How Does Your Herb Garden Grow?

Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and enjoy.  An herb garden can give you more fun and make a huge difference in many ways of your life.  Herbs are used in many ways, culinary – in cooking, as beverages, aromatic – for fragrance and flowers, cosmetic – beauty or natural dyes, medicinal – better health internally and externally, and as enhancements to landscaping.

Herbs can be pronounced with our without the H, usually in the UK they are pronounced with the H, statewide it’s usually pronounced without the H, as in “‘herbs”.

The best herbs to start with are those you will use or enjoy the most, it’s also good to start with ones that will grow easiest for you.  Most herbs are fairly easy to grow; some are annuals that last one season and need replanted each year (although some of these will self-sow after the first planting), others are perennials that come up every year, and then there are biennials that will bloom the second year and then die.  Some herbs grow well in partial shade, but most will need sun for at least five to six hours per day.

A kitchen garden near the back door is very convenient and a pleasure to grow and it will elevate your cooking to a new exciting level.  Many of these culinary herbs can be potted and grown inside in a bright window or under bright grow lights through the winter months.  You may want to start with half a dozen or so of the most used culinary herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, chives, basil, chives and oregano.  The mints are very easy to grow and delightful to use, but remember these send out runners and will spread rapidly if not kept in check by planting them in a container, or you can surround the plot with mown grass or cement walkways.  Lemon balm is a nice lemony herb that will come back year after year. It has many uses.

Herbs can also grow mixed in with your flower gardens, or among your shrubs.  Plant the ones with fragrant foliage or flowers where you can pick a leaf or flower in passing, or outside sitting areas where you can brush against them for greatest enjoyment of these delightful herbs.  Some herbs help repel insects like flies and mosquitoes; these are useful on your deck or patio and near the house doors.  If you are planting herbs to use for wreaths or potpourri you can put them in rows in your vegetable garden.

To prepare a new garden, remove the grass and turn the soil as deeply as possible, at least 6 to 8 inches, either by hand or with a rototiller.  Smooth out any lumps with a hard garden rake.  Add as much compost, peat or well rotted manure as you can, especially if you are working with heavy clay or very sandy soils.  Herbs are not too particular about soil, as long as the drainage is good.

You can start nearly the all of the annual and many perennial herbs from seed. This will give you the most plants at the least expense.  You will need to know whether your herbs prefer sun, shade or partial shade, and the moisture level they prefer. Knowing the height of the grown herb allows you to consider where you want to put them. Most herbs stay much smaller if grown in containers.

To start your plants indoors, gather everything you will need before you start:

  • seeds
  • clean potting containers (such as margarine dishes, 4 inch pots, milk cartons cut to size, egg crates, or seed starting flats – if there are no drainage holes, make some with a paring knife or an ice pick)
  • sterile potting soil or other seed starting medium (such as milled sphagnum moss, or vermiculite)
  • water
  • plastic bags or wrap
  • flat pans for watering
  • labels or tags and a waterproof pen (VERY IMPORTANT)

Fill the container to one half inch from the top with soil or medium that is moistened, but not soggy.  Level it off and press down gently.  Then sprinkle the seeds evenly over the surface.  Small seeds should only be pressed in, not covered.  Larger seed are usually covered with soil three times their size. Write the name of the plant on the label, and the date.  If you have enough room, include the color or height of the plant, if it is annual or perennial.  If you don’t have room for this on the label, or even if you do, it’s a good idea to keep a record or log of what you planted, when you planted it, when it comes up and where it is planted in the garden.  Water each container well.  The best way to do this is to let it soak in a pan of water until the top is moist.  This way, the seeds are not displaced or disturbed.  If you must water from the top, use only the gentlest spray that will not disturb the seeds.  Then add the label and place a plastic bag or plastic wrap loosely over the top. This helps keep the soil from drying out, which you do not want to let happen.  It is very important to keep the soil moist while the seeds are germinating, but not too wet.  Most seeds will germinate best if the soil temperature is at about 75 degrees F.  You can set the containers on top of the TV, refrigerator, dryer or heat pipes, or you can run a heating cable under the flats.  There are a few kinds of herbs that need light to germinate.

If time and space are limited, plant only those special kinds and varieties of herbs indoors that you cannot seed outside or buy from local growers.

Watch them carefully, remove the plastic covering and move the containers into bright light and cooler temperatures as soon as seeds begin sprouting.  You can put these in a bright southern window, or put the trays of seedlings just a few inches below fluorescent lights.  These will grow almost as well as in a green house.  Be sure to turn them frequently if they are growing toward the light.  Water carefully.  Never allow the seed containers to dry out, but you also need to be careful of over watering, as this can cause damping-off disease, which is characterized by the seedlings rotting at the soil line and falling over.

When your plants have four to six true leaves, they are ready to transplant.  If the weather allows, and you plan to plant directly outside, you will need to harden off the plants before putting them into the ground permanently.  This accustoms the plants to the wind and direct sunlight.  You begin by putting them in a shaded sheltered spot outside; gradually moving them into sunlight a bit more every day.  After a week or so, they will be accustomed to the outdoor weather and will have a much better chance of making it; otherwise, they may burn up or go into shock. Pick your location according to the amount of light. Whenever possible, transplant your plants into the garden late in the day or on a cloudy day to give the plants the longest possible time to adjust.   If it is not warm enough for them to go outside yet, plant them in individual pots or larger containers.  Fill pots with damp, fertile soil.  Then use a pencil or something similar to lift plants up carefully.  Hold them by the leaves, not the delicate stems, as you firm the soil gently around the roots.

Many herbs do better if sown directly in your garden where they will grow.  (Dill, cilantro, and parsley are a few).  This assures good light, room for roots, better air circulation and no transplanting shock.  Leave walkways or position stepping-stones so you can get to all parts of the bed easily.  Plant your seeds according to packet direction and unless it’s rainy, water seeded areas at least twice a day with a fine spray to keep the soil evenly moist at all times.  The top of the soil, where the seeds are germinating can dry out quickly on a hot or windy day.  A hard rain, on the other hand, may wash out smaller seeds.  If this happens, replant as soon as possible.  Thin your seedlings after they are established according to instructions, I sometimes transplant the thinnings.

Once you have your plants in place, if it becomes very cold or windy, you can shade and protect the plants with float row covers, or bottomless milk jugs.  New plants, even ones that will be drought resistant later, need constant moisture when they are first transplanted, until they become established.  Make a ring like depression around the plant and then water slowly and deeply.

You can make more plants by taking cuttings of established plants.  Also, some herbs do not produce seeds (such as true French tarragon, and horseradish, these need to be taken by cuttings or roots.  All seedlings have two parents, so there can be variations of flavor or flower color.  Cuttings or divisions give the exact same kind of plant and they grow more quickly.

For cuttings fill a clean container with a sterile seed starting soil  that is very moist  but not soggy. Cut off 4 to 8 inches of tip growth, cutting just above a node or leaf joint.  Make a new slanting cut just below a node and remove the lower leaves of the cuttings. With herbs, you can use these in cooking or potpourris.  If you have powdered rooting hormone, it can be helpful, but not necessary in most cases.  To use it, dip the stem ends in water and then in the hormone.  Make a hole in the medium and insert the cuttings to cover at least one node.  Firm the medium around the stem.  Cuttings can be put close in the containers as long as the leaves do not touch.  Keep cuttings out of direct light and keep the humidity high.  After about two weeks, pull one to test.  If it pulls out too easily the roots are not mature enough; reset the cutting and wait a few more days.  To remove rooted cuttings from the medium, insert a trowel or spoon gently and lift the roots intact.  Plant these right away. Do not leave the root exposed to air or let them dry out.

Many clump-forming perennials like chives or lemon balm are easy to propagate by dividing established plants.  Lift the plant carefully out of the ground with a spading fork or knock it gently out of the pot.  If possible, break apart the clump by hand.  If you cannot, use the prongs of two spading forks or trowels.  If all else fails, use a butcher knife to get individual pants, each with some roots and a bud to sprout a shoot.  New plants from the side of a clump can be lifted with a spade or trowel without disturbing the main plant.

Herbs are some of the most resistant of all plants to pests and diseases.  If you plant several different kinds of herbs together, the mixture will give better pest control.  However, herbs are not completely immune to problems, and as a rule, the warmer and more humid the climate, the more frequent and severe the problems.  Good soil drainage, aeration, and wide enough spacing between plants for air circulation can do much to reduce diseases.  If you do encounter a serious problem, discard the plant to the bottom of a hot compost pile or to a trash bag.

Perennial herbs will live over the winter where they are hardy.  We live in zone five, occasionally dropping to zone four in very cold winters, where the temperature drops below minus 10 degrees.  Keep this in mind when looking at perennial plants for your garden. Your gardening center or internet store will know the zone they are hardy to.   To over winter your perennial herbs, give them a good drink before the ground freezes and a loose mulch to prevent thawing and refreezing.  Some herbs, like parsley, oregano, thyme and chives will live over most places if you cover the plant with an overturned basket.

When the growing season ends outdoors, you can extend the lives of annual and tender perennials by bringing them inside.  Pot up the entire plant if it is not too large or you can keep some plants in pots all year by sinking the pots in the garden in the summer, and then lift, and bring indoors before the first frost.  Trim away any roots growing through the bottom holes in the pot.  Make the move gradually, moving them to the porch or patio or in the shade before moving inside.   Mist the foliage frequently to add humidity.  Or you can take cuttings and start new plants.  Bring in the ones you most want to use all winter or just want to save.  Plant several different herbs together or put them in a window box or in hanging baskets or individual pots.  With five to six hours of sunlight daily in south or west facing windows, they will do almost as well as outdoors and be much more convenient.  With fluorescent lights, plants can brighten the darkest corners and that is always welcome in winter.

Growing herbs is fun and easy, you can learn as you go.  There is a wealth of Information about herbs can be found from books from the library or bookstore, internet sites, advice or bulletins from the Cooperative Extension Service, newsgroups on the web,  or suggestions from the customer service folks where you buy your plants.  All these sources can help you with the details, as you need them.  I hope you have enjoyed learning about planting herbs.  Remember THE JOY OF HERBS!


Copyright 1.13.13 by Garden Thyme Herbs