Herb Gardening for Beginners

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The geometry of this garden provides a tidy, picturesque setting for the lush herbs it holds.
The geometry of this garden provides a tidy, picturesque setting for the lush herbs it holds.
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Rocks are used to ­terrace this hillside for easy access.
Rocks are used to ­terrace this hillside for easy access.
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Against the light wall of a house, this herb garden basks in the sunshine. Note how the ­interesting edging not only defines the space but ­complements its sinuous shape.
Against the light wall of a house, this herb garden basks in the sunshine. Note how the ­interesting edging not only defines the space but ­complements its sinuous shape.
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Most people get started with herbs by growing a few plants here and there–some parsley and dill in the vegetable garden, lavender and bee balm in a flower bed, a scented geranium on the ­windowsill. As far as the plants are concerned, this works fine, but as a gardener, you may feel dissatisfied. Instead of having herbs scattered all over, wouldn’t you love to have your own herb garden, a special place where you could arrange and display a collection of herbs? Creating an herb garden offers unexpected satisfactions. Planning it gives you a project to think about and choices to make. You can spend winter evenings and other spare moments sketching diagrams, gathering ideas from photos and articles in books and magazines, and checking catalogs as you decide which herbs to grow. Having an herb garden will give you a new destination, a reason to go outdoors, and you’ll find yourself examining it at all times of day. It will be a feature you can point to, something to show friends and neighbors, a tangible expression of your interest in herbs.

An herb garden doesn’t have to be big to provide these benefits. It’s the idea, not the size, that matters. In fact, you’ll probably enjoy it more if your herb garden is small enough to care for easily and still leave time for relaxing there, breathing the fragrant air, admiring the plants, and anticipating how you’ll harvest and use them.

You don’t need to make a long-term plan and sort out all its details before starting an herb garden. Take it one year at a time. Begin now by choosing a site, preparing the soil, planting some herbs there, and watching how they grow. Next year, you’ll probably want to move the herbs around, replace some, and add others. Over time, you may choose to expand or even relocate the garden, alter the shape of the beds, lay permanent paths, buy a bench, or plant a hedge or build a fence around the edge. A garden is never finished; it’s always evolving because you never stop thinking of ways to make it more beautiful, more productive, more fulfilling. That’s part of the fun.

Choosing a site

If there’s already a place on your property that has been used successfully as a flower bed or vegetable garden, you could convert all or part of it into an herb garden. The advantage would be that the soil there has already been dug, loosened, amended, and weeded. Otherwise, consider digging up part of the lawn. Anywhere that turf grasses are growing well is likely to be a suitable site for herbs. You could plunk your garden right in the center of the front lawn, or utilize a ready-made backdrop by putting one next to an east-, south-, or west-facing wall or fence, or stretch one along a patio, sidewalk, or driveway, using the pavement to define one edge of the garden and provide convenient access.

• Consider whether you want a private garden, screened from the street and the neighbors, or a public garden on display for everyone to admire. The presence or lack of privacy makes a big difference in how you feel about a ­garden.

• A level site is easiest to work, and a gentle slope is all right, too. If your best potential site is a steep slope, you may want to hire someone to build one or more low retaining walls and bring in enough soil to create level beds. The herbs will be much easier to care for, and a well-built retaining wall is a handsome garden feature in itself.

• Nearly all of the most popular herbs grow best on a site that gets at least six hours of sun throughout the growing season. The more sunlight, the better.

• The soil should be deep and porous so that water drains through it quickly after a rain or irrigation. If this doesn’t happen naturally, you’ll need to improve the soil or build raised beds.

• You’ll need to be able to reach the garden site with a hose or watering can from time to time, perhaps daily if you have plants in containers.

Doing the groundwork

After you’ve chosen a site, walk back and forth there and think about the two zones of a garden: places where it’s okay for people to walk and stand, and beds where the soil has been loosened and prepared for growing plants. If you don’t make this distinction clear and provide enough paths and stepping stones to ensure convenient access to all the plants, you and everyone who visits your garden will end up trampling the beds, compacting the soil, crushing the plants’ roots, and perhaps even breaking some stems.

It’s easy to anticipate and prevent the problem of out-of-reach plants. Lay a rope, hose, or boards on the ground to outline a potential bed, then set boxes or buckets inside the bed as surrogate herbs and try reaching across the outline to “pick” them. If reaching any part of the bed is awkward or impossible, adjust the outline to make the bed narrower or smaller or plan to lay stepping stones at strategic places in the bed. (As a rule of thumb, you’ll need stepping stones if a bed is wider than 4 feet or if it’s backed against a wall or fence.) You can buy inexpensive concrete stepping stones at any garden center or home improvement store or use natural flagstones or boards. Using stepping stones to provide access into large or wide beds minimizes soil compaction because you always step in the same place and the stone spreads your weight over a larger area than your footprint.

Disregard any rumors you’ve heard about how herbs thrive in poor soil; the fact is, they’ll almost certainly grow better if you devote some time and effort to improving the soil. If you want to start your garden this spring, remove existing plants by digging them up or spraying them with a contact herbicide such as Roundup (glyphosate), following the directions on the label exactly. If you don’t mind waiting awhile and if you live where summers are sunny and hot, an easy way to clear the ground of unwanted plants is to cover the area with clear plastic and let the hot summer sun bake them. Another approach is to cover the area with overlapped sections of newspaper topped with a few inches of mulch for the summer so that the plants die from lack of light.

When the old vegetation is dead or gone, work through the bed with a digging fork or rototiller, loosening the soil to a depth of at least 8 inches and removing all rocks, roots, and debris. If you’re starting an herb garden in an area that was previously used as a flower bed or vegetable garden, this step may be unnecessary.

If you want paths to surround or traverse the bed, now is the time to mark them. Plan to make them at least 2 feet wide so that you can walk through and work in the garden with ease. Remove or kill any plants that are growing in the pathways, then loosen the top 3 or 4 inches of soil and rake or shovel it off the paths and onto the bed. The extra soil will benefit the herbs and will raise the bed a bit, increasing the distinction between path and bed.

Cover your entire bed with a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter, such as home, municipal, or commercial compost; composted tree leaves; or aged stable manure. One cubic yard of mate­rial–a full-sized pickup truck load–will cover an area of 150 to 200 square feet. The price of organic amendments varies widely. You need to shop around to get the best value.

Along with organic matter, adding a mild fertilizer to the beds makes most herbs look and grow much better. Apply a balanced, organic, slow-release granular fertilizer–available at garden ­centers–and apply it at the rate recommended on the bag–usually 3 to 5 pounds per 100 square feet. Measure the bed, weigh out the amount you need, and sprinkle it over the layer of organic matter. Then fork or till the ­entire bed again to mix the organic matter and fertilizer thoroughly into the soil. Smooth and level the surface with a rake, and the bed is ready for plant­ing.

Someday, you may want to edge the bed with brick, stone, or wood to hold the soil in place and define its shape, and to lay brick, flagstone, or gravel paths, but you don’t have to do that now. Wait a year or two in case you want to modify the garden’s layout; few jobs are more tiresome than moving a brick or gravel path. For now, make neat-looking but biodegradable paths by laying down overlapping sheets of newspaper as a weed barrier and covering them with a layer of bark chips, wood chips, wood shavings, sawdust, pine needles, or even straw. When you’re ready to make permanent paths, you can rake up this temporary path material and use it as compost or mulch.

Deciding what to grow

Don’t be surprised if you find that choosing plants, not digging, is the hardest part of making an herb garden. Avid gardeners tend to have strong backs but weak wills. With a whole new garden to fill, you’ll be tempted to buy one of this, one of that, one of everything. But wait, your new garden probably isn’t big enough for all the herbs that you may want to grow.

Choosing a theme for your garden is a way to simplify plant selection. You may decide to grow only herbs that you enjoy using in the kitchen, herbs for potpourri, herbs with silvery foliage, herbs with colorful flowers, lemon-scented herbs, all the lavenders you can find, or another grouping that strikes your fancy. Focusing in this way helps you resist buying too many plants, provides a great learning experience, and is sure to intrigue anyone who visits your garden. Don’t worry about what you might miss by choosing to focus on a single group; if you change your mind, you can select a different theme next year. Also, don’t worry about whether an herb is an­nual, biennial, or perennial; its value doesn’t depend on how long it lives, and you can mix them as you choose.

Another way to narrow your selection is by elimination. For example, if you have small children, avoid planting any herbs that are poisonous. If you live in a climate with hot, humid summers, don’t bother with herbs that have fuzzy gray leaves, as they’re likely to rot. And unless your garden space is huge, just say no to herbs that spread fast by underground runners, such as comfrey, horseradish, and mints.

Before making a final list, make sketches and notes, study plant descriptions in books and catalogs, figure how many herbs you have room for inventory any that you already have, and decide which herbs to buy as plants and which to grow from seed. Then you can shop with confidence, expecting to make a few last-minute substitutions if any of the herbs you wanted are sold out or if you find something new that’s irresistible. Planning how to fill a new herb garden is a lot like planning a menu before you buy groceries and cook a special meal. (Of course, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to plan menus, your herb garden can come together like a potluck dinner, and that’s okay, too.)

Sample Herb Garden Plans

Designing a garden on graph paper helps you determine how many herbs you can fit in your garden. One square equals 1 square foot.  The following herbs, listed in four size categories, can be grown in most regions of the United States. All prefer a sunny site with well-prepared soil. Sizes are approximate and are based on average conditions.

Short Herbs:
Give each plant 1 to 2 square feet.
These low, creeping herbs have foliage that is 3 to 6 inches tall and flower stalks as tall as 1 foot.
Clove pinks
Corsican mint
Roman chamomile
Sweet violet
Thyme, creeping forms

Medium Herbs:
Give each plant 4 square feet.
The foliage typically grows 1 to 2 feet tall; flower stalks may get taller. In most cases, one plant needs about 4 square feet of space. Some of these plants are too skinny to plant singly; in those cases, use the number indicated below to fill a patch of 4 square feet.

Basil, dwarf forms (4)
Calendula (4)
Coriander (12)
English lavender
French tarragon
Garden or common sage
Garden sorrel
Garlic chives (4)
German chamomile (12)
Greek oregano
Lemon balm
Mexican mint marigold
Salad burnet
Santolina, gray and green
Summer savory (8)
Sweet marjoram (4)
Thyme, common (4)
Winter savory

Tall Herbs:
Give each plant at least 6 square feet.
Most of these grow 2 to 4 feet tall; some, such as angelica and fennel, may get quite a bit taller. In most cases, one plant needs at least 6 square feet. Some are too skinny to plant singly; in those cases, use the number indicated below to fill a patch of 6 square feet.

Anise hyssop
Basil, most kinds (3)
Bee balm
Chili peppers
Clary sage
Dill (6)
Fennel, common or bronze
Mints, upright kinds

Herbs in Pots:
Give each plant 4 square feet.
The following herbs grow well in clay, plastic, wood, or fiberglass pots that are at least 8 ­inches wide and tall. Attractive potted herbs placed in the garden serve as attention-getting accents. These herbs can’t tolerate below-freezing temperatures, though, so you’ll need to bring them indoors for the winter in cold climates. They’ll probably also need watering more often than herbs planted in the ground.

Aloe vera
Bay laurel
Calamondin orange
Cuban oregano
Curry plant
Lemon verbena
Pineapple sage
Scented geraniums, all kinds

FOURSQUARE GARDEN, 10 by 14 feet
This garden could be set in a lawn with or without a path around the edge. It contains eight short herbs, twelve me­dium herbs, and four tall herbs.

16 feet in diameter
This garden could be set in a lawn, with or without a path around the edge. It has room for eight short herbs, twelve medium herbs, eight tall herbs, and four potted herbs.

BORDER GARDEN, 4 by 13 feet
If the bed is situated against a wall or fence, place stepping stones in it so that you can reach the plants in the back. This garden has room for two short herbs, five medium herbs, three tall herbs, and two potted herbs.

Designing the garden

Having an herb garden will give you a new destination, a reason to go outdoors, and you’ll find yourself examining it at all times of day.

Arranging herbs in a garden so that their foliage and flowers create a seamless tapestry of color and texture takes experience. You have to know the individual plants well enough to predict how they’ll grow for you, and you also need an eye for color and a flair for style. Some gardeners become obsessed by the art of garden design, while others, like me, smile at any garden if the plants are obviously well loved and healthy, no matter how they’re arranged.

For now, just try to give each herb enough space to grow. Check the spacing with a yardstick as you plant. Aside from looking pinched, crowded herbs must compete for nutrients and water and are inconvenient to harvest; crowding also limits air circulation, making herbs vulnerable to diseases, especially in humid climates.

How many herbs can you fit in your garden? How much space does each plant need? Even experienced gardeners have a hard time answering these questions as they look at a plot of bare earth. Instead of just guessing, try designing your garden on paper. It’s easy, fun, and helpful besides.

Measure the bed or beds that you have planned and transfer your measurements to a piece of four-squares-per-inch graph paper (available at office-supply or school-supply stores) at a scale of one square to one square foot. Then choose colored pencils to represent different sizes of herbs.

Check the chart to see how much space each one requires and color places for them on your plan. Fill in any blank spots with plants of an appropriate size chosen from the lists. If you see that you have room for four medium-sized herb plants, you could use one clump of chives, one garden sage, one Greek oregano, and one parsley; or two chives and two parsleys; or whatever combination you like. For a low-growing herb such as creeping thyme, color an area of one to two squares. Color four squares for a ­medium-sized herb such as English lavender, at least six squares for a tall herb such as lovage, and four squares for a potted specimen such as a dwarf lemon tree. You should end up with a mosaic of colors with no white spaces between them.

Here are some general guidelines for designing a garden that’s practical and visually appealing.

• Simple, symmetrical designs make pleasing herb gardens.

• Plant taller herbs along the back of a border, next to a wall or fence, or in the center of a bed.

• Plant shorter or medium-sized herbs in front or along the edges, where they’ll be easy to see and reach.

• Plant creeping herbs along the edge of a bed or beside a path so that they’ll get plenty of sun and won’t be hidden by taller plants.

• What you choose to do now isn’t cast in stone. Rearrange the whole thing next year if you like.

Enjoying your new garden

Routine maintenance of a small garden–mulching, weeding, watering, and tidying–won’t be much trouble, and you should have plenty of time to taste, sniff, and harvest the herbs. Here are some other ways to increase your enjoyment of your garden.

• Make large, clear, weatherproof labels for all the plants. Most garden stores and catalogs sell blank wooden, plastic, or metal labels that you can write on with an indelible marker.

• Take photographs every week or two and make an album to track the growth of your garden, dating each photo. Besides being a wonderful souvenir, the album is also a convenient way to record what different plants look like, when they bloom, and how big they get.

• Make a scrapbook in which you can keep your sketches, plans, notes, snapshots, sprigs of herbs that you’ve pressed between paper and dried, recipes, and other information.

• Plan a garden party with herbal ­refreshments.

• Invite friends and acquaintances who are interested in herbs to come see your herb garden and encourage them to start one, too.

Rita Buchanan is an herb gardener, weaver, and spinner, and is the author of many books, including A Shaker Herb and Garden Book (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and A Dyer’s Garden (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1995).

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