Growing herbs is one of the most rewarding activities we can do in the garden.
Herbs are something special
Herbs transform your cooking and they’re useful all around the home. But there’s something special about growing herbs – it connects you to a simpler way of life and makes you feel part of nature.
Of course a handy place to grow herbs is in containers on the kitchen window sill. You just have to reach out your hand to pick some fresh flavour. But for an abundant supply to make sauces or for drying you’ll get a much more meaningful quantity if you grow most of your herbs in the garden.
- Find the perfect location for the herbs you’re going to grow
Herbs need lots of sunlight, especially in the morning. Avoid siting your herb garden under heavy shade. Many herbs are Mediterranean in origin so you’d think they’re going to demand constant sun, don’t you? But most do well in shade too, such as thyme, sage, rosemary and oregano. Aim for partial sun as too much sun can also be a problem. This is especially the case for basil, chives, mint, catnip and parsley which can suffer in glaring sunlight.
Use shade as a way to control vigour. If you grow mint in shade it will be less vigorous – but shade alone won’t be enough to control such a determined invader. The best advice is to plant your mint in a container sunk into the ground.
If you have a variety of microclimates in your garden you can take advantage of the conditions in different areas. Herbs that prefer dry conditions may do well on slopes where rain run-off will help to keep their roots dry. Leaving you to plant herbs preferring more moist conditions at the bottom of the slope.
And of course you need to plant herbs close to the kitchen so you can pop out and gather a few fresh leaves when you need them
The biggest secret to growing herbs is to keep picking them
- Pick herbs often
Herbs benefit from being picked regularly. This encourages them to become bushy and grow more of the leaves that produce the flavours you’re looking for, rather than flowers. But the flowers are edible too!
A quick snip with a pair of gardening scissors removes the leaves or you can simply pull them away from the plant. It’s a two-handed job for herbs with small leaves such as oregano – carefully hold onto the stem and pull down on the leaves to remove them.
Herbs aren’t just about the leaves. Add a taste of summer to cakes and salads with a sprinkle of edible flowers.
- Pot marigolds
The essential oils in the leaves are most potent early in the morning so pick herbs first thing to capture the most flavour.
Which herbs should you plant first? If you’re growing herbs you should be growing the herbs you use often. You’ll want them to thrive and you’ll know by the flavour if you’re giving them the right conditions. If in doubt about where to start, choose the staples and signpost them – this in itself adds charm to your garden.
Antique garden herb markers from Etsy for £32.10
Grow herbs in the border too, you don’t have to create a separate patch. Many herbs are already at home in the flower border, such as chives, marigolds and pinks.
Most herbs will grow in dry soil with little water or fertiliser. Too much and you risk spoiling them as the lush growth may lack flavour. However as these plants are cut-and-come-again the nutrient stores are quickly depleted. So…
Use a nitrogen fertiliser to promote leaf growth. It’s a very good idea to avoid chemicals in your garden, particularly a herb garden, so to provide nitrogen top dress with compost.
There are a few exceptions to the rule of thumb that herbs prefer poor soils. Peppermint, basil, coriander and lemon balm love moist rich soil full of organic matter.
Herbs don’t like wet feet so ensure good drainage. Water only when the surface of the soil is dry.
Cut back hard occasionally
Herbs grown for their foliage, such as mint or chives, need to be cut back hard after flowering to encourage new shoots. Use a pair of garden shears to reduce the top growth by up to a half.
You may want to leave some seedheads in order to gather seeds for next year rather than cut back everything. Some seedheads are also worth retaining as they look good over the winter, such as angelica and fennel.
A light prune after flowering is all that is needed for woody herbs, such as thyme, lavender, sage or rosemary to prevent them from becoming too woody.
- Divide herbs regularly
Some perennial herbs [such as] lose their vigour when they remain in the same spot for several years. Dig out the clumps and divide to rejuvenate them (and create new plants too).
Divide in early spring or late autumn
Every 2–3 years divide clumps of chives, lemongrass, oregano and catnip. Ideally divide in early spring or late autumn to protect the new plants from the stresses of summer and winter.
Most herbs have few pest problems, except perhaps for caterpillars. Parsley, dill, and fennel are all favourite foods for many caterpillars. There are non-toxic methods of control but if you’re growing herbs it always pays to grow more than one plant to ensure enough food for both you and the caterpillars.
If you like the idea of herbs you’ll enjoy making your own herbal tea garden. These are the perfect herbs for making your own teas: 5 herbs to grow a herbal tea garden.