Grow Your Own Herbs

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Sage and basil intermingle with colorful ornamental peppers.
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Feverfew blooms from early summer to fall.
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Basil, lavender, thyme and rosemary decorate a kitchen garden.

As a longtime gardener, I’ve been challenged by finicky roses and delphiniums, blighted tomatoes and peppers, and strawberries that produce lush growth but no berries. My herb gardens, however, remain consistently problem-free.

Gardener-friendly herbs are easy to grow and naturally resistant to pests and diseases. Herbs such as lavender, thyme and rosemary add wonderful fragrances to the garden. And many herbs are decorative as well as useful, with attractive shapes, textures and flowers.

One of the greatest rewards of an herb garden is being able to use plants you’ve grown to add zest to your cooking, make medicines or brew up a pot of tea. With only a few hours of work, you can plant a garden now that will provide you with herbs ready for picking this summer.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing an appropriate site for your herb garden is the first step in making your garden a reality. Most herbs grow best in full sun — that means four to six hours a day of direct sunlight during the growing season (from spring through early fall). However, if you live where the sun is intensely hot in the summer — such as in the desert Southwest or in the South — likely you’ll find your herbs grateful for partial shade in the afternoon.

In cooler climates, many herbs will tolerate partial shade, but they may not be as vigorous or flavorful as those grown in full sun. (Some herbs, including sweet woodruff, cilantro and angelica, prefer partial shade no matter the climate.)

The key to a successful garden is to choose plants that will thrive in the conditions you provide for them. If you’re uncertain about the needs of a specific plant, check with your local nursery for advice.

In general, herbs need well-drained, moderately moist soil. But few people are lucky enough to have optimal soil conditions. In most cases, soil contains either too much clay (which retains excessive water and can rot plant roots) or too much sand (which drains too quickly and leaves plants thirsting for nutrients). The answer to both problems is to add compost. Use homemade compost if you have it, or buy bagged compost at a garden supply center.

To prepare the garden bed, loosen the soil to a depth of 12 inches with a shovel. Spread 2 inches of compost over the bed and dig it into the top 8 inches of soil. Alternatively, you can garden in raised beds, which should be filled with a mixture of topsoil and compost.

The Theme’s the Thing

Many herb gardeners enjoy creating gardens focused around a particular theme, such as the culinary, first-aid and tea gardens described in this article. Most important, though, is to grow herbs that appeal to you. It’s essential to choose plants appropriate for your gardening climate zone, and your local nursery can help you with this selection.

Once you’ve decided on your plants, make a list of them, along with the mature height, spacing requirements, and foliage and flower color for each plant. I find it helpful to make a rough sketch of the garden to decide on plant placement. To determine spacing, add the mature width of two neighboring plants and divide by two. This is how far apart the plants should be placed. Place the tallest plants at the back of the garden, or at the center, if your garden is accessible from all sides.

Ready, Set, Plant!

Most of the time, it’s best to purchase herbs as plants, particularly perennial varieties. Some perennials, such as lavender, are difficult to grow from seed. Others, including mints, are highly variable, and the flavor can’t be guaranteed when grown from seed. However, annual herbs, such as German chamomile and calendula, grow best when directly seeded into the garden.

When you’re ready to plant, water your herbs before removing them from their containers. Set them in their pots on top of the soil, using your planting plan as a guide and moving them around until you’re happy with the arrangement. Resist the urge to crowd your plants too closely together — although they may be small now, they’ll fill in quickly.

Dig a hole the depth of the pot and twice as wide. Slide the herb out of its pot, comb the sides of the root ball with your fingers to free tangled roots and place the herb into the hole, making sure it’s at the same soil level as it was in the container. Scoop the soil back into the hole, gently patting down the soil around the base of the plant. Water thoroughly.

Be Good to Your Garden

Although many herbs are drought-tolerant, most grow best when they receive water on a regular basis. In general, annual herbs such as calendula and German chamomile need more frequent watering than perennial herbs.

As with most plants, it’s best to allow the soil to dry out between waterings and then to water thoroughly and deeply. If you live in an area that receives regular rain during the summer, you might not need to water at all. But if you live in a drier climate, plan to water your garden about once a week (less for more drought-tolerant herbs). When in doubt, check the soil moisture content by digging down two to three inches; if the soil is dry, it’s time to water.

One of the best time- and energy-saving practices you can adopt is to mulch your garden. Mulch conserves soil moisture, prevents weed growth and adds nutrients to the soil. Spread a one-inch layer of compost around your plants, and then top it with a one-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded bark, chopped leaves or cocoa hulls (use caution, as some studies have found cocoa hulls toxic to dogs). The best time to apply mulch is when the soil has warmed (usually late spring); if you apply mulch while the soil is wet and cold, your plants may rot. Also be sure to keep mulch a couple of inches away from the base of plant stems to prevent rotting.

Pruning your herbs regularly promotes vigorous growth. For leafy, bushy plants, pinch off flower buds from herbs such as basil and mint. To keep flowering herbs such as calendula and yarrow in bloom, remove the spent flower heads when they begin to wilt.

The herbs in the garden plans outlined in this article are all easy to grow and are adaptable to a wide range of climates. Most are perennials, which means they’ll come back year after year.

Laurel Vukovic writes and teaches about herbs and natural healing from her home in southern Oregon. She is the author of 14-Day Herbal Cleansing (Prentice Hall, 1998) and Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).

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