Herb Gardening for Beginners

Garden designs and everything you need to know for starting an herb garden.

| April/May 1997

  • The geometry of this garden provides a tidy, picturesque setting for the lush herbs it holds.
  • Rocks are used to ­terrace this hillside for easy access.
  • 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.

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.

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