Many of us have childhood memories of playing in a garden on a sunny day with the scent of lavender, rosemary and mint accompanying our every step. Just a whiff of these scents will bring a wave of nostalgia for childhood summers, fairy tales and times gone by.
The good news is that we can create our own fairy tale setting right here and now by planting a herb garden in even the smallest back yard.
Herbs are natural ‘weeds’ or wild plants and unlike many flowering plants they have not been bred or mutated into something more pleasing to the eye. They remain in their original state and as such they are most often hardy and easy to grow with a natural resistance to disease. You can avoid using chemical pesticides on them and if you can do the same with the rest of your garden, you will have ‘organic’ herbs that you can safely eat when any superficial dust and insect matter have been washed away.
The location of your herbs is important. They need to be close to the house where you will constantly see them. Under the kitchen window is great. This way, you will remember to water them and you will not have far to go when you need a little flavoring in the middle of cooking dinner. Even if it is raining, just a step outside and you will have your herbs. If they are at the far end of the garden, on the other hand, they are more likely to be neglected and unused.
Many herbs are small plants that do not require much space, but beware of them spreading uncontrollably. Lavender can become huge hedges, mint can pop up all over your lawn, and many others will simply grow and grow if they are happy in your garden. Give them plenty of space and be prepared to control them firmly when necessary.
Your first decision will be whether to grow your herbs all together or mix them around the garden with other plants. There is a lot to be said for having all your herbs within easy reach in one bed, and if you do this be sure not to make the bed narrow enough that you can harvest the leaves you need without damaging other plants.
On the other hand, plants in the wild tend to grow with certain other ‘companion’ plants and if you mimic this by considering compatibility in planting your herbs, all of your garden may benefit. Here are some examples:
– Parsley, tomatoes and asparagus is a good combination. Parsley also grows well with lettuce.
– Sage and tarragon are said to grow so well together that you will have a more intense flavor from both herbs if you mix them rather than keeping each separate.
– Dill does well with cucumbers. However, do not try to grow dill with potatoes or cabbage, as they are incompatible.
Consider The Benefits of The Herbs When You Plant Them
Many herbs have other helpful properties. Nasturtiums are good next to fruit trees to keep aphids away. Lavender does the same for roses. Thyme along the edge of a bed will help to deter snails. Marigold and borage provide saponins, important nutrients for the soil.
Types of Herbs
Herbs are not all leaf. Sage, lavender, borage, feverfew, chamomile and marigold are all examples of herbs which will flower beautifully in your garden. If you have plenty of space, you may want to plant more of these than you need, because they are so attractive.
Of course, you will want to plant smaller growing herbs at the front of any bed with larger plants behind, both for ease of reach and for a better display.
Consider Sunlight Exposure
Most herbs enjoy a sunny spot although there are exceptions. However, it is better not to have them in full sun all day, or they will mature and turn to seed very quickly. Once they are forming seeds, all of their goodness and energy goes into the seed so unless your aim is to produce seeds (e.g. with coriander or pepper) you should take your main harvest before that happens, while the flavor and nutrients are still in the leaf (or flowers, with chamomile).
Container Herb Gardening
Of course you can also grow herbs in containers. Many will thrive in a small container. Some, like mint, can be grown in pots buried into the soil to prevent them spreading uncontrollably. Others grow so well in pots that containers have been designed specifically for them – you can grow parsley in a special clay ‘parsley pot’, if you wish.
If you use wooden containers, be sure they have not been treated with any damaging chemicals. Anything used in the treatment will enter the soil, be taken into the plant and eventually end up in your stomach, so it is worth taking some care with this. If you want to grow your herbs organically you may prefer to use clay pots.
Be sure that the containers are well drained, because most herbs like a fairly dry environment. This means having drainage holes on the underside of the pot, and also placing a layer of large gravel or similar before you add any soil, to help with drainage. However, containers do need frequent watering because the soil will not hold water as well as in a garden bed. Let them get a little dry right before harvest to keep the nutrients strong in the leaves.
The next question is which herbs to choose. If you are starting from zero, do not be tempted to plant too many different herbs. In the first year it is better just to choose four or five plants that you know you will use and enjoy. Later, you can add more with the benefit of experience.
Starting From Seed
If you are starting your plants from seed, most of them will be best in seed trays indoors at first. Use at least 2 inches depth of potting soil. Don’t forget to label them! The trays need to be well watered and until the seeds have sprouted you can leave them covered to hold in the moisture. Once shoots appear, they will need light. However you can replace the lid at night at first, to keep them warm.
You will probably have a lot of tiny seedlings but do not start to thin them out until the first real leaves are fully formed. At that point you can see which are the weaker plants and remove these, to leave just the strongest ones, preferably about 2 inches apart. As they grow bigger you can transfer them into individual small containers.
Start your seeds in the late winter or early spring, and start putting them outside for a few hours every day before you transplant them into the garden. They need some warmth in the soil before they are planted, and they also need to acclimatize to the outside air and temperature.
Starting From Grown Plants
Alternatively, if you do not want the trouble of starting your own seedlings, you can buy small plants that are ready to be planted outdoors. If they were kept indoors at the store, you will still need to leave them in their pots for a few days while you acclimatize them to your garden by putting them out during the day and bringing them in at night.
Fennel and cilantro are examples of plants that do not like to be transplanted, so with these it is best to plant the seeds directly outside.
Once outdoors, herbs will benefit from rich, fertile soil. This means adding fertilizer or compost at least once a year. Choose an organic fertilizer if you aim for organically-grown herbs. You can also collect fallen leaves and spread them over the earth as mulch during the winter, or dig them into the soil. Dead leaves make wonderful compost.
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