How to Start Your Own Herb Garden
So what if your thumb is more of a sea foam than a bright green color? Gardening can be for everyone, especially when it comes to an herb garden. Simple to plant and easy to care for, adding an herb garden to your home can make a big difference in your cooking and in your wallet. Buying fresh herbs at the grocery store can get expensive, and oftentimes the herbs wilt and expire before you get to use them all. The benefits far outweigh the costs to getting started, especially if you use a small planter in your kitchen or on a patio.
But before you pick up your shovel and put on your garden clogs, you need to decide which herbs you'd like to plant. While there are more than 50 herbs and spices, you should stick to the ones you most commonly use in your kitchen. For a comprehensive guide to some of the most popular herbs and spices, read our Dictionary of Herbs and Spices and check our the Popular Herbs guide below.
You'll also need to refresh your gardening vocabulary with three important words. Learn them, understand them and live by them:
Annual - a plant that blooms one season and then dies. It must be replanted each year.
Biennial - a plant that lives two seasons, but only blooms in the second one.
Perennial - a plant that blooms each season once established.
The Time is Now Depending on where you live and the climate of the area, you could start planting seeds outside as early as March and April. But even if there's still snow on the ground in April (don't laugh, it happens in Chicago), you can start your seeds inside and transplant when it gets warmer. Some plants like basil, chives, lemongrass, parsley and thyme do best when started from seeds, while others like mint, rosemary and tarragon will grow best when bought as plants.
An Outdoor Herb Garden If you have a large yard and ample gardening space, planting an herb garden outside is an excellent choice. The total area of space needed depends on how many herbs you want to grow, but generally each herb should have a plot of 12 inches by 18 inches. When you plan out and plant your seeds, it's a good idea to keep a diagram of what seeds you planted in which quadrant. You should also make sure to keep annual and perennial herbs separate.
The most important thing to remember when growing herbs is proper drainage. The best way to achieve this is to dig down in the soil 15 to 18 inches. Place a 3-inch layer of crushed stone on the bottom of the area. Before replacing the soil, mix in some compost and sand to lighten the texture, then refill the plant beds slightly higher than the original level to allow the soil to settle. Herbs don't need a great amount of fertilizer, so if you do add it to your soil, do so sparingly.
When sowing the seeds, make sure not to cover them too deeply in the soil. A good general rule is: the finer the seed, the shallower it should be sown. Most biennials can be sown in the late spring directly into the ground.
An Indoor Herb Garden
Many people prefer to keep their herbs in planters or barrels so they can move them inside and outside depending on the season and they can have fresh herbs year round. Growing herbs inside is very similar to growing them outdoors: they still need plenty of sunlight and a proper drainage system.
Select a spot in your home with a south or west window. In the winter, some herbs may require grow lamps or florescent lamps as supplemental light. When planting, start with an inch of gravel at the bottom of the pot to ensure excellent drainage. For the soil, mix two parts sterilized potting soil with one part coarse sand or
. Make sure to keep the herbs well-hydrated, but don't over-water. Mist the area with a spray bottle if they seem dry.
Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors, but perennial herbs should be moved outdoors during the summer months. Keep pots of soil in a protected location like a patio or balcony. To prevent a loss of foliage and avoid plant damage, bring herbs indoors before frost. However, some herbs like mint, chives and tarragon actually benefit from the first light frost as it induces a "rest period" and makes the new growth fresher.
Especially if you have an outdoor garden, you may want to preserve your crops by drying the herbs to use during the winter. The most important thing to remember when drying herbs is making sure they're completely dry. This may seem redundant, but herbs with a high moisture content like mint and basil need to be dried completely and quickly, otherwise they will mold.
Harvest herbs at their peak, just before flowering. Annuals should be cut off at ground level while perennials should be cut about one third of the way down the main stem, including side branches. Wash herbs in a cold running water, making sure to remove soil, dust and any other foreign materials.
The best way to dry herbs thoroughly is to hang the plants upside down in bunches in paper bags. Hanging the leaves upside down allows essential oils to flow from the stems to the leaves. Leaves are ready when they feel dry and crumbly - usually about 1 to 2 weeks. When completely dry, herbs can be ground into a powder and stored in airtight containers.
Another way to preserve your herbs for year round cooking is to freeze them. They should still be washed thoroughly after harvesting, but they should also be blanched in boiling, unsalted water for 50 seconds. Cool quickly in ice bath and then package and freeze them. Dill, chives and basil do not need to be blanched.
An easy way to store your herbs is in ice cube trays in the freezer. Place chopped herbs in each cube and fill with water. To preserve color and flavor, you can use boiling water, which blanches the herbs before freezing. During the year when you want to use fresh herbs in recipes, simply defrost however many cubes you need.
Choosing the right herb ratios can be confusing for a novice, so here are a few combos to get you started:
The Pesto Garden - If you know you want to make vats (ok, maybe quarts) of fresh pesto, you should definitely plant these herbs:
8 sweet basil plants
2 parsley pants
The Grilling Garden - Excellent for seasoning grilled veggies, meats and poultry, plant these fresh herbs:
1 rosemary plant
2 parsley plants
2 lemon thyme plants
2 chive plants
1 sweet marjoram plant
The All-Purpose Garden - A perfect well-rounded selection of everyday herbs you'll want to have around:
1 chive plant
2 parsley plants
2 to 3 basil plants
2 to 3 thyme plants
2 sweet marjoram plants or Greek oregano plants
Below is a table of the 15 most popular herbs that you may want to grow in your kitchen garden. It includes information about sunlight, growth pattern and how it propagates. Click here to check out pictures of these herbs on our Flickr page.
|Anise||A warm, sweet taste similar to licorice. Leaves used as garnish and seeds used to flavor cokes and cookies.||X||X|
|Basil (Sweet)||Grows easily from seed, but avoid lush growth as it will diminish flavor. Commonly used in tomato dishes.||X||X||X|
|Caraway||Seeds have warm, aromatic quality used in many Hungarian-type dishes, coleslaw and meat stews. Seeds can be picked about 1 month after flowering.||X||X|
The leaves are much like parsley and are used similarly in soups, salads, sauces, etc.
A popular choice for its subtle onion-like flavor, they are hardy and sprout light purple flowers.
Used in condiments and confections, the tiny seed has a delicious perfumed taste and odor. Seeds ripen mid-summer.
Both seeds and leaves can be used to flavor, most popularly, pickles, sauerkraut and beet dishes. Also common with garlic and pepper in Mediterranean and Eastern European cooking.
Seeds are used as a condiment and have an anise-like flavor. Stems can be eaten like celery and also have faint anise flavor.
|Horehound||A course plant that withstand full sun and intense heat. It is the source of the old-fashioned horehound candy.||X||X||X||X|
Easy to grow in poor soil, hyssop is a hardy plant once established. Its leaves are pungent and are used to flavor liqueur. The oil from the leaves is also used for making perfume.
|Lavender||Sweet and aromatic, this herb is popularly used for fragrance in sachets or perfumes. It can also be used in cooking.||X||X||X||X|
The colorful leaves of this herb make it an attractive border plant. The sweet leaves can be used fresh or dried as flavor in cooking.
|Oregano||Also called "wild marjoram," oregano is coarser and smell more like thyme. Its leaves are used most popularly to flavor pizza, but can also be used over lamb or steak and other Italian dishes.||X||X||X||X|
|Parsley||Although this is a biennial, it is treated as a perennial. It is one of the most popular herbs used for garnish as well as flavor and is high in vitamins A and C and iron.||X||X||X|
|Peppermint||The more frequently the sprigs are cut, the better the growth will be. The aromatic leaves are used in tea, chewing gum and many confections.||X||X||X||X|
|Rosemary||The narrow leaves have a resinous, leather-like feel. It is used for flavoring meats and dressings or as garnish.||X||X||X||X|
|Sage||This hard plant is slightly bitter and is typically used in stuffings for poultry, rabbit, pork and baked fish. It also works well in sausage and meat loaves.||X||X||X|
|Spearmint||A lighter shade of green than peppermint, the minty flavor of this herb makes it ideal for teas and flavoring cold drinks. Its oil is used in confections.||X||X||X|
|Tarragon||A sharp, distinct flavor makes this herb great for salads, marinades and sauces. Flavor is lost if leaves are dried.||X||X||X|
A widely used seasoning, this herb goes well in gumbos, bouillabaisse, chowder, poultry stuffings and slow-cooking beef dishes. Its lilac-colored flowers are aromatic and make it an ideal border plant.