Fresh, home-grown herbs are a cook’s delight—and the proud result of growing your own herbs. This guide walks you through the basics, showing you how to grow herbs.
Both the dictionary and botany experts define herbs as plants grown for flavor, fragrance, or medicinal purposes, often including spices and even edible flowers in the description.
When most people think of herbs, though, it’s the culinary herbs that come to mind. From the parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme of song to the basil and oregano that are staples of Mediterranean cooking, herbs are the plants that add seasoning to food.
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. They’re generally not fussy, nor are they prone to many pest or disease problems. They also don’t need a lot of room to spread out, making them ideal for small spaces.
While herb gardens used to be formal affairs, laid out in elaborate geometric patterns, in today’s gardens you’re just as apt to find herbs mixed into a vegetable garden or planted among flowers and shrubs in a bed or border. Herbs like thyme and chamomile can be used as a ground cover or to form a path or even a “lawn.”
Taller herbs, such as an upright rosemary or lavender, work well as a low hedge. Or, you can plant a large container with a variety of herbs to have handy by the kitchen door. In fact, mint is so invasive that it’s best to keep it confined to a pot.
Deciding which herbs to grow depends mostly on your personal preferences. Popular choices include basil, mint, oregano, parsley, sage, and thyme. Among these, you’ll find any number of varieties, including Greek oregano, lemon and conehead thyme, and both curly and flat-leafed Italian parsley. A garden comprised just of these favorites can give you a surprising amount of culinary flavors.
If you’re more adventurous, you may want to try growing some more-unusual herbs, such as cilantro (also called Chinese parsley, and its seeds, coriander), chives, dill, marjoram, and tarragon.
Venturing even further afield, you can grow herbs for tea, such as chamomile and sweet woodruff (a good choice for a shade-loving ground), specialty seasonings such as chervil, lemon balm and lemon grass, and sorrel, or even those feline favorites, catmint and catnip.
And don’t overlook adding some edible flowers to the mix. Lavender, cloves, cottage pinks, feverfew, scented geraniums, Johnny jump-ups, nasturtiums, pot marigold (calendula), and sweet violets are all fine additions to any herb garden.
The majority of herbs like lots of sun, so choose a spot that receives at least six hours of sun per day. Those that prefer shade generally are fine with some sun or only light shade, so place them in a shadier corner of the bed or where other plants will block the sun during the hottest part of the day.
When laying out the bed, be sure to take the eventual size of the plants into consideration so that larger plants won’t crowd out the smaller ones. Also, perennial herbs will be permanent parts of the garden, so keep this in mind when choosing their locations. Think, too, about the colors and textures of the leaves and flowers of each plant, and mix them to show off their beauty and to complement the plants around them.
To save water and keep plants as healthy as possible, group plants with similar watering needs together. Plants with thicker, smoother leaves, such as basil and parsley, generally need regular water. Herbs that are native to drier climates, like rosemary and thyme, are far more drought-tolerant and usually thrive on a little neglect, making them a good choice for less-than-ideal garden spots.
If possible, prepare your planting bed about a month before you actually plant, or in fall if you live in a cold-winter climate. With a spading fork or, for larger areas, a rotary tiller, turn over the soil about a foot deep. Add organic compost, especially if your soil is excessively sandy or clayey. Once you’re ready to plant, rake the bed again, smoothing out the surface so it is even and removing any clumps of dirt.
You can start plants from seed, but most herbs are readily available in seedling form. Add an all-purpose fertilizer when planting; you won’t need to fertilize the rest of the growing season. Water thoroughly, even if the plants are drought-tolerant, and continue to water until they are well established. Once the soil temperature is warm (at least 50 degrees F.), add mulch to help suppress weeds and retain moisture. You may also want to protect small seedlings from birds and other predators by covering the beds with netting or chicken wire.
Once the plants are established, keep them watered, as needed, and keep an eye out for pests. The key to stopping an infestation is to take care of the problem in its early stages. Because these plants are grown for consumption, it’s best to use nontoxic pest controls. For smaller insects such as thrips, mites, and aphids, try spraying them with a blast of water or using an insecticidal soap. Remove larger insects like caterpillars, as well as snails and slugs, by hand. Other options include trapping them under pots or in traps filled with fermenting liquid, surrounding the plants with a copper barrier, or using a nontoxic bait that’s safe for pets and birds. Whatever pest controls you use, take care not to destroy beneficial insects that feed on insect pests.
Several flowers have also been found to be either pest deterrents or to attract beneficial insects and birds. These include the herbs dill, parsley, and feverfew. They also include popular flowers like coreopsis and cosmos.
Annual herbs, such as basil, grow for a single season. Others, such as oregano, marjoram, and thyme, are perennials and shrubs and permanent parts of the garden. Let them die back in winter (in some mild-winter climates, they will continue to produce), and then feed them lightly and add compost around the plants in early spring to give them a head start on the new season.
Herbs have a long growing season and are among the original cut-and-come-again plants; you just snip off what you need for that day. This, in turn, encourages further growth and prevents the plants from going to seed. If you’re not using the herbs immediately, set them in a small glass or vase of water to preserve their freshness; this also makes a lovely green bouquet for the table.
At the end of the growing season, you can easily dry herbs to last through the winter. It’s a low-tech process: You simply cut off the edible parts of the plant, place them in a dry but airy place out of the sun until they are thoroughly dried and the leaves begin to crumble, and then store them in an airtight container.
The best time to cut plants for drying is when the flower buds are just starting to open. Cut in the morning, when the plants no longer have dew on them. If you want to dry both stems and leaves, tie the stems into a bundle and then hang them upside down. To dry just the leaves, cut them from the stems and spread them on a screen container. For herbs that are grown for their seeds, wait until the seedheads or pods turn brown and then pick them and place them in a brown paper bag. When the seeds can be shaken loose, they are ready to be stored.