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How to Start an Herb Garden

Traditional herb knot garden
A traditional herb knot garden

Herbs are both beautiful and useful. They require a small amount of effort for great reward.

An herb garden is easy to start; you can grow herbs in their own stand-alone bed, include them in existing flower and vegetable bed or grow them in decorative pots. Herbs are highly adaptable they will grow in the garden, on a balcony or patio, and even indoors. An herb garden can be very small or as large as space allows.

Herbs for cooking are especially rewarding; they offer great fresh flavor at very little expense. In a small space, you can grow “potherbs” for bulk use in cooking pots, “salad herbs” for raw seasoning, and “sweet herbs” for flavorings.

Culinary herbs
Culinary herbs growing in pots outside the kitchen door.

Beginner’s Guide to Herb Gardening

Here is a simple checklist to help you start an herb garden:

Time and effort. Herb gardening should be a pleasure, not a chore. Consider how much time and effort you want to put into your herb garden. Don’t be too ambitious to start. Start with a small area or one or two large containers and a few herbs—the ones you think you are most likely to use in the kitchen.

Sunny location. The ideal site for an herb garden is a sunny spot with protection from prevailing breezes. Most aromatic herbs are Mediterranean in origin, so a site with 6 to 8 hours of sun is best.

Close to the kitchen. A location close to the kitchen door will make it convenient for picking herbs just as they are needed. A quiet location will make your herb garden a peaceful spot to get away from a hectic day.

Well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Herbs grow best in soil that is rich in organic matter and well-drained. Puddles of water should not remain after a rain. Add compost and well-rotted manure to the planting bed; this will ensure the soil is rich in nutrients as well as loose and well-draining. Use potting soil for containers. If you are planting in soil that you suspect may not be nutrient-rich, add a granular 10-10-10 organic fertilizer across the bed.

Plan before you plant. Draw a sketch of your garden before you plant. Use grid paper letting each grid represent a 6-inch or 1-foot square. Mark in paths. Be sure your herbs are easily accessible from paths and never more than arm’s length away, about 2 feet 6 inches to the center of the planting bed. You can plant herbs in straight rows or whimsical curvilinear ribbons; you can plant herbs alongside colorful annual flowers or perennials in existing flower beds.

Herbs in the kitchen window
Herbs in the kitchen window

Perennial and annual herbs. Plant annual herbs such as basil and chives where they can be easily replaced each year.  Plant perennial herbs such as rosemary and sage where they have room to grow for several years to come. One plant of each perennial or evergreen herb is enough for most family gardens.

Essential culinary herbs. Here are a few herbs that many cooks consider essential: parsley and chives for flavorful garnishes, sweet marjoram for flavoring, basils for both sweet and spicy flavorings, tarragon for its delicate and distinctive flavor, Florence fennel for its sweet swollen stems, sages for their many flavorful uses, dill for flavoring, coriander for its seeds and leaves, and thymes for a variety of flavors.

Choose herbs for your area. For the greatest success, plant herbs that are adapted to your area—adapted to your garden’s soil, range of temperature, and rainfall. Visit a local garden center or talk to friends who grow herbs to find out which herbs grow best in your region.

Prepare for planting. Herbs grow best in well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Turn the soil with a spade or garden fork to the depth of 12 to 18 inches then add aged compost to your planting beds. Rake the bed smooth before sowing seeds or setting out transplants.

Sow seed or set out transplants. Some herbs can be easily started from seed; others must be set out as seedlings. (Herb seedlings are often started by commercial growers who can propagate seed or cuttings under ideal growing conditions.) You can start your own seed in a small container filled with moist seed starting mix. If possible germinate herb seeds indoors under grow lights shining 12 hours a day. Keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate. When seedlings have formed their first true leaves and grown to 4 inches tall they can be transplanted into the garden or containers. Don’t set young plants outdoors until two or three weeks after the last frost.

When transplanting herb seedlings into the garden dig a hole slightly larger than the transplant’s rootball and make sure to set the plant even with the soil surface–not deeper. Fill and lightly tamp the soil, and water well. Be sure to protect young seedlings from direct sunlight and wind for the first week to 10 days.

Herb seeds can be started in the garden, but it’s important to wait until the soil and air temperatures average about 70 degrees F. Nearly all herb seeds need warm temperatures to germinate and to grow from seedlings to maturity.

Supplies you will need to start an herb garden. To get your herb garden growing you will need: a spade, garden fork, and tine rake to prepare and turn the soil; seeds, small containers, potting soil, fluorescent light for indoor seed starting, spray bottle to keep seed starting soil moist, and a garden hose.

herbs drying
Herbs drying for winter use

Beginner’s Guides to Herbs—hover and click on the articles below for more tips:

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