Why and How to Grow Herbs
I've been looking back on my posts of garden herbs this past summer, gathering up all of the inspiration I can to convince you that if there is one thing you should grow or add to your garden this spring, it's herbs. Be they in pots on a small balcony or porch, in a garden bed, or on a sunny counter in your home. To get started, here are 10 reasons (among many more) to grow your own herbs:
Herbs are easy to grow with a bountiful harvest and minimal care.
A few plants of most herbs are enough to meet the needs of an average family.
Most herbs are incredibly healthy, higher in antioxidants than most fruits, vegetables, and some spices, including garlic.
Growing your own herbs saves money. Unlike other fresh produce that is relatively cheap, fresh and dried herbs, spices, and teas are often hard to find and expensive for small amounts that don't last very long.
If you plant a small herb garden in the spring, you'll have fresh herbs (and you'll be making homegrown herbal tea) by summer.
Most herbs thrive in containers, making them easy to add to even a tiny garden, stoop, or window sill.
Herbs attract dozens of pollinators and beneficial insects to your garden, including dozens of varieties of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Herbs are drought tolerant and deer, pest, and disease resistant eliminating the need for pesticides and excessive water.
The aroma alone of freshly picked herbs makes them worth growing.
Most importantly, once you start cooking with fresh herbs straight from your garden, you'll never look back.
Which Herbs to Grow
The best place to start is to make a list of your favorite foods and the herbs used in cooking them, or perhaps a list of herbs that you always wanted to try, or your favorite herbal teas. Why waste money buying any of the above if you can get them straight from your own backyard? Next is to see which of the herbs on your list are easiest to grow in your climate.
There are three groups of herbs. Perennial herbs include rosemary, thyme, lovage, chives, lavender, fennel, marjoram, catnip, hyssop, French tarragon, and lemon balm. In our Bay Area Mediterranean climate, we can also grow borage and mint year-round. Annual herbs include basil, parsley, anise, coriander, cilantro, and dill. And biennial herbs, including caraway and sage.
Herbs that are Best in Pots
Herbs with more aggressive root systems such as mints, oregano, borage, and lemon balm are best grown in large pots or in designated herb beds where they won't take over. You can also easily divide the mother plant every few years into a second pot or gift them to friends and neighbors.
Great Kitchen Herbs
Smaller sized herbs that are less aggressive and do well in small pots of 6 inches or more are best for growing on a sunny, south-facing counter in your kitchen or home. These include chives, basil, thyme, sweet marjoram, peppermint, and summer savory.
Herbs throughout your Garden
As for herbs to plant throughout your garden, I love to grow several basil varieties (see above) among my other vegetables, especially between my tomato plants or under a harbor of pole beans as a natural shade in the hottest summer months.
Great Herbs for Herbal Tea
A top reason for growing your own herbs is making healthy, soothing herbal teas straight from the garden. There are dozens of posts of must-have favorite herbs for your tea garden, including Catnip, Marjoram, Thyme, Lemon Verbena, and Ginger. Three of my favorites are Lemon Balm, Chamomile (shown to the right), Lavender, and Mint, not only because of their wonderful calming flavor and aroma but because of how easy they are to make, snip and let steep for 10 minutes.
Spring is usually the best season to plant herbs. Herbs can be grown in a sunny kitchen window, in larger pots or barrels on a deck or patio, in a designated herb section or bed, or mixed throughout your garden.
Full Sun and Well-Draining Soil
Most herbs require full sun, at least 6 hours a day. Some, including chervil, mint, dill, chives, cilantro, lemon balm, and French tarragon, can take a slightly shadier location. They also require well-draining, loamy soil. If you have poorly draining soil, amend it every year with compost or grow your herbs in well-draining beds or pots.
Lavender, sage, and rosemary prefer a dryer, sandier soil with less frequent watering (once or twice a month once established) and just an annual feeding in the late winter, early spring.
Herbs may be grown from seed, root cuttings, or division of a mother plant. Herbs such as dill, cilantro, fennel, and basil are easy to start from seed, while perennial herbs can be quicker from starts or division.
When planting starts, dig your hole twice as wide but at the same depth as the plant. Gently loosen and untangle or trim any dense or compacted roots for the broadest spread at the bottom and water well. Adding a light layer of mulch helps to retain soil moisture and deter weeds.
The oils in herbs are at their most intense in the early morning after the morning dew has evaporated. This is the best time of day to pick them at the height of their flavor. However, I am not above picking them fresh any time I need them to add to an evening dish or recipe.
For the longest harvest and healthiest plants, pick them regularly. For drying, pick them just before the flowers open, when the leaves are at their highest content of aromatic oils, and cut them to around 6 inches at the leaf nodes. One exception is that if your plant is healthy enough or you have more than you need, allow a few to bloom to encourage bees and other pollinators and beneficial insects to thrive in your garden.
Discontinue harvesting in the late summer, early fall to allow the plant to store up enough carbohydrates for the next year's growth.
There are several options for drying herbs, including air drying, oven drying, or using a dehydrator. By far, for most herbs, I prefer air drying them, especially for thyme, mint, lavender, and oregano, for the greatest retention of the oils and flavor. It is also inexpensive (jars and string) and can add a beautiful look and aroma where you choose to hang them. Choose a cool place without exposure to artificial heat or sunlight (even under your kitchen cupboards). Leave the bundles to dry for several weeks until they are curled up and crush to the touch.
However, for broader, more succulent leaves herbs such as basil, it is better to dry them more rapidly to retain their color and aroma.
Once dried, store the whole leaves in sealed, airtight glass containers (brown glass if possible). After sealing them in jars, store them in a warm place for another week and recheck them to ensure that you do not see any condensation in any of the jars. If you see condensation, remove the leaves and lay them flat to dry a bit longer before returning them to their jar. Store in a cool dark pantry or cupboard. For the best flavor, use within 6-12 months--yes, you should probably use or replace those herbs in your cabinet that are several years old. I like to think of saving and replenishing my favorite herbs as an annual garden ritual. You’ll immediately smell the difference.
Pests and Diseases
Wonderfully, another perk to growing herbs is that they are mostly pest and disease-free, making them a great place to start as a new gardener. The occasional aphid or spittlebug can be smushed or sprayed off with a hose making it easy to avoid pesticides that are bad for you and the pollinators and beneficial insects in your garden.
HERB GARDENING, Kim Wilson, UC Master Gardener. Link: https://ucanr.edu/sites/mgslo/files/300470.pdf
California Master Gardener Handbook, Second Edition, Dennis R. Pittenger, University of CA Agriculture and Natural Resources
Herbs Pack Powerful Antioxidant Punch, Colette Bouchez, Healthy Day