Tips On How To Make An Herb Garden

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Getting Started

Herbs deserve a place in your garden. Even if you are new to herb cultivation, a little inspiration and simple advice will get you started. For me, it began with a trip to Italy and Greece. I fell in love with the Mediterranean climate and tiny herb gardens, which seemed to hang off every balcony in Rome. No matter your inspiration, herb gardens are great for cultivating food and medicinal herbs.

You can start small, with just a few flower pots, or go big and incorporate herbs into your flowers and shrubs for year-round greenery and fragrances. I started with just four herbs: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. They became the mainstay of my kitchen garden. It is amazing what a few fresh herbs will do to a salad, a plate of vegetables, a pizza or a roast.

Herbs are happy almost anywhere with sun, soil and water. You can maximize your growing space by planting herbs in window boxes, hanging baskets or garden beds, or even between patio slabs or walkway pavers. There are many ways that herbs can compliment vegetable and flower gardens. You can plant a lavender or sage border for a rose garden. Use creeping thyme as a border between walkways or pavers. Consider adding rosemary, marjoram or chives to attract birds and bees to your garden. The great part of herb gardening is that it doesn't require as much planning as many other types of gardening.

Many herbs have colorful flowers, too. If you are looking for additional color, then Bee Balm, Hollyhock and Scarlet Pimpernel are great; they all have red flowers when they bloom. For purplish-rose there are Germander, Pyrethrum, Yarrow and Boneset. Nasturtium will offer up yellow, orange and red flowers several times a year in cool climates. Many herbs will winter well in moderate climates.

Preparing the Soil

Mediterranean herbs are happier in dry, well-drained soil. Adding extra sand or perlite to the mix will make your potting soil more porous. Several examples of these Mediterranean herbs are lavender, oregano, rosemary and thyme.

Moisture- and shade-loving herbs need more moisture-retaining ingredients and organic materials than their Mediterranean cousins do. The addition of compost or peat moss will increase the organic material in the blend. Basil, chives, mint and parsley are among the herbs that need more moisture. This simple blend can be made from easily located ingredients:

2 parts potting soil

1 part perlite or sand

1 tsp. ground limestone per 5-inch pot

Planting

Most herbs can be grown from seeds, cuttings or 3-inch starter pots or gallon plants purchased from your local nursery. Nursery plants directly from the greenhouse will need time to get used to their new environment. Keep them watered and out of harsh sun. Seeds are available at most nurseries, but you should still browse seed catalogs. They frequently have a greater selection of unusual and more exotic herbs than your local nursery.

Growing more plants from a single specimen is easy. If you are buying 3- or 4-inch starter plants, then you can also make softwood cuttings from a non-flowering host plant and wind up with a dozen plants or more. Rosemary and sage are good candidates for this. Avoid stems that are too young and soft, because they are harder to root.

With thyme, marjoram and oregano, the division is done by cutting up the root ball. Use sharp scissors to trim the excess leafy growth, remove the plant from the pot, divide in half or quarters and re-pot. This is best done in late summer.

Finding the Best Herbs

Many of us will buy our first herb from a local supermarket, usually basil, rosemary or Italian parsley, which is all right if it was locally grown. I've had great results and disasters with my local supermarket, so I strongly advise shopping at a nursery staffed with knowledgeable and enthusiastic professionals. If that is not convenient, then many of the mail-order seed catalogers will have customer support available. When talking to them, it is helpful if you can identify your climate zone.

Spread your herb shopping trips over several months and see which nursery consistently carries a comprehensive and changing variety of herbs. This is a good way to see what looks good during different seasons. Look for healthy, younger plants with clean, unstained foliage. The planting mix should be moist but not waterlogged. Clean pots are an indication of young plants grown in an uncongested space. Avoid small plants in big pots. These could be young plants potted up, and they are not a good value. Also, avoid plants that appear tired or wilted or have matted roots growing through the drainage holes.

Harvesting

By this point, you've planted, nurtured and grown an impressive herb garden. Now comes the reward: harvesting. Harvesting is almost the best part of herb gardening. Herbs are harvested for leaves, flowers, seeds, roots or the entire plant.

In most climate zones, August is the time to harvest. The best time of day is after the dew has dried but before the sun gets hot. That's the time when herbs contain the maximum amount of essential oils. Most herbs need to be harvested as they burst into flower. The exception is the mint family, which you need to harvest before they flower. Done properly, you will get a second harvest before the frost sets in.

To dry your leafy herbs, tie the stalks into bundles and hang in a warm, dark environment until dry. Seeds can be spread out between cheesecloth, and flowers can be dried on a screen. Allow about 10 days for your herbs to completely dry before storing them in containers.

Fresh herbs in the kitchen add another level of excitement to your culinary dishes that packaged jars of herbs cannot match. Whether you use your herbs fresh or dried, you'll notice a dramatic improvement in the taste with your own hand-grown, harvested and dried herbs. They make great gifts, too. Enjoy!

Last Updated: January 18, 2012
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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