A beginner's guide to planting, growing, and harvesting
Whether you have bags of space to grow a herb garden or just some pots on the patio, find out how to cultivate these aromatic plants for use in cooking, or to enjoy their fragrance or blooms
A herb garden can be practical yet decorative, grown in a dedicated border, interplanted among other edibles, with ornamentals in garden beds, or in containers placed near the kitchen door for ready harvesting. Easy to grow, fragrant and ornamental, herbs are a wonderful addition to your garden.
And being able to pop out to the garden and pick a sprig of rosemary to flavour a leg of lamb, a bunch of mint to add to a summer drink, or a handful of herbs to enhance a salad, is a gardener's delight.
HOW TO PLAN A HERB GARDEN
A herb garden can be formal or informal in design. Begin with a plan; draw up some options and try out your ideas before rushing out and planting.
Before you start designing your herb garden consider:
Position herbs near the kitchen: if the most commonly used herbs are just outside the kitchen door or in a window box on the windowsill, you are much more likely to make use of them while cooking than if they are growing at the bottom of the garden.
Herbs are also lovely planted near entertaining and outdoor areas where their aromas can be enjoyed. Find advice on creating an outdoor dining space.
Design enough room for paths in your herb garden, for easy access and that take into account the sprawling nature of many herbs. Find advice on how to design garden paths in our guide.
Include a focal point in the herb garden, such as a birdbath, simple statuary, an urn overflowing with herbs, clipped standard bay tree or a sundial.
Formal or informal? Square or rectangular beds are formal; traditional round beds cut into segments more informal.
Use clipped hedges to both confine the herbs and add definition to a formal design.
Use rustic paths and loose edges to add charm to an informal herb garden design.
Consider also a herbal walk – growing herbs such as thyme and oregano in pockets along the paving, and hedges of lavender or rosemary.
Consider the shape and spread of the herbs you choose for your herb garden, whether they are annuals or perennials, permanent or will need replanting, and how they will look throughout the year.
GROWING HERBS IN POTS
If you do not have the space for a herb garden, many herbs grow well in containers. It is often wise to contain ones that spread, such as mint, tarragon and lemon balm. Keep in mind, however, that their roots can still escape from the draining holes and potentially invade your garden.
Terracotta pots are the classic choice for growing herbs, but for more ideas for container options see our advice on container gardening, or make your own from pretty upcycled objects with our tips for DIY garden planters.
If space is limited, there is also the option to grow herbs vertically in wall containers and planters. Find ideas and advice for making a vertical planter, which you can fill with herbs, or how to make hanging planters.
The other upside of growing herbs in pots? You can then move them around to suit the season, cover them with a cloche, pop them in a coldframe or bring them indoors in winter.
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR A HERB GARDEN
Herbs flourish in most soils. They require full sun – although some, such as parsley, mint and chervil, will tolerate light shade in summer – and good drainage, with the exception of mint, which will survive in damp soil.
Most annual herbs prefer enriched soil and feeding with additional nitrogen fertiliser for good foliage production. Shrubby herbs, such as rosemary and sage, prefer soil that isn’t too acidic; it is also advisable to mulch them to suppress weeds and retain some moisture in summer.
Herb gardens tend to be drought resistant but in hot, dry spells a deep watering will help to keep the plants healthy. See the rest of our drought tolerant plant favourites to help you create an easy to maintain garden.
HERB PLANTING AND CARE TIPS
Picking herbs: the more you pick the herbs, the bushier and healthier they will grow and stop bolting, but don’t remove more than half the plant at any one time.
Prune hardy herbs that stay outside in spring – rosemary, lavender, thyme, mint, chives, sage, bay.
Potted herbs can be grown inside in winter on south-facing windowsills; think: chives, parsley, oregano and mint.
Some herbs do best grown from seeds, including basil, chives, parsley and thyme.
Annuals can be grown from seed or seedlings, and successional planting will give a longer supply.
Start sowing herbs in spring under cover, and then plant up when the soil warms up.
One square metre is enough for 10 herb plants.
HARVESTING YOUR HERB GARDEN
Harvest the foliage of annual herbs as required, and pinch back the flower heads to encourage more foliage growth and prevent them from going spindly.
Perennial and shrubby herbs that die back can be harvested in bunches and dried for use through winter. Pick in the morning, lie them out in a dry, well-ventilated place for a few days, then put into bunches and hang to completely dry out before storing in glass jars.
Because you harvest herbs sprig by sprig, a display can stay looking good through the seasons, and if plants die back they are easy and inexpensive to replace.
HERB COMPANION PLANTING
Recommended companion planting for herbs:
Plant basil near tomatoes and asparagus;
Chamomile with onions and cabbage;
Chives with carrots and apple trees;
Mint with cabbages and tomatoes;
Parsley near roses, beans and carrots;
Rosemary near beans, cabbages and carrots.
12 OF THE BEST HERB GARDEN PLANTS
Basil – fragrant annual with several unusual varieties. Pinch out growing tips to delay flowering and encourage bushiness.
Borage – self-seeding annual with edible leaves and flowers. Bees love the flowers.
Chives – clump-forming biennial with all parts edible. It can self-sow; cut down to the ground after flowering to produce fresh leaves.
Fennel – tall perennial with feathery foliage and large flower heads.
Horseradish – perennial with edible root.
Lemon verbena – shrub with slender and fragrant leaves, traditionally used to flavour herbal teas.
Marjoram – perennial, but often grown as an annual. Likes neutral to alkaline soil.
Mint – rambling perennial. It can be invasive so is best planted in a container.
Parsley – fast-growing biennial. Can be harvested year-round with successional planting.
Rosemary – hardy evergreen shrub. Routine picking encourages growth; remove dead stems in spring and prune after flowering.
Sage – evergreen perennial, for use fresh or dried. Hard prune in early spring for bushy growth.
Thyme – prostrate perennial with edible foliage and flowers. Useful as a ground cover; trim the plant lightly after flowering.
(Image credits: Leigh Clapp)