Growing herbs, or even creating a herb garden, is easier than you think. All you need is good light conditions in a well-drained soil or even on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential ingredient in a wide range of foods, so growing your own means a fresh supply of aromatic flavourings is never more than a few steps away. When natural growing methods are used, growing your own herbs can be a culinary delight, which we guarantee to taste better than anything you find in the shops. Even if you don't intend to use them in the kitchen, many herbs boast interesting foliage, a beautiful aroma and flowers which attract wildlife and add a splash of colour.
Where to Grow Herbs
Herbs can be planted in a variety of places in the garden:
Dedicated Herb Garden
Growing herb plants in a herb garden can make harvesting a little easier if you intend to grow multiple herbs and will create a fabulous rich scent nearby, especially on hot sunny days. You can make a herb garden look very ornamental by combining different herbs that have particularly attractive features, such as the golden-edged foliage of Thyme Silver Posie, attractive pink flowers of Chives and spikes of pink-tinged, white flowers of Common Valerian.
Growing Herbs in Garden Borders
Herbs can be planted in general borders amongst other plants and flowers, which is a good option if you don't have space for a separate herb garden. One option is to choose herbs with colourful foliage to compliment flowers on nearby shrubs and perennials. Alternatively, you can grow herbs for their own colourful flowers - for example, the attractive yellow flowers or fennel plants which are attractive to bees and butterflies makes it a great addition to the herbaceous border.
Growing Herbs in Patio Containers or Windowboxes
Potting up herbs into containers on the patio or outside the back door of your home works well if you're short on space. Alternatively, they look great and are very accessible in window boxes. This way you'll be able to harvest a little of whatever you need when cooking and barely step a foot outside! Just remember to water them regularly to prevent your plants from drying out.
Growing Herbs Indoors
Even if you're an urbanite without a garden, you can still grow herbs indoors and have fresh produce all year round. What's more, herbs grown on the kitchen windowsill couldn't be more convenient for harvesting! A number of herbs are suitable for growing indoors including spearmint, peppermint, parsley, chives, basil and marjoram. Don't worry about regularly cutting your herbs to incorporate into culinary dishes, this will actually help the plants by encouraging them to develop new growth.
Herbs can be incorporated into a vegetable patch and certain varieties such as chives and thyme make an excellent informal edge to a path. You can also make use of new or used grow bags, which will help to save space in smaller gardens.
When to Plant
Annual and biennial herbs are fast growing and best planted at intervals through the spring and summer to ensure you have a continuous fresh supply. The guidance for planting perennial herbs is the same as for other types of perennials - they can be planted at any time of the year, except when the soil is frozen or waterlogged. Autumn planting is ideal if you have a light soil, otherwise spring is the prime time.
Herbs prefer a light, moist yet free-draining, neutral to alkaline soil with plenty of bulky organic matter. If you have very acidic ground, apply a generous handful of lime per square metre of soil when cultivating. If you have a heavy clay soil, build in some grit or sand before planting and mix in plenty of organic matter such as well-rotted compost, manure or grass clippings before putting your herbs into the ground. Try to avoid planting herbs in a patch of ground that often lies wet, but if you have no choice create a raised bed using good quality compost and position your herb plants in there.
Most herbs prefer a sunny, sheltered location, except a few that can tolerate or even prefer partial shade:
If you're planting herbs in the border, choose spots that suit the light preferences of the herb plants you're going to grow. If you intend to plant up a herb garden, try to split it into 2 parts with one side receiving full sun throughout all or most of the day and the other being semi-shaded, or at least receiving some rest bite from the strongest midday sun, so you can cater for the preferences of different types of herbs.
For window boxes, it often works well to have one window box on the sunniest side of the house and another on a shady side, so you can accommodate the preferred conditions of a range of different herbs across both. Biennial and perennial herbs supplied in pots are already frost-hardened so are best planted in their final position straight away as they can be difficult to successfully re-position later.
Planting in the Garden
Start by removing all perennial weeds and raking the soil level, removing any large rocks or stones. Herbs are best handled at their base or by their rootball to avoid damaging their vulnerable foliage and stems. Remove your herb plants from their containers and gently loosen out the roots. Dig a planting hole 1.5 times the width of the rootball and deep enough so that the top of the rootball is just below the soil surface. After re-checking the planting height, back-fill, ideally with a mix comprising 50% of the dug soil and 50% compost or organic matter (garden compost, well rotted manure or grass clippings). Firm the soil down with the back of your trowel and water well at the base of the plant (without allowing water to touch the foliage).
Growing Herbs in Containers
Some herbs can develop deep roots, especially shrubby varieties such as rosemary and bay plants, so deep pots are best. Making sure you choose containers with drainage holes in the base, plant them up using a loam-based potting compost such as John Innes No 2 mixed with one-quarter coarse grit to improve drainage. Once planted, position your pots on 'feet' to allow the moisture to freely drain away during periods of wetter weather. If you choose to grow either spearmint or peppermint in a container we would recommend lifting and dividing plants annually to rejuvenate them and help sustain their vigour. For other perennial varieties, look to re-pot every few years if they become straggly, weak or start to dry out rapidly. When re-potting, spread out the roots and remove as much of the old compost as possible before planting into a new container.
Harvest leaves from the upper and outer part of your herb plants to give new leaves in the centre the opportunity to fully develop. The best time to harvest is early in the morning before any of the essential oils evaporate. Avoid picking more than one-quarter (max. one-third of you really need it for an important recipe!) of the leaves of any given plant at one time to ensure it retains the strength to rejuvenate. Evergreen herbs such as thyme, rosemary and sage can be harvested all-year round, but will only re-grow and provide a replenished supply during the growing season.
Herbs are generally quite low-maintenance plants, but there are a few important rules you should follow to ensure your herbs can be a regular culinary delight.
Herbs grown in containers must be watered regularly to keep the compost moist, but never soggy (this it the main reason they require more attention compared to herbs grown in the garden). Shallow-rooted plants dry out quickly so water regularly when they are growing strongly. We recommend watering in the morning as this will give your herbs moisture to better copy with the heat of warm summer days.
We recommend feeding your herb plants, especially those grown in containers, regularly during the growing season. Use a balanced liquid feed to encourage leafy growth, rather than a high potash feed which promotes flowering. Container-grown herbs are best fed weekly from March through to September. Make sure you apply the correct amount as too little will result in weak growth whilst too much will cause the foliage to lose its intended flavour (check the box or package for guidance).
Trimming & Tidying
Trim herbs during the spring to foster lush new growth. Be sure to remove all trimmed parts and other debris and leaves that have fallen from your herbs at other times of the year to avoid the development of fungal diseases.
Dead-head any flowers that appear on your herb plants as soon as they start to fade so the plants devote all of their energy to foliage growth. If convenient, give varieties such as thyme and lavender a trim after deadheading also.
Cold Protection and Over-Wintering
Protect your herbs from frost using horticultural fleece or an alternative insulating material such as bubble wrap. Positioning your containers against a wall will also help to provide protection. A number of herbs are best grown outdoors then brought into the house and planted in pots on a south-facing windowsill in the winter. We recommend this approach for chives, peppermint, spearmint, parsley and tarragon.
For other herbs a cold frame, open-fronted shed or somewhere in the rain shadow of a wall make good places to put your herbs for winter protection. Use plywood or a sheet of glass to keep heavy rain off your herbs if needed.
Pests, Diseases and Problems
Herb Plants A-Z
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