Here’s What you Need to Know About Growing Herbs
If you’ve never had any kind of garden before, growing herbs is a great place to start. Herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow and nurture, no matter what your growing space looks like. Even if you have a lot of experience growing other plants, here’s what you need to know to grow herbs and what tools and supplies you’ll need to start an herb garden.
In a nutshell:
- you need to understand that some herbs are perennial and some are annuals, depending on your growing zone
- it’s useful to know that even common herbs have cultivators with characteristics that might make them better suited to your particular garden
- there’s some basic tools, equipment and supplies you need for an herb garden, along with growing medium and a location
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What’s the difference between perennial herbs and annual herbs?
Herbs (or any plant, really) that remain in the ground and either maintain foliage or re-grow foliage each year are perennial. In many cases, they will increase in size each year until they reach the limits of their planting location or hit the maximum size for their variety.
Annual herbs will generally only grow for one season. While they can (and do!) drop seeds which germinate and grow in the same spot year after year, the plants are new each season.
It’s very important to realize that for many herbs, whether it grows as an annual or a perennial is determined by the climate. This is commonly referred to as a growing zone, which is broad and not very precise term. Even within a growing zone there are microclimates and that can impact how an herb will perform. Microclimates can exist even within a garden or yard. In many cases, it will take a few growing seasons before you fully understand the microclimate of your own particular garden.
Why does it matter if an herb is an annual or a perennial in my zone?
There are a few reasons you need to worry about this. The first is because, given sufficient space, a perennial herb will keep growing. That means the cute little rosemary plant you put in the ground can potentially grow to a 4 foot tall shrub in a few years. Now that can be a great thing but it’s definitely something you want to plan for in advance. The second reason this matters is because you don’t want to invest in what you assume are long-living herb plants only to have them all die off at the end of the summer.
Finally, herbs that grow as annuals in your area will spend the whole season trying desperately to make flowers. Producing flowers leads to the production of seeds, which is the plant’s primary purpose. This isn’t bad, per se, but once an annual flowers, it generally puts all of its energy there and the foliage may wither and even die off. The flavor of the leaves typically changes, often for the worse, once the herb flowers. To ensure a continuing harvest, it’s important to keep pinching or cutting off leaves so the plant can’t produce flowers. If you want to harvest seeds at the end of the season, you can keep pinching the plant back (and enjoying the delicious leaves!) until you’re ready to let it set seeds.
Note that some annuals are inherently short lived, and even with regular harvesting will still complete the full cycle. Others will grow well in the cooler spring or fall weather but ‘bolt’ to flowering and seed setting as soon as the temperature starts to climb. Look for varieties (more on that below) that are especially suited to the seasonal temperature patterns of your area to minimize this and/or plan to sow multiple rounds of plants.
Two more points about perennial and annual herbs:
Although many herbs ARE perennials in a lot of places, you don’t have to grow them as perennials. If space is a concern or you’re not sure your garden is well-suited to overwinter plants, you can simply regard all of your herbs as annuals and plan to put new plants in each year. This isn’t necessarily the most cost effective way to garden but it can be more manageable in some cases.
Even though an herb is perennial, it can, of course, still die due to disease, drought or harsher than usual winter conditions. Or sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. And although perennials live longer than annuals, they do still have lifespans, which can range from 2 years to decades. Here again, research is the key to selecting the best option for your growing space, needs and microclimate.
What kind of herbs should you grow?
There are so many herbs! Even common herbs like rosemary or thyme have tons of strains and variations. Picking herbs to grow can be overwhelming.
- Start with herbs you think you’ll use often. One way to do this is to look at any herbs you already buy (dried or fresh). Start by seeing if those herbs will grow in your zone, and if you have the right micro conditions for them.
- Consider how much space you have. If you’ve got a large plot, then you can probably plant everything you’d like. But if space is limited, consider your selections carefully. Focus on plants you already know and like or believe you’ll use regularly.
- Think about why you’re growing herbs. Is it for the kitchen? To make your own remedies? For their inherent beauty in the garden or benefit to the ecosystem? Those are all great reasons to grow herbs, and there’s definitely some overlap – but thinking about your goals in starting an herb garden can help you decide what to include.
Once you’ve settled on a short (or long) list of herbs, you’ll need to do a little more research on the different varieties available.
Wait, there’s more decisions I have to make?
Sorry, yes. But these are FUN decisions! Think of it like this – when you go outside, you decide to wear shoes of some sort. But then you need to assess the weather, what you’ll be doing outside and what shoe options are available to you.
So you: decide on shoes. You’re going to work in the garden, so you need something you can work in. It’s summer, so you need something cooler, but it’s raining, so you need something to keep your feet dry. You end up with lightweight rain boots. Your feet stay dry, you don’t slip in the mud and your feet aren’t sweltering in snow boots.
Picking the right variety (cultivator) of herbs is pretty much the same process. Think about the conditions in your growing area, what you need from the herb (ie, flowers, strong flavor, heavy aromatics, etc) and what other factors will affect the herb. Then pick a variety that addresses those factors.
These are different varieties of the plant that have either been selectively bred for certain characteristics or have evolved naturally. Common selected varietal characteristics are taste, aroma, zone hardiness, size, height and drought tolerance.
Why does it matter which cultivator an herb is?
In the broadest sense, it doesn’t.The casual herb grower can probably just grab some plants at the hardware store, put the in the ground and make out all right. But you’ll have more success if you pick the right variety or cultivator.
But here are some of the things you should be aware of when selecting herbs:
Not just a name
If your goal is to grow ‘basil’ then you might be equally happy growing Genovese or Sweet. But you would probably be surprised by the flavor of Thai basil compared to either of those. And Tulsi basil, despite its name, is even more dissimilar – though wonderful and something you should definitely consider growing! In those cases, it’s not enough to just find a plant with ‘basil’ in the name. Anise hyssop is actually a member of the mint family and lacks the same medicinal properties of true hyssop.
Tolerance for temperature, soil and climate conditions
‘Hardy Hill’ and ‘Arp’ are both cold hardy varieties of rosemary. That makes them far better suited to zones 6 and colder than other types. If you want rosemary that comes back year after year and you’re in a colder area, you should choose one that’s cold hardy to your zone and microclimate.
French lavenders (like Provence) and English lavenders (like Munstead) have distinctly different flowers and aromas. Within those types, some are specifically bred for colder, wetter climates (like the ‘Grosso’ or ‘Phenomenal’ varietals). Others will not tolerate compacted or clay soils.
Same family, different plants
Peppermint and spearmint look similar and both are mints. But they have distinct flavors and aromas. You need to make sure you’re growing the type of herb you actually want. Spearmint is wonderful but it doesn’t have the sharp, menthol profile of peppermint – so you might be disappointed if you try to use it in Christmas candy or congestion remedies!
Some cultivators are designed to bloom earlier or later, or to have a heavier yield of flowers. Be sure the variety or cultivator you choose aligns with your goals.
Some cultivators are intended to grow well in compact areas, like containers or small spaces. Some have been selectively bred to have a more upright or contained shape. It’s important to pick the right variety or cultivator for the space you have available.
Disease and pests
Some herbs are prone to diseases or pest pressure. If powdery mildew, for example, is an issue in your humid climate, select varieties with more resistance to it. For instance, some purple basils show a great resistance to powdery mildew, so growers who know the dreaded white coating is an issue in their garden choose those varieties of basil.
Light and water
Herbs, in general, can be more forgiving of sunlight conditions that aren’t ideal. And many perennial herbs can tolerate swings in moisture levels. But for the best yields and healthiest plants, you need to choose herbs that can thrive in the conditions you have to offer. This is less about cultivators or plant varieties and more about planning your garden so each herb is growing in optimal conditions.
So although your goal might be to simply grow common culinary herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary and mint, understanding the options available and how they will fare in your zone and garden can make a big difference in how well the herbs grow. And in whether you get your intended use from them.
So how do I know which variety of herbs to grow?
The best thing to do is examine your growing area, including frost dates, high and low temperatures, average sun, typical rainfall and soil type (sandy, loamy, clay, container). Then consider what you most want out of the herb. Is it a specific flavor? A particular size or shape? Are you growing for aroma or essential oils? Do you want to grow the plant as a perennial? Are you planning to harvest a lot of the plant parts?
All of these will determine the best variety or varieties for you to grow. And you can grow more than one variety of an herb, if you have room for it.
And remember, ‘growing zones’ are huge, general swathes of territory. Try to evaluate your own particular slice of the world – your yard may be warmer or drier than your neighbor’s yard or you might have more issues with standing moisture.
What do you need to grow herbs?
First, let’s cover the essential tools, supplies and equipment you need to start an herb garden.
What kind of soil do you grow herbs in?
Your herb garden can be a plot in your yard, a series of raised beds or planters, or a collection of pots on your balcony.
It doesn’t really matter how you set up your herb garden as long as you use good soil*.
What constitutes ‘good soil’? It should be well-draining and neither dense nor too porous, with a healthy balance of nutrients and microbes.
There are plenty of pre-packed container soil mixes, if you’re using smaller pots or planters. You can just buy as many bags as you need to fill your pots. Choose a soil mix that is for container gardening, not potting soil.
If you’re growing herbs in larger raised beds, you may need to order a large load of soil. Many garden centers will deliver top soil, compost or a mix of the two. This is usually the cheapest way to fill a new bed with good soil. A mix of aged compost and topsoil is a great way to start your herb garden off well.
*unless you’re growing herbs hydroponically
However you plan to grow your herbs, you may need to amendments to improve either the soil nutrients or the texture. Compost is a great amendment for soil because it adds both organic matter (which improves porosity, drainage and water retention) and can add soil nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. More on soil amendments is here.
Additionally, your soil will have a pH level. Some plants prefer soil that is more acidic, others more alkaline. Testing your soil pH will help you establish and grow healthy, productive plants.
Exactly how, or if, you amend or ‘feed’ your soil will depend on its current condition, your microclimate and the plants you want to grow. Once you pick your herbs, you can evaluate your soil and decide if you need to amend it to suit their specific needs.
While you can apply fertilizer, most herbs don’t need supplemental ‘food’. For some aromatic herbs, fertilizer can dampen their scent. A mid-season application of compost is likely all your herbs will need to thrive – and many perennial herbs won’t even need that!
Where do you get herbs for an herb garden?
You have two options when it comes to starting an herb garden. You can grow herbs from seeds or you can transplant small plants. Some herbs are easy to start from seeds, like basil or parsley. Others, like rosemary, lavender or tarragon are difficult to impossible to grow from seed.
If you’re starting your herb garden later in the growing season, you’ll likely want to buy established plants or use cuttings from other people’s gardens. Herbs are really easy to propagate, so if you have friends who can give you cuttings or use other methods of propagating herbs, you can start your herb garden more economically.
Some herbs are SO easy to propagate that you can just put a few stems in a glass of water and they’ll develop roots in a few days! Next you buy basil at the store, try putting the stems in water and see how fast they start to regrow. I’ve got other tips for propagating basil, too.
What tools do you need to garden?
There’s TONS of tools and gear out there and it might seem like you needs to buy all of it in order to tend your garden. While there’s nothing wrong with buying yourself garden gear, if you want to, you can absolutely garden with just a few essentials.
You’ll need something to dig planting holes with, like a garden trowel. And you’ll probably find a tool for dislodging stubborn weeds very helpful. Finally, invest in a decent set of pruners. They’ll make it easier to harvest herbs and keep plants like rosemary or thyme nicely pruned.
If you don’t have a garden hose, you’ll find a large watering can helpful. I like to use a watering can with a narrow spout so I can control where the water flows and make sure it targets the base of the plant rather than the leaves.
Finally, treat yourself to a good pair of gardening gloves. They’ll make tending to your plants, weeding and working with soil and amendments far easier.
The best books about herb gardening
If you want to dig deeply into growing and using herb (and how you could you not?!), these are the books you need. I own them all and consult them constantly.
Click on any of the books to order your own copy through Bookshop. Buying from Bookshop means I receive an affiliate credit (at no cost to you), which helps cover the costs of producing content. Bookshop robustly supports local, independent bookstores.