This is it! This is your year – the year of the herb garden! You’ve been thinking about it for ages, squirreling away magazine photos of herbal knot gardens and pinning scores of herbal remedy recipes to your Pinterest board. Now you’re finally ready to create your own medicinal herb garden. Or your own culinary herb garden. Whichever you choose, there will be herbs, and it will be awesome.
For some of us, herbs are undiscovered country. They are the exotic plants we gently caress in the nursery but that never quite make it into our basket of crookneck squash starts and carrot seeds. Others of us have almost too many herbs, randomly poking out of obtuse places as they run wild around our yard.
Never fear, wherever you fall on this gardening spectrum, there’s a place for you in this year’s herb garden. Let’s talk more in depth about starting your herb garden and what it takes.
Do you have the time?
We love plants, but we have a life. The main reason this budding herb garden idea hasn’t taken off is time. Am I right? Well, I’m not going to lie to you, a garden is work. Taken overall, though, herbs are probably the least demanding of all your garden plants during the growing season.
Most herbs are not too fastidious. They produce in less than ideal soils and are adaptable in large measure to fluctuations of weather. Many have lovely foliage, blooms or fruit during the year, making them wonderful bed fellows for your snooty perennials. There are some exceptions, of course, but if you want a lovely, useful, simple plant, I’d reach for an herb before I’d grab that peony.
Before you run out and buy a bunch of herbs, think about the amount of time you have to devote to your new garden.
Pick The Right Plants
Are you still getting a grip on how to use herbs successfully in your kitchen and as a replacement for the items in your medicine cabinet? Can you possibly GROW them, too?
If you have a garden, whether it’s an acre market garden or a few pots on the windowsill of your apartment, you can grow herbs. The key to success is to grow what works best for your climate and grow what you will use. That may seem like an oversimplification, but that really is the understated truth of productive gardening.
Finding out your Plant Hardiness Zone will allow you to choose the proper plants for your area.
Regardless of whatever else is going on in your life, you will be a successful gardener if you will take the time to learn about what will grow in your area of the world. You can do that through University Extension classes, a friendly neighbor or from scads of books from the library. Better yet, use all three as mentors.
Once you start to get an idea of what goes into a thriving garden (soil, water, sun in all the appropriate levels), you’ll more easily be able to decide which herbs you want to try first.
Plant What You Will Use
To know what herbs to plant, you need to know what herbs you will use. How can you know that? Step away from the computer, and go over to your herb cabinet or closet.
Start picking up containers and writing down what you see. Do you have four bottles of tarragon because you needed one once for a fish recipe, and then totally forgot you already had some because you never use it? And then a year later, you buy yet another bottle for a whacked-out chili recipe because you forgot you already had one?
Okay, my guess is, you don’t need to grow tarragon. It’s just not an herb you’re likely to use very often. If, on the other hand, your garlic or your basil or your Echinacea bottles are all empty, and you have fifty hastily scrawled notes stashed all over your life from your bathroom to your car saying, “Order more Echinacea or we’re all going to die!”, the odds are you should be growing Echinacea. And garlic. And basil.
So, now you have looked through your cabinet. Do you have a list with at least ten herbs on it? Here’s what mine would look like because this is what I use all the time: garlic, ginger, chamomile, elder berry, sage, basil, oregano, pau d’arco, olive leaf, peppermint. Great, and yay me, but now take your list and go back to the computer and keep reading.
Learn Where To Plant And How To Use Each Herb
Do you know what parts to use from each plant? Do you have any idea how to plant them so that you can harvest all those parts easily without tearing up the garden? It’s important to know.
Ok, let’s break this down together. Let’s use my list from above. Take a look again at my ten herbs.
The first thing we’re going to do is knock out the ones I can’t/won’t grow – ginger, pau d’arco, olive leaf. I’m either not in the right horticultural growing zone for these herbs, or I’m unwilling to grow them in a greenhouse or in a pot in my house.
That leaves seven, one of which is a woody shrub – elder berry. Elder berry shrubs grow well in my climate, and I’ve planted three of them. But they have very special growing requirements because of their size. They take up 8-10 feet! With elder berry, the whole plant is a pharmacy from leaves to roots, but I use the flowers and the berries. Because of their size and ease in harvesting, all the elderberries are planted in the same large bed and are, therefore, not part of my designed herb garden.
Let’s look at four more from my list – sage, basil, oregano and chamomile. These are all herbs that have their leaves/flowers harvested (as opposed to their roots, like Echinacea). For this reason, I will happily plant my sage, basil, oregano and chamomile together or in amongst my perennial ornamental or edible plants.
When I go to harvest my herbs, I won’t need to dig around in or mess too much with my growing bed. Echinacea, on the other hand, is grown for its two year old roots. I need to leave enough space around my Echinacea plants, so that after two growing seasons, I can dig them out with a shovel but not disturb any other plants nearby. For that reason, I like to bunch my Echinacea together.
You’ll notice I didn’t include mint in my leaf/flower harvesting list. Why? Because, although you do harvest mint leaves, mint roots are aggressive and bossy and not things you want to let loose on an unsuspecting garden. Mint should have its own bed with deep, concrete sides to prevent the roots from tunneling underground. Or it should be grown in a pot on a nice, sunny deck.
You may eventually need to thin out your mint bed, too, so once again you’ll be hacking at something with a shovel. You don’t want other, more delicate plants nearby to suffer fallout from that.
And what about my garlic, you say? Garlic is a bulb that you plant in the fall to harvest the following fall. For garlic, you’ll need a place where it can grow undisturbed for a year. And yes, you will be digging this one out of the ground, so you’ll want to leave space around it and not put another, more delicate plant next to your garlic bed.
Want to learn more? Try one of these awesome herb books like Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use or The Cook’s Herb Garden. Jeff Cox & Marie-Pierre Moine.
You’ll also learn A LOT through trial and error. You’ll get it all learned, I promise, but for this first year, just stick with your list of ten and then narrow that down even further. Do NOT plant any more than ten herb plants this year!!
Where To Get Your Herbs
You have looked all over your local nurseries, and they don’t have anything but basil and sage. You need cilantro and plantain. What to do?
You are going to have to learn to grow herbs from seed at some point. The fact is, although you may not be ready to start growing your herbs from seed this year (this is a step above keeping a plant alive in a pot on your deck), you will eventually get there. It’s good to begin with the end in mind.
Culinary herbs are a little easier to find for sale locally, but if you want to create a MEDICINAL herb garden, then the chances are you’ll exhaust the resources of your local nursery within a year. You’ll be so herb savvy, you’ll discover you’ve moved beyond the simple basil and sage options and are looking for a wider variety from which to choose.
There are some online vendors who sell medicinal herb plants, but unless you have a very small yard and a very big budget, stocking an entire herb garden with mature plants will be cost prohibitive.
So, go back to the library and get a book on seed starting. Take a local class (try your university extension and/or your local seed exchange group). Ask your gardening friend if you can come see their set up and pick their brains about what they do. Growing your own plants from seed is not rocket science, and you can do it.
For this year, though, you’re working from a list of ten or fewer herbs, so just try and stick with what you can find. This year is a year of learning and experimentation.
To that end, go get a piece of paper and a pencil. You’re going to start making sketches of what you want your herb garden to look like. This is an image of your future garden, all decked out, exactly as you want it.
You’re forbidden from taking this project on all at once this year. I don’t want you to burn out. Pick a spot on your picture and focus on that for now. Take some measurements and begin to create beds and rudimentary paths. If you lay a good foundation (quality soil in a quality location) with just a few herbs to begin with, by next year you’ll have so much more experience. You’ll be more aware of what herbs you’re actually using and which ones you really want to grow.
You’ll also be learning which ones you don’t want to grow and harvest. Please don’t forget that you’ll need to harvest these herbs, too! There are several herbs along the way that I’ve decided I will just pay someone else for because I think they’re a pain in the patooty to grow.
When you make it through all these steps, you will justifiably feel proud of yourself. You will be wise in the ways of gardening, and you will become wiser still as you learn from these magnificent plants.
Just remember a few important things.
One, getting your herb garden finally planned and planted will take work but you CAN do it.
Two, make a short list of herbs you will actually use because those are the ones you will motivate yourself to learn to grow well.
Three, you will have a lot to learn and at times it may seem hard. But you can do hard things. Plus, you will have wonderful books you’ve borrowed or bought, as well as the Master Gardener program you just signed up for and a garden-nerd friend on tap. You are ready to be taught.
It will all come together with a little vision, a lot of faith and a large vat of elbow grease. You’ll do it, I know you will, and when you do, I plan to invite myself over for tea. Or garden salsa. Or homemade cough syrup. Or whatever it is you plan to do with all those items being harvested from your simply lovely, amazingly useful herb garden.
You can read more about Tessa and herhomesteading journey at: