They may not be the first thing you think of when planning a vegetable garden, but herbs are very easy and rewarding to grow. They provide a rich array of options when it comes to cooking and garnishes, with the ability to enhance your main vegetable crop. They can also be used for their medicinal and aromatic properties: many people use herbs like chamomile and lavender for relaxation, sleep aids or stress relief.
The Benefits of a Herb Garden
- Planting a variety of herbs can provide you with plenty of fresh, homegrown ingredients in the kitchen.
- Freshly harvested herbs are somewhat more encouraging and enticing than those small containers you buy in the supermarket!
- Herbs have a host of health benefits and are often used for medicinal or healing purposes. You can create scented oils or brew your own herbal tea using fresh herbs. These teas can be quite expensive when bought in shops!
- Growing a variety of herbs can result in a fragrant and attractive display.
- Many herb varieties can attract beneficial insects and pollinators to the garden. On the flip side, careful planting of some varieties can repel ‘not beneficial!’/destructive insects and pests.
- Herbs lend themselves well to growing in a small space or compact containers.
As the herbs & spices aisle at your local supermarket can attest, there are a dizzying range of herbs that can be grown, and just like with vegetables they will have different demands and preferences. It can be helpful to separate them into broad types.
Perennial - Perennial herbs include sage, thyme, fennel, rosemary and lavender. Perennials will grow year after year once they have been planted and become established.
Annual - Annual herbs such as basil, dill, coriander and borage complete their lifecycle within one growing season. They tend to produce a good yield in a faster period.
Biennial herbs are less common. Parsley is a biennial but is treated like an annual.
Woody Herbs are perennial or biennial types that eventually develop woody, tough stems. Rosemary, sage and thyme are examples. Woody herbs are often used in dishes that require longer cooking times, adding aroma and flavour before being removed when serving. They tend to grow larger, so check that your pots and containers are spacious enough.
Soft herbs (e.g. basil, mint, tarragon) are more tender. These are usually added at the end of cooking to add hints of flavour, while the leaves can also be added raw to salads and dishes. ‘Soft’ herbs include parsley, dill, mint and basil.
Planning a Herb Garden
First things first, where will you situate your herb garden? Many people prefer to have a herb garden situated close to their kitchen (maybe even right outside the window for maximum convenience). This will mean that you can harvest plants any time a certain variety takes your fancy or when a certain ingredient is needed when you’re cooking.
Herbs can be grown in a raised bed, pots or containers, or as a border around vegetable beds. Specially-designed herb planters with neatly divided compartments or stepped planters with separate tiers are available. The larger the container, the more varieties you can grow and the more room they will have to spread out. Ceramic and terracotta pots are particularly recommended for growing herbs in: these are made from porous materials which allow for good airflow, while their design will ensure that plants are less likely to be sitting in damp soil conditions.
It’s important to make sure that herbs receive plenty of sunlight (although there are varieties that are more shade-tolerant, such as mint, parsley or chervil). Ideally, place them in an area of the garden (or a windowsill) that receives 6 hours of sunlight a day.
Planning and Layout
Rather than having a number of small pots and containers, it can be neater and more efficient to have a decent-sized planter in which you can grow herbs that favour similar growing conditions, and then surround this with a few pots or containers in which you can grow fussier or more individualistic varieties. Alternatively, set some pots aside for windowsill and indoor growing.
Some herbs will be more suited to growing indoors than others, particularly if they don’t need as much growing space or soil depth. Others will grow too tall to be suitable for small pots. If you plan on growing a range of types then it can be a good idea to mix it up, and have an area set aside outdoors as well as some pots or a windowbox indoors near the kitchen.
When laying out your herb garden or planting area, take into consideration whether your chosen herbs are perennial or annual, which ones will need cutting back, the ones that will need replanting etc. Plant tall herbs such as rosemary, fennel or dill in the centre of the bed and lower-growing herbs towards the edges. This distributes shade equally, as well as making the bed easier to tend to. Herbs planted together too closely can end up competing for nutrients to everyone’s detriment.
When planting in pots make sure that the container is roomy enough for the individual plant. Ideally a pot should be 8 inches deep and 6 inches in diameter. Varieties like bay and rosemary will need larger pots.
Growing a range of herbs - with different growth periods and harvest times - means that you will have a continuous supply for kitchen usage. You can also get an early start by sowing seeds under cover of a cloche, polytunnel or greenhouse.
Soil, Watering etc.
Most herbs will require a well-draining soil, so it’s important not to leave them sitting in damp, waterlogged soil. It’s best to avoid the overuse of high-nitrogen feeds or improvers: these can encourage fast growth at the expense of the delicate flavour that herbs are known for. A lean, well-structured soil and good sunlight are your ideal building blocks. Young herbs will benefit from cloche protection until they’ve established themselves.
When growing indoors in pots, remember to put some kind of container underneath to catch the run-off from the pot drainage holes. Eventually the roots can start growing outwards through the drainage holes: if so, they will need to be repotted or planted out.
When growing herbs you should avoid overuse of fertilisers and plant feed. An overabundance of feed or nutrients will cause the plants to grow faster, but this isn’t always a good thing with herbs as it can negatively affect the distinctive scent and flavour that they are known for. Many herbs will actually grow more successfully (in terms of having a strong flavour and aroma) in a lean soil rather than a rich, fertile one.
What Herbs Grow Well Together?
Take note of the soil requirements for individual herbs: some will prefer drier, sandier soils while others will do better with a moist soil.
There are some common combinations when it comes to planting and growing herbs together.
These are relatively fast-growing herbs that favour warm temperatures, a richer, moist soil and good sun exposure. They both grow well indoors on a sunny windowsill. If growing outside, basil will need a well-sheltered garden.
Rosemary, thyme, lavender, oregano and sage:
This grouping of Mediterranean herbs thrive with plenty of sunlight and a drier, well-drained soil. They are well-suited to growing outdoors as long as the weather is favourable. The warmth helps to release essential oils in their leaves; the resulting fragrance makes them ideal for planting around outdoor seating areas. Ensure the soil is suitable by mixing in some horticultural grit.
Coriander, chives, chervil and dill:
These plants can tolerate shade well, and benefit from plenty of watering. They favour a rich, moist soil. Something to be aware of is that they can run to seed or ‘bolt’ in hot conditions.
Lemon balm & chamomile:
These can be grown together in pots and can tolerate partial shade. It’s recommended to prevent them with consistent moisture during the growing season. The fragrances go well together and can be used for your own herbal tea concoctions.
One herb that you certainly need to be careful with is mint. Keep it growing separately in its own pot, if not it can take over the whole bed or even your whole lawn.
Companion Planting with Vegetables
Companion planting doesn’t just apply to combining herbs themselves. It’s a common tactic to plant certain herbs alongside vegetables in order to repel garden pests, attract pollinators, save on space or even just add an extra aesthetic touch to garden layouts. How effective is companion planting? This can be something of a debated topic, with plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting very opposite experiences (as in ‘works well’ vs ‘makes no difference’).
- Fennel can be grown alongside salad crops, providing shade.
- Basil is often grown alongside tomatoes; it has similar growing requirements and can repel the pesky whitefly and hornworms. Like tomatoes, it will do better under the cover of a greenhouse or polytunnel.
- The strong scent of marigold is believed to repel insects such as whiteflies, aphids and beetles.