Learning How to Grow Herbs

Herbs are useful for cooking, crafting, and decorating -- boldly coming out of the garden and into your home. A separate herb garden is wonderful, but herbs can also be blended with flowers and vegetables in a kitchen or a cottage garden. You can also slip herbs in flower or shrub beds, or even into the plantings around your foundation.

Culinary herbs are a mainstay of most herb gardens. The garden-fresh flavors of thyme, basil, savory, oregano, and marjoram are incomparable. You can also grow gourmet varieties of these classics -- lemon thyme, cinnamon basil, and Sicilian oregano, for example -- to add to your cooking pleasure.

Grow an herb garden as a container garden if you don't have room for outdoor planting.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
If you don't have the space for a separate herb garden,
consider growing a selection of herbs in a container.

Plan an herb garden before you plant. Some of the most charming herb gardens have formal beds or geometric patterns that show off the beauty of herbal foliage. Here are some examples:
  • Knot gardens interweave herbs with contrasting leaf color and textures into simple or intricate patterns, many of which are taken from embroidery schemes. Simple knot gardens can be made with two overlapping circles or squares set on a background of mulch or gravel. An easy way to make a knot is with annual herbs such as bush basil, summer savory, or sweet marjoram, or even annual flowers such as French marigolds or ageratum.

  • Formal herb gardens generally have symmetrical planting plans, with matched herbs on either side of the garden like reflections in a mirror.

  • Formal and patterned herb gardens often include neat, clipped edgings of boxwood, teucrium, santolina, thyme, winter savory, or other neat herbs suitable for shearing. We'll talk more about planting plans in the next section, Herb Growing Tips.
Provide sandy soil for herbs that need well-drained soil of moderate fertility. If kept in soil that's lean and light and drenched in hot sun, these herbs develop excellent flavor.

When growing an herb garden, plant herbs that need light soil in pots.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Grow herbs that need light soil in pots.

  • If your soil is naturally sandy and well drained, you're in luck. If, instead, it's damp clay, raise the herb garden and add a 3-inch layer of coarse sand and 2 inches of compost to improve drainage. Avoid excessive use of fertilizers, especially those high in nitrogen.

  • Grow herbs that need light soil in pots. When planted in well-drained, peat-based potting mix, herbs such as thyme, lavender, and rosemary thrive -- and they look great.
Plant perennials that double as herbs in flower beds and borders. Some herbs masquerade as perennials (and vice versa) because they can be used for decorating, fragrance, or cuisine. Some examples include the following:
  • Sweetly fragrant bee balm has flowers and foliage wonderful for tea or drying for potpourri.

  • Yarrow bears everlasting flowers for dried floral arrangements. Air drying is fine for golden-flowered forms. To preserve the color of pink, red, and white-flowered yarrows, dry them in silica gel.

  • Lady's mantle is a historical herb with lovely scalloped leaves and small sprays of yellow-green flowers for cutting.

  • Pinks have fragrant flowers that can be used fresh for cut-flower arrangements or dried for potpourri.

  • Use herbs with attractive foliage for season-long color in perennial gardens. Amid the comings and goings of perennial flowers, neatly or colorfully clad herbs maintain enduring style and beauty.

  • Some of the best herbs to grow for decorative foliage include globe basil (small mounds of emerald green), bronze leaf basil or perilla, ornamental sages (with purple leaves, variegated gold leaves, or tricolor green, white, and pink leaves), and silver-leaved herbs such as gray santolina and lavender.

    When planting an herb garden, grow herbs in pots near a kitchen window for convenience.
    ©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
    Plant commonly used culinary herbs in a clay planter
    near a sunny kitchen window for convenience.

  • For a great overall color scheme, complement the color of the foliage with nearby flowers.

  • Plant a collection of commonly used culinary herbs in a clay planter by a sunny kitchen window. They will be right at hand when you need them.

  • Restrain rampant herbs like mint and bee balm so they can't take over the garden. These plants need firm limits to keep them in their proper place.

  • Plant rampant herbs in large plastic pots with the bottom removed and the top rim emerging an inch or two above the soil surface. The container will slow down spreading growth enough so you can see trouble before it spills over the edge. Cut back any errant sprouts and use them for tea or to garnish a fruit salad. Divide to renew the chastised plant every year or two.

  • Pinch back annual herbs, such as basil, to keep them from blooming. If allowed to channel energy into seed production, the foliage will grow skimpy and so will your harvest. Pinching off the shoot tips from time to time provides sprigs for herbal vinegars and pestos and inspires the plant to grow back bushier than ever.

  • Remove a few bricks in a garden path to make places for low-growing thyme or oregano. Either herb will thrive in this warm, well-drained location and will give a charming natural look and wonderful fragrance to the walkway.

  • Plant more parsley, dill, and fennel than you think you will use to attract swallowtail butterflies. The beauty of the butterflies and fun of watching the caterpillars develop can be worth the foliage they eat.

  • Harvest perennial herbs as they develop flower buds. This is the time when the fragrant and flavorful oils in the plants are at their peak of intensity, providing a gourmet experience. Because fresh herbs taste so good, even at other times of the growing season, it's perfectly acceptable to continue harvesting whenever you feel the urge. In cold climates, however, hardy perennial herbs need a break from heavy harvesting beginning 45 days before the first frost in order to prepare for winter.
Herbs fit beautifully into any landscape. In the next section, we'll discuss how to plan formal and informal herb garden designs, as well as look at what how to harvest your herbs.