For many people, growing herbs is their first experience of growing edible plants. This isn’t surprising, as most herbs are very easy and reliable to grow, and there are herbs to suit virtually every growing position and skill level. Before you get started, there are a few different points to consider. Understanding these will help you get the most from your herbs, whether they’re in a pot, a window box or the garden.
When you wander through the nursery you’ll find a dizzying range of herbs available, from the everyday to the downright exotic. It’s all too easy to get carried away and grab a trolley full of varieties, so here are a few points to consider before you buy.
Many herbs are annuals, so they grow fast and only last a short time. Ask yourself if, in the time it will be productive, will you actually use that herb enough to justify growing it?
Some herbs can be stored, but most are better used fresh. Don’t grow too much of something you only need a little of if it can’t be preserved.
Think about your cooking. Which herbs do you use the most? Pick 3–5 herbs—these should be at the top of your list to grow.
That hard-to-find herb you used once when making that special dish for a dinner party? Very cool but put it on the bottom of the list.
What sort of location will you be growing your herbs in? Sunny? Shady? 50/50? Different herbs like different conditions, so it’s important that you read the label and select herbs to suit your particular spot. Some herbs are quite versatile. Parsley and mint, for example, will quite happily grow from full sun through to semi-shade.
By flavour: select and plant your herbs as culinary collections. Often you’ll find that plants from the same region also have similar requirements for water and sunlight. Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:
By requirement: some herbs like it dry, some moist, some like full sun while others tolerate part shade. Whether in pots or the garden, group herbs with similar requirements together for better results and easy maintenance. Here are a few examples:
Although there is enormous variation in overall requirements, you’ll find that the vast majority of herbs will perform at their best in quality soil or potting mix.
In the garden: Prior to planting, turn the soil over with a garden fork and blend through quality compost or well-composted manure. Add a suitable quantity of controlled-release fertiliser, too.
In pots and planters: Use a premium-quality potting mix that’s suitable for edibles. You might want to select an organically certified mix, or a specialised herb and veggie blend.
Every variety is different, but there are a few rules-of-thumb you can apply when maintaining your herb garden.
Most herbs will perform best with reliable moisture. Some, such as coriander or basil, can in fact respond poorly to drying out. It’s likely to send them bolting to seed, shortening their season. Herbs such as oregano or marjoram develop stronger flavours if grown a little dry. This is because their essential oils become more concentrated.
Again, this will vary according to variety. For annual herbs, regular liquid feeding will help them stay leafy and productive. For biennial and perennial herbs, liquid feed and annually apply a suitable controlled-release fertiliser.
On a food safety note, if you liquid feed, especially with any organic or seaweed-based products, ensure any cut herbs are thoroughly washed before using.
Pruning your herbs
Little pruning will be required, as most herbs will be kept healthy and bushy with regular trimming by cutting sprigs for the kitchen.
If herbs like basil start heading towards flowering, pinching out the flower stems can help to extend the plant’s useful life.
Diseases and pests that could affect your herb garden
You’ll find most herbs are quite pest-free. This is in part due to their natural aromatic elements, which give them their taste, often working as a repellent to many pests. You may have some issues with aphids, white fly or, on plants like bay trees, scale.
If you need to treat pests, make sure any product you use is suitable for food plants and pay attention to any withholding period on the label. This is the time you must leave between spraying and picking.
Growing herbs from cuttings and seeds
As many herbs are annuals, they can’t be grown very successfully from cuttings. This is because the time taken to get them rooting can mean they are already heading towards the end or their seasonal cycle. Basil cuttings, for example, will readily grow roots if stood in a glass of water on a sunny windowsill. However, when planted it’s not unusual for these cuttings to almost immediately go to flower. For this reason they’re usually grown from seed. Some gardeners will intentionally let their herbs run to seed, collect the seeds and then grow them next year.
Perennial herbs can often be grown from cuttings. Semi-hardwood cuttings of rosemary and bay, for example, will strike readily if dipped in cutting gel and placed in a pot of propagating mix in a warm spot. Mint will take readily from root cuttings. So do a little research on the variety you wish to propagate in order to find the best techniques.
Not understanding the basic nature of the herbs, you are growing can lead to disappointment, or worse, the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and killed your plants. Annual, herbaceous, perennial … what does it all mean? Here’s a quick cheat-sheet.
Knowing the difference is important
There can be variation within these types depending on your climate. For example, in a cold climate mint may be treated as a warm-season annual, but as a semi-herbaceous perennial in temperate regions and a perennial in warm zones.
Lemon tree: many herbs will thrive beneath a lemon tree in the garden or pots.
Dwarf fruit tree: short on space but keen to expand your edibles collection? A dwarf fruit tree may be the answer.
Mushrooms: edible gardening doesn’t have to all be outdoors. With a mushroom farm, even your back room can become productive.
How to grow herbs indoors: ensure your indoor herbs are happy and healthy with these tips and tricks.
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