Make a list of the seven herbs you love to eat and cook with—then use these great tips to create a fabulous, fragrant, productive herb garden.
According to the National Garden Bureau 2010 saw more first-time gardeners than any time in recent history. Statistics reveal many of these first-time gardeners began with vegetables and plan to add herbs in the coming year. I’ve been growing herbs since childhood, and to me vegetables are interesting, but adding herbs makes them exciting. Tomatoes, for example, are wonderful fresh, but when cooked, they just cry out for some basil, garlic and oregano. Herbs add flavor and pizzazz to vegetables, fish, poultry, even cheese or egg dishes. Herbs are also incredibly easy to grow provided you follow a few basics.
Basic Tips for Great Herbs
• Virtually all culinary herbs require full sun, meaning at least eight hours of sunlight per day. Whether you grow your herbs on the patio or in the garden, sunlight is vital to your success.
• Choose a location for your herbs that is in the proximity of your kitchen. The closer your herbs are to the kitchen, the more likely you are to use them.
• Give your herbs their own specific location. I choose to grow my herbs in garden beds. I like this method because I can easily harvest fresh herbs as I need them, just steps from my kitchen, and it gives me space for a large variety.
• Think about what you use on a regular basis by looking in your spice cabinet in the kitchen. Do you use lots of oregano or basil? How about chives? Make a short list of about six or seven herbs that you use on a regular basis and that can be your list for beginning your herb garden.
• Herbs do best in raised beds (my beds are about 6 to 8 inches high). You could also grow your herbs on mounds or berms or in large pots. The important consideration is herb plants need to have good drainage.
• Herbs don’t require special soil, any average garden soil is sufficient. And herbs don’t need much in the way of fertilizer, either. Potting soil, if growing in patio pots, is also fine.
• If you plan to grow herbs in patio pots, the larger the pot the more likely your herbs will do well. A mistake first time herb gardeners make (besides not giving enough sunlight) is using pots that are too small. When buying containers for herbs, buy a pot much larger than you think you will need. I like pots that are more than 16 inches across at the top, and plant two to four different herbs per pot.
• Begin with about seven herbs your first year and get acquainted with the flavors and uses of those before enlarging your garden. Since basil is the most popular herb in the United States, I’d suggest including it in your first garden. It is a versatile herb, good fresh or dried and useful for all kinds of dishes.
Herbs for Starters
I started with seven herbs when I began years ago, and each year removed the ones I didn’t use and replaced them with about seven new ones. Over the years my collection has increased to between 200 and 300 varieties.
You might choose from the following: basil, parsley, chives, sweet marjoram, oregano, thyme, mint, sage and rosemary. Some are perennials—meaning they may come back a second year, while others are annuals. Don’t worry too much about which is which in your first year. Instead, concentrate on learning how the herbs grow and taste.
Plant your herbs in spring after the average last date of frost for your area (this can fall between April 15 through Mother’s Day depending on your location—call your local University extension office or visit extension.missouri.edu). Water your plants each week to get them established, and then if growing in patio pots, water them weekly through the growing season. If growing in the garden and the plants are established, weekly rains or a lawn sprinkler is sufficient moisture.
A note about harvesting herbs—once the plants are growing, harvest your herbs often. Basil, for instance, has better flavor if you keep the plant trimmed. I shear mine off with scissors about every two weeks. If the plant is allowed to grow without pruning, the leaves become a bit bitter and less flavorful.
Sage, however, is best to let grow throughout the summer. Then in the fall, when sage becomes more important for things like turkey stuffing, you can harvest entire branches of sage to use fresh or dry.
Other herbs such as chives, parsley, marjoram, oregano and thyme can simply be harvested as needed. The important thing is to not be intimidated. Just snip the herbs and add them to foods.
An easy way to learn the flavors of fresh herbs is to test the fresh flavors in cream cheese or scrambled eggs. You will learn how they taste in bland foods like that. If you’ve only experienced the flavors of dried herbs from jars, then you are in for a treat with fresh herbs.
(From Missouri Gardener March/April 2011. Photos by Jim Long.)