Herb Gardening - Planning and Planting an Herb Garden

Just What Is an Herb, Anyway?

Borage Flowers
Borage Flowers. Photo: © Marie Iannotti (2008) licensed to About.com, Inc.

Herbs gardening has gotten a bad reputation for being fastidious and snooty. Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and they grow effusively. Most require very little maintenance, unless you have the notion of planting a tidy 4-square decorative herb garden. Most herbs are not tidy and the plants are meant for use, not decoration.

What is an Herb?

Webster's defines an herb as: "1 : a seed plant that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season, 2 : a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities." That's a pretty broad definition.
And where do so called herbs like lavender, rosemary and sage fit in, with their woody stems?

For the most part, the term herb is not definitive. It's best not to spend too much time debating what is or is not an herb. Basically, an herb is a valued plant if it suits your needs. 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 I'm not sure I could ever consider hops as medicinal, but they too are herbs. You have to approach the topic of herb gardening with an open mind.

Why Have 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 their 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 waterings and they are handy when you go out to harvest dinner.

Some of the highly scented perennial herbs, such as lavender and sage, are useful in the flower borders to discourage deer and rabbits.

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. But 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. But with the exception of the handful of shade loving herbs, they all share 3 growing conditions:

  1. Lots of Sunshine: It’s the combination of sun and slightly lean soil that seems to cause the oils, and therefore the fragrance and flavor of the herbs, to intensify. Herbs grown in a rich soil or given an abundance of food will grow lanky and have less scent and taste. However, herbs grown for their flowers should certainly be given plenty of rich soil and water.
  2. 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 than usual when you plan on using the plants.
  3. 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.

    As far as the soil herbs are grown in and supplemental fertilizer, you may have read that herbs should be grown lean - not too much water or food. Many herbs from the Mediterranean area, like rosemary, oregano, thyme and lavender, are drought tolerant and, as mentioned, have more intense scent and flavor if they aren’t given too much fertilizer or too rich a soil.

    But that doesn’t mean you should starve them or allow them to languish in dry heat.

    Successful Herb Growing, Requires:

    • Plant your herbs where they will get full sun (6+ hours) per day.
    • Provide a well-drained soil with a good amount of organic matter.
    • Don’t crowd seedlings and provide room for perennial herbs to spread out.
    • Keep your herb plants tidy and sending out new growth by pinching and using them regularly.

    For specific growing tips of particular herbs: