthy-looking roots; avoid the leggy, pot-bound, yellowing ones. With culinary herbs, don’t shy from rubbing a leaf and smelling it, as its fragrance is the key to its flavor, and most nursery owners don’t mind their customers doing this. Oreganos and mints, for example, can vary widely from one species to the next and from one plant to the next, so be sure you get what you want, whether it’s that pizza fragrance of a good oregano or the sharp, clean, tangy mint of your dreams.

As you gather plants, envision the garden through the progression of the seasons. There are no hard and fast rules on what goes where (or at least not rules that you can’t break all you want), as this is a balancing act between giving your plants what they need and giving yourself what you need in terms of beauty, accessibility, ease of maintenance, and downright joy.

Think of the structure and backbone that herbal shrubs and trees can add at the back of a large garden. Think of the edges closest to your walkway, where small, creeping, flower-filled thymes can spill out and give up their fragrance as you brush by. Think of the play of colors, not only of the flowers but also of the foliage, the grays and greens, the splashes of purple and yellow, and how they will look together. Think of the texture of the leaves, and how much interest you can create with variety.

And think of having a focal point of your garden, or perhaps several focal points in a large garden. Whether it’s a large potted herb topiary next to a garden bench, or a dramatic grouping of flowering plants, or a small fountain or sculpture set amid a raised bed of soft, billowing clumps of something. . .create a point of particular interest that will draw your eye and be a kind of destination point on a garden walk.

After your frost-free date (call your local extension office if you don’t know this), set out your potted plants where you want them, rearranging them until you’re satisfied. Work in the mornings and late afternoons, not in the blazing sun of noon. Dig each hole as deep as the pot and perhaps two or three times its width. Unpot the plant by working it loose and turning it over, then set it in its hole. Fill in with soil and tamp it down hard so that the roots have good contact with the fresh soil; I like to step on the soil around the stem, pushing down with my foot then adding more soil.

Soak it well, and keep the soil around it fairly moist for the first week or two while it acclimates to its new home and sets down its roots.

Now stand back and watch your garden grow!

Kathleen Halloran is a freelance garden writer in Las Vegas, Nevada. Formerly the editor of The Herb Companion, she is now its senior technical editor. 

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