How to Start a Successful Herb Garden and 6 Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs
Fruits and veggies get all the attention when it comes to growing food, but herbs provide the kick that you need to take a recipe from “meh” to amazing. Not to mention the bevy of medicinal benefits you can get from them. If you’re thinking about planting an herb garden – and we think you should – you might be overwhelmed about how to get started.
After all, it’s a big difference from growing a basil plant in a pot by a window to having an entire garden dedicated to herbs. How do you plan your garden layout? How do you keep your plants from growing too lanky? How do you get a dozen different plants to get along together in the same soil?
We’ll get you started by helping you decide what to plant and how to avoid the most common – and costly – mistakes.
Why Grow Herbs?
Have you ever purchased fresh herbs from the grocery store specifically for a recipe you’re about to make? I have. It’s an expensive purchase, considering the number of herbs usually included. They also tend to go bad rapidly unless you’re taking extra special care to avoid spoilage.
Why not go with dry herbs then? Well, the truth is that nothing beats the fresh kind. Fresh herbs are more aromatic and deliver a bigger punch of flavor. Having an herb garden, whether it’s indoors or outside, allows you to quickly harvest the herbs you need on a daily basis and make your homemade meals all the more delicious.
Herbs can also provide you with a constantly-growing medicine cabinet or a ready-made tea supply. Pollinators like bees and butterflies love them, too, which means your other plants will be happier.
What You Need
To get started with an herb garden you need a few basics.
Regardless of whether you opt to plant indoors or outdoors, you’ll need a good quality soil mix, and you’ll need a spot to plant. That can be a plot of land, a raised bed, or containers. The choice is up to you, but don’t forget to check out the common mistakes section below for some guidelines on how to choose the best growing container for your plants.
Most herbs prefer traditional garden soil, but there are a few Mediterranean plants that need a well-drained, sandy soil. These include bay, rosemary, and lavender. Make sure to check and see what your plants prefer and group those together. For instance, you could add a bit of sand to garden soil in one section of your garden for dry-loving plants. In another area, you can create a loamier mix for those that need more moisture.
Location, Location, Location
Most herbs adore sunshine, so pick a spot that gets a generous amount of sun daily. At least 6 hours of sunlight is essential for healthy growth. The ideal location may differ according to the specific herb, however.
Some herbs like it hot and others prefer a bit of shade. You can check a seed packet, an online plant database, or the sticker on the pot (if you purchased your plant from a nursery) for information that can help you pick the perfect spot.
With a little planning, you can pair tall plants that like to soak up the sun with short plants that prefer a little shade. For instance, a giant parsley plant can provide shade for low-growing sweet woodruff.
Something important to consider when picking a location is how close it is to your home. Are you going to brave a rainstorm to get a few snips of chives for your morning scramble? Do you mind trekking to the far edge of your yard for a basil leaf when dinnertime beckons?
Some folks won’t mind a bit, but others might prefer to have their herb garden close to home. Whatever you do, make sure it’s accessible enough that you can keep a close eye on it and can continually harvest an endless supply of yummy spices and medicines.
Best Herbs to Start With
I’m a fan of opting for perennials over other varieties because once you plant a perennial herb, it comes back each year. Perennials are money-savers and are so darn convenient!
But you should also plant according to your needs. Do you love pizza? Plant oregano and basil. Are you a fan of salads? Salad burnet, chives, and parsley might be your preferred plants. Looking for a tummy tamer? Chamomile and peppermint and your friends. Don’t bother planting herbs that you don’t like.
In my garden, you won’t find sage or rosemary even though they’re easy to grow in my climate. I hate the taste of both, so I don’t bother raising them.
I suggest picking a mix of annuals and perennials to start your herb garden. You’ll enjoy the variety but won’t have to replant next year all over again. Here are a few examples of common herbs that are bound to be easy to find at your local nursery.
Note that not all herbs are perennial in all climates. Many herbs are available in different strains or varieties that may be hardier than others. There are certain kinds of oregano, for instance, that are hardy in my zone (5b) while others will die back when frost arrives.
- Dill (technically a biennial)
Theme Herb Gardens
If you’re overwhelmed by the amount of choice available, it might be worth thinking about creating a theme for your herb garden. Having a focus might help you narrow down which herbs to start or purchase. It’ll help you get a better sense of your goal for your new set of plants, too. Some ideas include:
Kitchen herb garden
Plant a variety of culinary herbs to add to dishes. A mix of perennials and annuals will keep you in constant supply.
Medicinal herb garden
Choose herbs that are known for their medicinal qualities if you’re interested in natural remedies. Bonus, most are probably useful for cooking, too. Herbs like rosemary work double time.
- Holy basil
- Southern ginseng
- St. John’s Wort
- Lemon balm
Bee and Butterfly herb garden
Instead of picking herbs according to a specific palate, choose varieties with attractive blooms to encourage pollinators to visit your garden.
Pick herbs and plants that are suitable for tea-making, so you’ll always have something on hand for when your throat gets a little sore, or when you want a cup of warm comfort.
- Lemon balm
- Lemon mint
When planning your garden, keep in mind herbs that there are herbs that do well together and herbs that don’t. Proper companion planting will minimize pests and even increase the number of beneficial compounds and flavors in a plant. Basil gets along well with oregano, but not with sage or rue. Chives are good to grow alongside dill. Cilantro and anise excellent good companions.
Whatever you plant, be sure to do your research to ensure that you are planting things that will benefit each other.
Starting Your Herb Garden
A successful herb garden requires planning. Decide whether you plant to grow plants in containers or in the ground, and if you want to grow indoors, outdoors or both. You also need to decide whether you want to use seeds or purchased plants to get started.
Starting Herbs Indoors
Should you start herb seeds indoors? You can choose to start seedlings and go the ‘from scratch route,’ but I don’t recommend it for beginners. The reason? Many herb seeds take a long time to germinate. It’s also a pain to start annuals from seed and watch them die in the winter. Head to your local nursery to check out the herbs they have available.
If you want to try your hand at starting herbs indoors, check out our article on seed starting for some tips.
Planting Herbs Outdoors
Once you have decided what you want to plant, what kind of soil you need and where to plant it, it’s time to get to work. I like to make a rough sketch of my garden area and then plan out what herbs I want to place and where, while also keeping in mind the mature height and width of the plants.
Next, amend your soil to suit your herbs. Mix some garden soil, sand and/or moss into your existing earth. Then it’s time to get digging. Dig a hole twice as large as the root ball of your plant, remove the plant from the pot, and loosen the roots. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with earth.
Give the plant plenty of water. I also find that it helps to label my plants with a simple stake label. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between young plants, so a tag makes all the difference.
Herbs should be planted in the spring if they are perennials, but you can plant annuals almost any time during the growing season. I like to plant annuals like cilantro in succession every few weeks, so I have a constant supply all year.
You can also plant herbs in containers outdoors or indoors. This is an excellent way to ensure that you can move your plants around if you need to, and it can help control weedy plants like mint.
If you go the container route, be sure to use a container that is wide enough and deep enough for your mature herb, and one that has plenty of holes in the bottom for the water to drain out of. Put lots of rocks or pottery shards in the bottom to allow for drainage.
Fill the pot with potting soil, or potting soil with sand added for those dry condition-loving herbs. Plant your herb and give it a good soak.
Caring for Your Herb Garden
The rules are simple. Herbs are like any other plant. They require sun, water, and nutrients to grow. There’s no special trick when it comes to herbs. Harvest as needed by picking or snipping off leaves. Watch for weeds and evict them before they overtake your garden and keep a close eye on potential pests so you can get rid of them quickly should they strike.
While herbs aren’t any more challenging to grow than the tomato plants in your vegetable garden or the rose bushes in your front yard, the trouble is that many people tend to plant different herbs together and treat them as one and the same. That’s why it’s so important to determine what your plants prefer before putting them in the ground together.
This also applies when it comes to supplying your plants nutrients. Make sure to note how much fertilizer your particular plants prefer and don’t assume that all herbs want the same amount.
6 Big Mistakes to Avoid
I asked some friends and social media followers if they had any nagging questions or issues they needed addressed when it came to herb gardening. I was surprised by how many folks had run into issues when trying to grow an herb garden. Here are the most common problems I heard and some answers for how to fix them.
Those beautiful herb baskets at the farmer’s market are so tempting, aren’t they? A bushel of aromatic herbs in a basket that’s bursting at the seams with loamy soil and fresh smelling plants. Don’t spend too much on these displays, though. Often, the included herbs are planted way too close to one another.
When planting your own herb garden, give your plants enough breathing room. This is especially important when planting perennial varieties. Overcrowding leads to poor growth. Roots don’t have enough room to expand, and the plant suffers as a result.
I tend to experiment a lot with spacing in my garden, so feel free to do the same, but if you want to ensure success stick with the recommended spacing guidelines on the seed packet or pot label.
This also applies to weeds. If you let weeds creep into the garden, it will stunt the growth of your plants, so stay diligent.
2. Not enough sun
Are herbs not flourishing in your partially shaded location? If you’re growing indoors and can’t find an appropriately sunny windowsill, opt for LED lighting to keep your herbs happy. If your yard is mostly shaded, there’s not much you can do to change that, but you can pick shade-friendly herbs.
Parsley, sweet woodruff and mint are good examples of herbs that don’t require as much light. If you’re growing plants in low-light, though, manage your expectations. For years, I had a garden in a shaded location. It was my only option. Things grew, but growth was slow and results unimpressive.
3. Too-Small Containers
I see countless Pinterest posts that show cute little herb gardens consisting of small containers. Most herbs will eventually outgrow those little containers. Remember how I mentioned that you shouldn’t overcrowd your herbs? Relegating them to tiny pots is doing the same thing.
You don’t need to plant herbs in large barrels, but a roomy container is necessary for longevity. Otherwise, you’ll get a few weeks worth of life from your new fragrant friend and eventually it will start to look worse for wear. Some herbs are available in dwarf varieties and can survive in miniature containers, but generally, a pot should be 6-inches in diameter, and that’s the bare minimum.
Does your chosen herb variety have a deep rooting system? It may prefer a deep container instead of a wide shallow one (parsley, for instance, has a long taproot). When you head to your local nursery, the pots the herbs are sold in are too small. Don’t assume that because they’re currently happy in mini pots that that will last forever.
4. Poor Drainage
Another thing I see often is potted herbs in containers that don’t allow for drainage. Choose a container that allows for water to drain! If you overwater or if it rains too much a good pot will allow water to flow to the bottom without soaking and rotting the roots of your plant.
Going the DIY route and making an indoor herb garden with whatever pots you have on hand? Use rocks or pottery shards to fill the bottom of the container to help with drainage.
This applies outdoors, too. If your herbs constantly have wet feet, they won’t thrive. Either plan ahead when planting your garden and add some sand for drainage, or pick plants that don’t mind wet roots as much.
5. Not Pruning Enough
Wondering why your effort to grow herbs is ending up in seed pods and tall stalks? The answer is you’re not pruning enough. To prevent rapid growth and encourage a bushy habit, be sure to prune your herb plants regularly.
The more your pick off stems and leaves the longer your herb plant will remain in its production cycle. If you start to see flower heads, snip them right away. When you fail to cut back the plant, it’s likely to go to seed and complete its lifecycle. Once that happens, many plants die back. Keep cutting and pinching back flowers to prevent this from happening.
6. Watering Too Much (Or Not Enough)
One of the most common reasons for a dying herb plant is over or underwatering. If you’re caring for a plant indoors, it’s especially easy to water too much. I’ve done it. You become paranoid about whether you’re watering enough. Folks also tend to panic when they notice a plant isn’t looking well and assume the issue is lack of water.
Overwatering, however, can lead to root rot, which is tough to spot until it’s too late. Before watering, feel the soil with your finger. Stick your thumb into the earth. Does it come out mostly clean? If so, the dirt is too dry, and your plant is likely thirsty.
Hold on, though. Not all plants, including herbs, have the same care requirements. In fact, some herbs prefer dryer soil and do not like humid, moist environments. If you’re planting an herb garden in a raised bed or in-ground plot, caring for your plants becomes a little trickier, especially if each herb variety has different needs.
It’s why planting in herbs in containers or pots is so popular. It makes it easier to separately water, fertilize, and care for each type of plant. Bonus? You can take in your pots when cold weather strikes and save annual herbs from frost damage.
Getting started on an herb garden isn’t too tricky once you have the know-how, and a little preparation will save you a ton of time and money in the long run.
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