I remember the first time I ate a salad with herbs in it. Amidst all of the typical lettucey (not really a word, but I am going for it anyway) flavors was something deeper yet familiar. Dill! And Italian parsley! OMG – There are herbs in this salad!! I would never look at a salad the same way again. Fresh mint and oregano and basil were itching to get into my salad bowl, so I went to the market and bought a bunch of those little plastic boxes of fresh herbs. Some TV chef said, snip the ends and put them in a glass of water in the refrigerator, so I did what I was told. I snipped off some mint and sprinkled on some watermelon, and then promptly forgot about the herbs.
A couple of days later, I wanted to use my fresh herb bundle in some chicken salad. I opened the fridge only to be disappointed. The herbs were now droopy and well, icky looking, and not so fresh. What a waste of $10! That’s when I decided to invest a bit of time into growing my own. Fresh herbs are one of the easiest edibles for the beginning gardener. For the most part they don’t take up a ton of space and you can grow them year round.
Here are some tips for getting your herb garden started off right.
1. Seeds or Seedlings? Some herbs are easy to grow from seeds like basil, parsley, and thyme, while others are notoriously difficult like rosemary. Frankly, I don’t have a ton of patience to wait for my herbs to grow, so unless I want something unusual, I’ll buy seedlings from my local nursery or online. With seedlings, you can usually start harvesting in 2-3 weeks.
2. Soil, Sun, & Water #1 Choose a high quality organic potting soil if you are growing in containers. If growing in the ground, you can amend the soil with an organic planting mix and compost. Most herbs prefer full sun for at least 6 hours per day. Some herbs like cilantro and parsley prefer cooler temperatures, so you can plant them in areas that get some shade. Rosemary and lavender are pretty drought tolerant once they are established, so they can dry out a bit between watering. Soft stemmed herbs like basil, dill, and mint need regular water. They should be kept moist (not wet) and watered when the top inch of the soil starts to dry.
3. Planters or In Ground At the risk of upsetting people who make cute little herb pots, if you want to grow your herbs in containers, bigger is better! Seriously – go for at least a 1 gallon nursery pot size. Herbs need room for their roots to grow, and larger pots don’t dry out as fast. Indoors, consider growing vertically in self watering wall planters or hanging planters. I love these planters from Ikea.
Outdoors, you can go as big as your space allows. I’ve grown herbs for my garden design clients in cedar raised beds, large terracotta, plastic, or glazed ceramic pots. You can also grow in the ground, but as with any edible garden, always have your soil tested before planting.
4. Water #2 I recommend installing a drip system on a timer for your pots, raised beds, and in ground gardens. This way your plants get regular water on a schedule. You can find a variety of easy to install drip irrigation systems at dripworks.com.
5. What to Grow? Grow what you like to eat. As for herbs, take stock of what you like to cook and which herbs you tend to buy at the grocery store or farmers’ market. My herb gardens generally have basil, parsley, thyme, oregano, dill, chives, mint, rosemary, and cilantro. I like to try several varieties of basil, thyme, and mint.
6. Harvesting Harvest as you need to use the herbs. Some herbs like basil benefit from having their flowers pinched off, which will encourage new leafy growth. Most herbs should be treated like annuals, but I’ve had really good luck with herbs like sage, oregano, and mint lasting several years by giving them a good pruning in the late fall. Rosemary and mint can get rather large, so give those plants their own pots and enough space. Don’t plant mint in the ground (really, don’t). If you don’t believe me, I wrote a blog post about the perils of mint.
I’d love to hear from you! Let me know what herbs you like to grow and what your biggest challenge is with your garden.