Herbs play well with other plants. In fact, many of them (like rue, catnip, garlic and marigold) make good companion plants for pest control with vegetables and flowers. (When you don’t want to use pesticides, companion planting can save you a lot of headaches.) You may even have a lavender plant (at your garden gate, of course), or a rosemary bush as a privacy screen. That’s all a little different from having a dedicated herb patch.Herbs may not be the most beautiful plants around. In fact, some of them can get leggy (that’s a polite term for scraggly), and have unimpressive little flowers that look cheerful but hardly photo worthy. Still, there’s something magical about a dedicated herb garden. I hate to admit it, but I think it may have something to do with power. It’s a powerful feeling, knowing you can run out to a central spot in your garden (say next to the back door) and harvest everything you need for a nice soup, stew or salad in less time than it takes to heat a cup of tea in the microwave.It’s also a pretty nice feeling come harvest time when you realize all that foliage is enough raw material to make herb wreaths, potpourris, herb blends, teas, remedies — and still have enough left over for next year’s seed.General Herb Garden TipsI always think of herbs as garden plants that offer the biggest payoff for the work. They smell wonderful, can help repel bugs when used as companion plants (think catnip, garlic, lavender, basil and marigold) and you can cook with them. Most are also naturally hardy. It doesn’t get much better than that.Prepare the plot well. Herbs aren’t very fussy about fertilizer, but they need a plot that drains well. If you have clay soil, either lighten it to a depth of at least eight inches or install Check out your nearest garden center. Raised bed supports or whole raised like the popular square foot gardens, are big these days. Patio and deck pots work well too. You can keep five culinary herbs in one large pot and get enough of a harvest to keep you in herbs over much of the winter. I’ve done it. Try: thyme, chives, oregano, dill and sage.Read the directions on the plant or seed packet carefully. Most herbs come with lots of valuable information about how to grow them successfully. Where you plant can be important. If an herb needs full sun, that’s not negotiable. Full sun means six hours or more of bright light a day. Less, and the plant will never reach its full potential.A plant in the wrong spot will also be stressed — or more vulnerable to disease and insect attack. If the directions call for keeping a plant in partial shade, that doesn’t mean full sun with a plant in front of the shade plant. Dappled light is good, but you need to make sure that a shade loving herb plant is protected from bright light during the hottest part of the day. Reading and following the directions will give you the best opportunity to keep all your herbs alive and healthy.A Child’s First Herb GardenIf you’re trying to get children interested in gardening, give them their own child-sized gardening tools. Tiny gardening tools are becoming more available these days and keep the frustration level down. Small hands need small implements.Children love mint varieties like peppermint and spearmint, as well as other plants in the mint family like lemon balm and catnip (for the family cat, of course). Other favorites are apple mint, chocolate mint and orange mint. Mints are very hardy, so they can take quite a bit of abuse, too.Fast growing herbs like cilantro are great starter herbs as well. They offer an instant payoff and can be used in a kid-designed summer recipe like tacos pretty easily.Tips and Tricks for Your First Herb GardenIf you live in an area that gets very hot during the summer months, cover herbs with a layer of mulch to keep them from drying out. If you’re maintaining them in pots on your deck, opt for containers with their own water reservoirs (or use potting soil that contains water-retaining polymers).Check the height details for your herbs and plant accordingly with taller herbs behind shorter ones. Pay attention to the growth habit of your herbs too. Creeping thyme will grow very differently from standard growth habit thyme, and that will have an impact on how it will act, and react, in the garden.Your local nursery will stock cultivars that work well in your area. They may not have all the herbs varieties you’ll find through mail order or online suppliers, but chances are what you buy will work in your backyard.Many herbs have standard, miniature, variegated and creeping varieties. Some will also have cultivars that are more or less vulnerable to frost, heat and specific pests and diseases. Knowing the planting zone you live in, as well as the spot you have in mind for your herb garden, will help you pick the best rosemary, lavender or sage for your needs if you do decide to buy from a national source.
This sounds complicated, but it’s not. If you don’t know your zone, there’s a link at the bottom of this page that will take you to a handy map. There are also lots of comprehensive herb sites on the web that sell seeds and plants. Many of these sites also provide detailed information about which varieties are best for specific regions of the country.Herbs like cilantro and dill grow quickly. Start them early and keep pinching them back when you see flower buds. Most herbs will stop putting the bulk of their energy into creating new leaves once they flower. Leaves are typically what you want to cultivate, so delaying flowering is the goal here. The fast growth spurt some herbs put on when the temps get hotter in summer is called bolting. Plants shoot up quickly, start to flower, and begin to look scraggly. Removing the buds and harvesting around a third of the plant will keep herbs viable longer.HarvestingIt’s a good rule to wait until a plant is at least a few inches tall (this will vary from plant to plant) and a bit bushy before you start harvesting leaves. Never take more than a quarter or a third of the plant at one time, and wait for at least that much to regrow before taking more.Some herbs like chives, parsley and tarragon, taste much better fresh. For these herbs, drying isn’t the best choice. When you’re ready to harvest the bulk of the plant in fall, check the best harvesting method (I have lots of specific info here), and freeze plants that don’t dry well. You can wash and freeze herbs in freezer bags, or chop them into a bowl of water, stir and freeze them into ice cubes. The cubes can then be placed in freezer bags for single serving portions you can add to soups or stews over the winter months.Other herbs can come indoors to spend the winter on a sunny windowsill, overwinter in the garden, or produce seeds for next year’s crop and die off naturally (annuals).There’s no point in growing an herb you don’t like using, but herbs are good for more than just cooking. Lavender is a natural antibacterial, and it’s a muscle relaxer too. Flower buds added to your bath can be more relaxing than soft music and candlelight. Mint is great with lamb, but a soothing mint tea will also settle an upset stomach. Learn a little about each herb you have in mind before you make your final choices. That way you won’t miss out on a good candidate and have to wait until next year.If you’re eyeing those adorable, tiny herb starts at the garden center (in their beguiling little pots), you don’t necessarily have to do a research marathon in order to get them installed successfully in your landscape. Although there are some exceptions, herbs aren’t persnickety, and they’re pretty grateful for anything you can give them. Those picturesque photos of herbs spilling out of old tires, discarded leather shoes and abandoned pottery shards aren’t far wrong. Herbs can grow in spots where many other plants would take a look around, swoon and perish.Five Helpful Tips for Growing Herbs in Your BackyardThese five tips will help you grow most of the common herb varieties you’re likely to fall in love with. They’re basic but practical guidelines to get your herbs through the season without mishap.Sun is important – Many herbs and a majority of garden plants need a reliable source of light for at least six hours a day. Usually that means direct outdoor sunlight, but if you want to grow herbs indoors, a windowsill herb garden is imminently doable if you can offer adequate window light or supplement with grow lights if you need to.Perform this little test, either indoors or out: Wait till the sun is shining in the spot you have in mind, and then extend your arm. If you can’t clearly see your well defined shadow (and all your fingers), the spot is probably too shady.Give ’em good drainage – Plants need a healthy root system to survive. Kill the roots, and you kill the plant. One of the easiest ways to sabotage your growing efforts is to create a situation where water dwells around a plant’s roots long enough to destroy them. When that happens, the plant has no way to absorb minerals and moisture and starves to death.Take a look at your soil to see if it’s the right consistency to absorb moisture and then release it to the water table in short order. If you can’t get a trowel into your soil or it’s so porous it feels mealy, add a quality top soil (or outdoor potting soil) and soil amendments. If you can’t afford to rework a whole flowerbed to make it drain better, just dig a large hole (around three or four times larger than the plant’s pot), and amend that smaller area. It’s a cheat, but we all know this isn’t a perfect world. To learn more about your soil,Give them enough water – Herbs are sturdy little fighters that often come from environs where resources are thin on the ground, literally. One thing they do need consistently, though, is water. This can be a challenge, but if you plant herbs in a spot you view (or walk by) often, you’re more likely to remember they’re there and give them a revitalizing drink on a regular basis. Plants don’t eat dirt to get nutrients. They rely on water to dissolve the minerals they need and then extract the minerals from the moisture around their roots.The irony here is that too much moisture kills the roots of many plants while too little makes it impossible for them to access nourishment. Plants will often warn you when they aren’t getting enough water. They’ll droop, turn yellow or develop brown leaf margins. Watch for clues and you won’t go wrong. You can also employ a cheat, like planting water hungry herbs near downspouts where they’re more likely to get water when they need it — whether you’re being a good host or not.Watch the heat – In some areas of the country, the heat can be brutal during high summer, and keeping herbs in very hot, arid conditions is challenging. If a plant’s instructions suggest full sun but you know that you could cook an egg on your patio during hot summer afternoons, choose a spot that gets dappled light — or some welcome afternoon shade. Growing herbs is horticulture in action, but it’s also about common sense.Harvest sparingly – That basil plant may look delicious (especially for pesto), but don’t harvest more than a third of the plant at a time (for most herbs), and wait for that much or more to grow back before taking an additional harvest. It’s also a good idea to let seedlings grow to eight inches or thereabouts before you begin harvesting your first crop. Plants are processing plants for the leaves, flowers or seeds you want from them, but they’re also living things. When you put their needs first, you insure future bounty