A Handful of Handy Kitchen Herb Gardens

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

| April/May 1999

  • Susan Strawn Bailey’s Colorado herb garden
    Photography by Susan Strawn Bailey
  • Allene Robson’s tiny herb garden, sandwiched between Chicago bungalows and looming lilacs, provides a wealth of herbs right outside her kitchen door.
    Photography by Susan Strawn Bailey
  • Cornelia Carlson, undaunted by the challenges of growing herbs in the Sonoran Desert, harvests culinary herbs year around from their pots and beds near her kitchen
    Photography by Susan Strawn Bailey
  • Susan Strawn Bailey’s Colorado herb garden
    Photography by Susan Strawn Bailey

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.

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