In the folk song “Scarborough Fair,” the oft-repeated list speaks of “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” These are four of the most popular herbs grown in herb gardens all over the world. Of course, there are many options besides these, and which are grown in each garden is completely up to the gardener.
Location, Location, Location
Just like buying property, the main thing to consider when planning an herb garden is where to put it. Most herbs require 4-6 hours of direct sunlight daily, so choose an area of the yard where this will happen. However, if the garden will be in an area of the country where summer temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit regularly, an area with only four hours of sunlight, or partial shade, can be helpful. Remember that other plants, trees, buildings, etc., can all be a factor on whether or not enough sun reaches any particular area.
Because the adage “out of sight, out of mind” tends to be more true than most people might appreciate, choose a place that will be visible from the front or back door or a window that is often used. At the same time, herb gardens are usually very pleasant visually, so they can be an excellent way to increase curb appeal.
Convenience is another factor to consider. An herb garden is more likely to be tended and used regularly if it is in an easy-to-reach location. The best herb garden in the world is not going to be worth planting if it never gets harvested.
If there is not a suitable location to dig up for an herb garden, a raised bed may be an option. Planters can be built or purchased which can be put in pretty much any location desired.
Good, Clean Dirt
Preparing the soil is another very important part of setting up an herb garden. Herbs prefer soil that is well-drained and full of nutrients. Most herbs prefer a pH level of 6.5, but a bit of variation usually works as well. Fertilizer can also help make the soil better for herbs, but make sure that the fertilizer that is added is appropriate for the plants that will be grown in it.
Well-drained soil holds water long enough for plants to absorb it, but not so long that their roots cannot get oxygen. If the yard’s soil does not fit this description, it can be adjusted by adding in components. If the soil is too compact or contains too much clay, mix in sand, peat, or other loose topsoil. If the soil is too sandy, add in compost, vermiculite, peat, or well-aged manure. In either case, mix thoroughly for best results.
Annual or Perennial?
Choosing herbs to grow is the next thing. Herbs for cooking or herbs for medicinal value, herbs to replant annually or herbs that continue growing year after year, favorites and new selections are all choices to consider. Some of them overlap, of course. Some common cooking herbs are also medicinal, and some herbs are biennial.
Some of the most common perennial herbs are chives, comfrey, fennel, horseradish, hyssop, lemon balm, meadowsweet, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, sorrel, and thyme. These reseed themselves and will come up again year after year. Mint and lemon balm are known to extend their area as much as possible, so these might be better in a raised bed where they have a limit to their expansion.
Some of the most common annuals and biennials include basil, borage, chamomile, chervil, coriander (cilantro), dill, lemon grass, lovage, marjoram, Mexican marigold (sweet mace), parsley, purslane, rocket, and summer savory. These plants will live a year or two and then need to be replaced.
Let’s Get Started
Once the herbs have been determined, the method of beginning is next. It is possible to start these plants from seed, which must be done indoors, but it may be easier and more desirable to go to a nursery or similar store to get already-started plants. These are usually ready to transplant into the garden immediately.
If starting from seed indoors is chosen, then it will be necessary to get the supplies, which include potting soil, the seeds, and something to put them in. A pressed-paper egg carton is a great way to do this, as the ‘cups’ can be cut apart and the entire cup can be planted, since it will decompose. This causes less trauma to the baby plant than removing it from a pot and putting it into the ground.
Seeds can also be planted in the ground outside. It is important to check the packaging to make sure the seeds are planted at the right time, so they will thrive. While most do best if they are planted after the last spring frost occurs, there are some that do better if they are already in the ground before that happens. The cold snap encourages growth with these, rather than retarding it.
Herbs which should be planted, as seed, before the last frost include chervil, chives, dill, English lavender, lemon balm, lovage, parsley, sage, and thyme.
If the seeds are started inside, or if young plants have been purchased, then they will need to be planted in the ground in the garden. Be gentle with the small plants, and be sure to have enough space for their entire root system; gently add enough topsoil to match the level of the rest of the garden and water lightly.
Care and Feeding
Herbs are very easy to care for. Water at least once a week, or when the soil starts to feel dry. Remove weeds that spring up so they will not take the nutrients and water that the plant needs.
This is the end goal. If the leaves are picked a few at a time, preferably from the top or outside-most areas, the plant will continue to grow more. This gives fresh herbs to use in cooking or tea. The leaves can also be dried or frozen, after cleaning.