Herbs gardening has become increasingly popular, as people put more and more focus on nutritious, delicious, and fresh meals. Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and they grow effusively. Plus, dried herbs, when processed and stored properly, can last well past their harvesting. Most require very little maintenance unless you have the notion of planting a tidy four-square decorative herb garden. You can find many herb plants and seeds in garden nurseries, retail stores and online.
What Is an Herb?
For the most part, the term herb is not definitive. Some sources consider them plants that do not develop woody stems. Others consider any plant used for medicinal, culinary, or aromatic qualities to be an herb. That's a pretty broad definition. It is generally accepted that herbs are those plants used for their roots, leaves, green stems and flowers.
It's best not to spend too much time debating what is or is not an herb. For most herb growers, it comes down to a plant that can be used either for cooking, medicinally or practically, like plants used to make dye or perfume. Even then, the list is almost endless. Most common garden plants like iris, sunflowers, marigolds, Joe Pye weed, and even sweet peppers make it onto someone's list. And whether or not you would consider hops as medicinal, they too are herbs. It is best to approach the topic of herb gardening with an open mind.
Why Plant an Herb Garden?
Herb gardening, like defining the word herb, all comes down to what you want to do with the plants you grow. If you want to dye yarn, or make ointments or potpourri or cook like a chef, you'll want to grow plants to suit that need. Having a designated herb garden makes its care and harvesting more convenient. It is by no means the only way or even the best way to grow herbs. You could always simply intermingle these plants throughout other garden beds or improvise according to your space and needs.
Annual culinary or kitchen herbs, like basil, dill, and cilantro, are often better suited to vegetable gardens, where they'll be certain to get regular watering and they are handy when you go out to harvest vegetables for dinner. Some of the highly scented perennial herbs, such as lavender and sage, are useful in flower borders to discourage deer and rabbits. Other herbs can be used to attract beneficial pollinators like honeybees, hummingbirds, and butterflies.
For gardeners in small spaces, an herb garden could be a collection of pots. It's romantic to envision a series of small potted herbs on the kitchen windowsill, but in reality, you'll need a good sized plant to really be able to harvest enough herbs to cook with regularly. However, for the occasional use and for the sheer luxury of having their gorgeous scent nearby, small potted herbs are a delight. If you have room indoors for larger pots, go for it.
Herb Growing Basics
Since the plants that are considered "herbs" are such a large and varied lot, there are no hard and fast general rules for growing herbs. Shade lovers, such as mint and sweet woodruff, prefer moist, woodland-like settings. Mediterranean herbs, such as lavender and oregano, thrive in full sun, slightly lean soil and toasty warm temperatures. Annual herbs, like basil, chervil, coriander, and dill, also prefer full sunshine. They’ll need a bit more water or they will simply bolt to seed.
How to grow herbs depends on what herbs you are growing. With the exception of the handful of shade-loving herbs, they all share four common growing conditions:
- Soil that is not overly rich: As far as the soil herbs are grown in and supplemental fertilizer, herbs should be grown lean. Depending on your soil, most will not need supplemental feeding. Your herbs will have a more intense scent and flavor if they aren’t given too much fertilizer or too rich a soil. The exception is herbs grown for their flowers. Flowering herbs should certainly be given plenty of rich soil and water.
- Lots of sunshine: It’s the combination of sun and slightly lean soil that seems to cause the essentials oils, and therefore the fragrance and flavor of the herbs, to intensify. Find a spot where your herbs will get at least six hours a day of full sun.
- Regular water, but with good drainage: Few plants enjoy having their roots in wet or continually damp soil. Wet roots may eventually rot. At the very least, they will weaken the plant and invite disease. This is even more crucial when you plan on using the roots, stems, or leaves. Many herbs from the Mediterranean area, like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and lavender, are drought tolerant, but that doesn’t mean you should allow them to languish in dry heat. Use some common sense and let your herbs tell you when they need a drink.
- Periodic trimming and harvesting, to keep them full: Some gardeners find it very hard to cut any of their plants. They don’t cut flowers to bring indoors and don’t even like to prune overgrown plants. Hopefully, you are growing your herbs to use, so pruning and trimming won’t be a problem. If you don’t trim and use your herbs, the plants will grow tall and lanky and annual herbs will go to seed quickly. Even woody perennial herbs like rosemary, lavender, and sage, will grow fuller and have less weak, dead wood if pruned at least once a year. A good rule of thumb is to cut back your perennial herbs by about two-thirds at the end of the growing season. Once a good root system is established some woody herbs like rosemary and lavender can even be pruned into small shrubs.
When planning your herb garden, it helps to know which herbs are perennial and which are annual. It also pays off in the end to learn about each individual herb, its uses and growing habits. This will help you decide where to place your plants and how to care for them to insure many seasons of enjoyment from your flavorful and aromatic herbs.
Growing Herbs in Home Gardens. University of Minnesota Extension