Herb Gardens: Why You Need One and How to Start One

Growing herbs at home saves money…and it’s fun! Learn how you can start growing herbs with our herb garden guide.

People have been using herbs since before recorded history.  Herbs are the green leaves of plants used in cooking, as teas, and in medicines, beauty products, and household cleaners  The word  “herb” comes from “herbaceous,” meaning plants that don’t have woody stems. They differ from spices  – herbs are the leaves of temperate zone plants, and spices come from the roots, bark, flowers, fruits, and seeds of tropical plants.

Many of our favorite herbs are from the Mediterranean region and have simple, similar gardening needs – full sun, well-draining soil, and modest amounts of water.

Why Grow Your Own Herbs? 

You want to try that new pasta sauce recipe and it calls for two tablespoons of fresh parsley.  The grocery store sells parsley in a great, big bunch.  You bring it home, and after you snip off what you need, that big bunch of parsley goes into the refrigerator.  For weeks.  Until you throw it out.

Wouldn’t you rather walk out into the yard and be able to harvest the herb you need?  To always have fresh herbs whenever you need them, in just the right quantity? Whatever the recipe? 

If you said “yes!” you need an herb garden. Nothing beats the flavors and freshness of herbs from the garden.  Add in the convenience of always having fresh herbs close at hand, and you wonder why an herb garden is something you haven’t started before.

The positives from growing your own herb garden are truly abundant, from saving money to getting outdoors to encouraging you to cook at home more often.

-Martha Stewart

We can all agree with Martha Stewart’s advice!  Herb gardening can be a relaxing and rewarding hobby.  And growing herbs is pretty straight forward – herbs are easy-care plants that don’t put a lot of demands on us gardeners. No matter the size of your garden or your herb pots, a pinch of fresh herbs can bring big flavor to your meals.

Which Herbs Should You Grow?

The herbs you grow depends on what you like to cook.  Look over your favorite recipes.  Check your collection of spices to see which herbs you use the most. 

Are there cuisines you love or want to try?  Do you want to make teas?  Explore herbal remedies?  Or make your own household purifiers or cleaners? Thinking these things through will help you plan your herb garden.

Here are nine basic herbs that are easy to grow and are commonly used in cooking. They all can be planted in the garden, and some can be grown in containers as well.

  • Parsley – A biennial, parsley completes its life cycle in 2 years. But treat parsley as an annual, and get new plants every year. 
  • Basil -This herb is a true annual.  It is extremely sensitive to cold temperatures, so keep this herb at temperatures above 55°F.  Plant new plants every year. 
  • Thyme – There are many different varieties of thyme, so be sure you get the one(s) you want.  Thyme is perennial and hardy to zone 5; it will even stay green and harvestable under the snow.
  • Rosemary – Often grown as a topiary, this is another perennial herb, hardy to zone 7.   You can winter this plant indoors in a sunny window. 
  • Chives – Chives are perennial in zones 3 to 11.  In mild climates, they are evergreen, and you can harvest them all winter.
  • Mint -There are many mints, so be sure you get the ones you want.  Mint should be planted in its own container as it tends to overspread its boundaries.
  • Dill – An annual that grows quickly from seed, dill gets big and tall, so be sure to give it plenty of space in the garden.  This plant feeds the caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies, so plant enough to share. It reseeds freely and can become invasive, so try not to let it go to seed. 
  • Oregano – A perennial herb and hardy in zones 5 to 12.  Some oregano is ornamental, not culinary, so be sure you get the plant you want.
  • Cilantro – A true annual, so plant new every year.  It will self-seed and can bolt in hot weather. 

Herbs That Grow Well Together (and Some That Don’t)

In general, herbs that like the same moisture conditions will grow well together.  Here are some excellent companions:

  • Basil, parsley, tarragon, and cilantro
  • Rosemary, thyme, sage, marjoram, oregano, and lavender
  • Lemon verbena and lemon thyme

These combinations should be avoided:

  • Basil and sage
  • Rue, with basil or sage

Where to Grow Herbs?

Herb gardens don’t have to be elaborate – a couple of flowerpots, some good soil, and a sunny location are all you need to get started.

Wherever you site your herb garden, make sure it’s in a full sun location in your yard and that the soil has good drainage. Abundant sunshine is one of the most important things for a successful herb garden.

Here are a few planting ideas to inspire you to get growing herbs:

  • A dedicated herb garden close to the kitchen
  • As part of your vegetable garden
  • In raised garden beds: a 4 x 4 foot bed can grow lots of herbs, and even a 2 x 2 foot area can be bountiful
  • Container gardening:  if you don’t have much garden space, plant in pots
  • A row of pots on your kitchen windowsill or a countertop kit with grow lights

Gardening Tips for Growing Herbs

Gardening with herbs requires only a few simple steps for success. Use this information to get your herb garden off to a good start.

Planting

Plant your herb garden in spring after the danger of frost has passed. Herbs can be started from seeds about eight weeks before the last frost date, but it’s easier and quicker to buy starter plants and set them out in your garden. You can start using your herbs right away!

Some people decide to grow herbs from seeds to stay within their gardening budget or from a desire to grow specialty herbs not commonly available. 

Some retailers sell seeds in combination packs. Share these with a gardening friend because one herb plant will give you lots of tasty leaves, and one packet of seeds will give you lots of plants!

Soil

Herbs like a well-draining garden soil. Some herbs, like rosemary, lavender, and bay, prefer a gritty soil, so mix sand or perlite into the soil with a garden fork.  A little compost is always welcome, too. In containers, use a good potting mix. A potting soil labeled for cacti and succulents will work well, especially with herbs native to the Mediterranean region.

Water

Most herbs prefer dry soil and hate “wet feet,” so most of the time, you only have to water every week or so. Plants in containers can dry out more quickly, so check them a little more frequently for water.

Care

To encourage more leaves, pinch or prune your herb plants frequently.  This also keeps them from flowering and going to seed (which makes them taste bitter).

Herbs don’t have many problems with pests and diseases, so you shouldn’t need any pesticides.  If you do need to spray for pests, make sure to apply a product that is safe to use up to the day of harvest.  It will say so on the label.

Harvesting from Your Herb Garden

Herbs taste best before they flower, so trimming your herb plants is important. Snip off the flower buds when they first form.  Herbs are also most flavorful early in the morning, so that’s the perfect time to harvest them.

At any time during the growing season, you can harvest your herbs for drying and storing. Cut annual herbs to 4 inches high, and with perennial herbs, don’t cut more than ⅓ of the plant. This will encourage them to keep growing.

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Happy Planting!

About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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