Whether you are familiar with or new to growing herbs, a herb garden in its peak, is a truly stunning site. The colors and aroma pair together in a harmonious duet. A presence unmatched, herb gardens call us back to our ancient past, as we imagine a healthier present. Herbs have become so readily available that we’ve forgotten how essential they are to the human story. From our ancestors to ourselves, the properties of herbs have been used for a spectrum of reasons: to cleanse the air of bad spirits, provide relief from pain, aid us in our healing, and to enhance our experience of flavor and nourishment. People need gardening more than ever right now, as we all recall the gifts the environment brings. Using herbs informs us of who we are and where we come from. It connects us and helps us remember our roots. Growing an herb garden is empowering. It can benefit the Earth and lives everywhere.
A successful herb garden can, in large part, be credited to the preparedness of the gardener. Having an understanding of each herbs' individual traits in terms of growth and its relationship with the characteristics of your climate, can determine the well-being of your plants. As you're just getting into gardening, there are many factors to consider. Depending upon your region’s grow zone and the variation of weather, we recommend you begin by starting indoors first, so you can better control environmental conditions and nurture the herbs for their specific needs. The following article is aimed at giving you what you need to make informed choices when creating your herb garden.
The terms annual, biennial, and perennial refer to the life cycle of a plant as it relates to the season it is growing in. When talking about days to maturity in regards to herbs, we will often refer to the herb’s lifecycle. This is because defining an herb’s maturity is tricky since maturity can mean when the plant or parts of it are harvestable, or when the plant goes to seed. If we include a specific number of days, it is in tandem with ideal growing conditions, and aimed at giving you an idea of when to expect that plant to be in peak growth.
Annual - plants that go through a full life cycle over the course of one season or year, meaning the seed grows into a plant to seed again. Annuals will grow differently depending on the climate. For example, some annuals can bolt and go to seed very quickly in very hot climates, thus, ending its life cycle.
Biennial - a plant that requires two years to complete its life cycle. Biennials take a period of dormancy to complete its life cycle, which may be fruiting or going to seed. Usually the first year, the plants produce a root system, stems, and leaves. The second year is when the plant flowers or fruits.
Perennial - plants that live for three years or more, where top foliage will die during the cold season each year, but then regrowing from the root system left behind. Some perennials have extensive lifespans, such as trees.
Space and Light Conditions
First question you want to ask yourself: how much space do I realistically have to garden? Second question: how much light does that area receive throughout the day and where is the sun’s position? Be aware of the sun's trajectory. As the sun moves during the growing season, so do the conditions required to grow your ideal garden. Most herbs require full sun. It may be easier for you to find a spot if you have a yard, but don’t be discouraged if you live in a place with only a patio or a space that receives six hours of sun. A sunny south-facing window is also the perfect place to start an herb garden.
You may need to build your own herb garden based upon your spacing needs. Determine the kind of light that area will see over the season. If you live in an apartment with a deck, but without direct sunlight, choose shade-tolerant plants such as lemon balm or mint. If you have a small patio that gets partial sun (6 hours) for the day, it would be a perfect space to grow chives or tarragon, which thrive in average light exposure. If you have roof access, or live in south-facing places that receive heavy sunlight, plant basil and oregano, as they do well in the heat.
Start Indoors vs. Outdoors
When and how you choose to sow your seeds is a critical factor when it comes to a prosperous herb garden. Look at the climate where you live and determine your growing season. The idea here is to let your environment inform you of when and how you sow your seeds. You can directly sow them outside when temperatures are right, but as mentioned we usually opt for starting herbs indoors as they are very fragile during germination and the early growing period.
For ease of planting, sowing them in plug trays or pellets is the way to go. You may want to plant your seeds in the container as they mature indoors. This is only suitable for those with the space as some of the herbs require large pots to successfully grow in. A grow light is helpful, but not necessary. Placing your seedling trays or direct-sown pots next to a window that receives at least six hours of sunlight a day is enough to provide the seeds the environment they need to germinate.
Another key is to start them at the appropriate time based on the average last frost date for your area. This information is critical for gardeners and can be found at the Agriculture Extension Service Office in the county where you live. How many weeks to start seed is usually stated on the seed packet. Sowing seeds indoors not only gives you a head start, it protects the plant from fluctuating temperatures and allows you to control the environment so your herbs grow healthy and strong.
All seeds started indoors will require a process known as “hardening off”, which is when you acclimate the seedlings to outdoor conditions by placing them outside in increasing increments each day, until they spend the whole day outside. This can take anywhere from one week to a month depending on the herb. Be wary of setting them out overnight as a sudden drop in temperatures can kill your seedlings. After you harden off your herbs, you can transplant them in soil that is loose and moist.
Whether you are starting indoors or outdoors, we recommend that you keep your garden simple--especially if it is your first time. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself. Start with just three to five plants, a very manageable herb garden.
Terra or Terracotta?
When it comes to where you want to grow your herbs, you have a few options. The first is to plant directly into a prepared garden space, the second is to build a raised bed and the third is to use containers. A prepared garden space can be a section of an established vegetable garden or interplanting in established beds where there is room for a few herb plants.
Raised beds allow you to utilize space permanently in the ground as you prefer, while also tailoring your soil according to the herbs’ needs. When planning the placement of your raised beds, always keep in mind how it will affect your vegetable garden if you start one in the future.
Containers are great for herbs. Use your imagination! From terracotta to galvanized tubs, containers are a great way to add spice to your garden! We recommend this method for several reasons: (1) These kinds of containers allow you to place your plants in the ideal spot for you - for example, just outside the kitchen window for easy access or in and around your vegetable garden as companion plants. (2) They help you to control over-spreading of some herbs such as mints. (3) They allow you to customize each herb’s experience according to its needs, i.e. sun/shade exposure and soil specifications.
Watering and Drainage
In general, herbs prefer well-drained soil. Good soil drainage is a requirement for many herbaceous plants and herbs like rosemary, lavender and tarragon, having woody stems, prefer sharply drained soil. Choosing the right amendments to add to your garden soil, filling your raised bed with good ingredients and picking a quality potting soil for your containers is time and money well spent. Herbs, like vegetable plants, benefit from careful planning and forethought.
Don’t over water—Water consistently yet consciously. Lightly press your finger into the soil and feel for an ideal moisture. It should feel moist to the touch, but not soggy. Use this touch method accordingly as the temperature rises. Another benefit of containers is that if you accidentally water too much, simply place your container in the sunniest area for a period to evaporate the excess water.
Herbs make fantastic companion plants, as some have insect-repellent properties. When your herbs flower, they can attract beneficial pollinators. Placing your herbs in and around your vegetable crops can accommodate your needs as a vegetable gardener. Either place your container herbs around the garden as needed throughout the growing season or build your raised bed in a place that benefits your garden all season long!
Herb plants are less likely to have pest problems if your ground is healthy and the placement of your herbs is ideal, but it can happen. Aphids, mites, and mealybugs can populate your herb garden, but as long as you have healthy soil and a consistent soil moisture, they should stay away. They can be easily treated by creating a pepper spray using ground cayenne peppers.
These fundamental pieces of information grant you the foundation to start successfully growing herbs and harvesting the rich experience. Watch as your mini environment comes to victorious life as you remember what you’ve learned. Keep in mind that with practicing the gardening lifestyle, trial and error is the rule of the day. Let these moments advance you further to understanding and connecting to your environment. We encourage this guide to be a life-long pursuit that fulfills you more with the coming years. Once the roots take hold, the foliage will expand, leading to blooms that bring all kinds of life to your space.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and revive your relationship with the Earth through cultivating herbs and remembering the human story.
See our individual herb growing guide pages for additional herb gardening information.