Herbs are a must in any garden – not only can they be used in cooking, teas, cocktails or herbal remedies, but they have beautiful foliage and flowers, many of which are attractive to pollinators. Growing your own herbs, from seeds or ready-grown plants, is much more economical than buying packets of cut herbs from the supermarket, and you can cut them as you need them, so they'll always be fresh. You'll enjoy a much wider range of flavours, too.
You can grow herbs in a dedicated part of your garden but if space is limited, you can create a herb garden in a raised bed, large container or even a window box.
More on growing herbs:
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- Top 10 herbs for wildlife
- 10 unusual herbs to grow
- 10 ornamental herbs to grow
- Healing herbs to grow
How to create a herb garden
Choose your spot
It's often said that you should position your herbs as close to your kitchen as possible, so they're readily available to pick when you're cooking. But the main thing to remember is that most herbs grow best in a sheltered, sunny spot. Some herbs, however, will grow happily in shade and are listed below. You can also plant herbs near entertaining or seating areas, where the aroma of their leaves can be enjoyed.
Choose your herbs
Herbs can be broadly grouped according to their growing requirements. For easy growing, group those that have similar requirements together.
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Many perennial herbs, such as rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano hail from the Mediterranean, where they thrive in sun and poor soil. They therefore need plenty of sunshine and light, well-drained soil. If you're gardening on heavy clay, you will need to add plenty of organic matter and horticultural grit to loosen it up. Most Mediterranean herbs come back year after year, and many are evergreen.
Annual and biennial herbs
Many annual and biennial herbs, such as basil, parsley, coriander, dill and purslane, prefer a more rich, moist soil. If they are too hot and dry, they may bolt (run to seed). They are quick to grow from seed – treat them as you would salads, sowing them little and often for frequent picking until the first frosts.
No sun in your garden? No problem – many herbs, including chervil, dill and parsley, will tolerate some shade.
Some herbs, such as mint and lemon balm, have a tendency to spread if grown in the ground. Give them a dedicated area in which to spread freely without mixing with other herbs, or grow them in large pots.
Some herbs, such as African blue basil, lemon verbena and lemongrass, are not hardy, so are best grown in pots that can be moved to a frost-free spot over winter.
Advice on buying herbs
- You can grow herbs as small plug plants online in spring, or buy them as ready-grown plants at the garden centre, in small 9cm pots or larger, 2L ones
- It's more economical to grow annual and biennial herbs, such as coriander, basil or parsley, from seed
- Check that you have the right conditions for the herbs you want to grow
Where to buy herbs online
How to plan your plot, raised bed or pots
The most important thing to remember when designing a herb garden is that it has to be easy to harvest from – you have to be able to reach the herbs you want to pick. If your plot is wide, use stepping stones to give access to the herbs in the centre. Round or oval-shaped herb gardens allow you to walk around or through them, while a triangular bed is good in a corner of a smaller garden. Divide your herb garden into different areas for herbs that have similar growing requirements – try a cartwheel or a chessboard layout using bricks, bark chippings or gravel to divide the sections.
A raised herb bed means you can influence the composition of the soil, adjusting it so that you can grow the herbs you want. It also adds another level to the garden, and makes harvesting easier.
As a general rule, taller herbs such as bronze fennel work best near the centre of a bed. Try contrasting leaf shapes and colours – dark-leafed herbs look lovely next to golden-leafed ones. LOw growing curly-leafed parsley and chives make great edging plants.
How to plant herbs
Most culinary herbs need a well-drained soil to thrive. If you have heavy clay, you will need to lighten the soil. Dig in some well-rotted compost if you're growing annual herbs, and add horticultural grit in areas where you want to grow Mediterranean herbs. If you're growing herbs in a raised bed, fill it with topsoil and horticultural grit from the garden centre.
If you're growing in pots, put some crocks at the bottom and use good peat-free, multipurpose compost, with some horticultural grit or perlite added for extra drainage.
Place the plants before you plant them – this allows you to check that you've got their position right. Research the eventual height and spread of each herb, so that you give it enough space to grow. Plant at the same depth as the root ball, and water in well.
How to care for your herb garden
Water your new herb garden regularly until the plants have established, especially in hot weather.
To ensure a steady supply of fresh annual herbs, sowing a new batch once you’re halfway through your current crop. Sprinkle seeds thinly over the surface of a pot or tray of multi-purpose compost, or direct into the soil when the weather is warm enough.
Boost perennials growing in pots by scraping away some of the compost and replacing with fresh in spring, or repot them in fresh compost. Divide chives and tarragon each second spring, and top dress or re-pot woody Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary.
Herbs like mint and chives die down in winter, so need cutting to the ground in late autumn. Woody, evergreen herbs like rosemary and sage become straggly with age, so prune into shape after flowering or in spring.
How to harvest herbs
Culinary herbs are the original cut-and-come-again crop, and benefit from regular pickings. Annual herbs in particular need picking regularly, so that they do not go to seed.
Feed herbs after you have picked them – a seaweed feed or comfrey feed is ideal. A high-potash tomato feed in midsummer helps to toughen up Mediterranean herbs so they can withstand hot dry spells.
Container herb garden ideas
You can use pretty much any container for growing herbs, as long as it has some drainage holes and crocks at the bottom for drainage. You can buy herb planters online, or get creative, upcycling old tin baths or wine boxes or anything else you can get your hands on. Just remember to grow herbs with similar needs in the same pot.