Whether you have a huge garden, or just a deck with some pots, you can grow herbs. For me having fresh herbs makes cooking for one easy and exciting. Just having the herbs around where you smell them when you brush against them can be inspirational.
Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'
Herbs pretty unfussy plants to grow–generally they like sun, and want the soil to be well drained. Some are more drought-tolerant than others and some are more sun-tolerant than other; a few even like a bit of shade.
You can use a wide variety of containers–plastic, ceramic, wood…just be sure that there are holes in the bottom for good drainage. Herbs really do not like wet feet. I prefer to put my herbs in fairly large plastic containers since it reduces the need for watering in hot weather–a six-inch pot is about the smallest that I will use. Smaller than that and you’ll spend a lot of time watering in hot weather.
Though not glamorous, my favorite device for keeping herbs happy in hot weather is a spike that screws onto a one-liter (or two-liter) soft-drink bottle which is then stuck into the pot. It delivers water slowly to the roots where it’s needed. I catch rainwater in a five-gallon bucket to fill the bottles rather than using tap water. You’ll see these in use in some of the pictures. Locally, I can find these at Stone Bros. & Byrd. They are also available in garden supply catalogs and seed catalogs.
We usually hear herbs characterized as “full sun” plants–that really means that most of them need at least six hours of sun a day; many are happy sitting around in the sun all day–but you have to take your climate into account. An herb that might be wonderfully happy in all-day sun in the Pacific Northwest might not survive all-day sun in the southern U.S. As you grow herbs you will learn to look at them and know if they are happy or not.
Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odorata)
Some herbs such as sorrel, chervil, sweet cecily, sweet woodruff, and lemon balm would rather have some shade. If you are planting them in the garden, you need to consider the position of the sun in all seasons of the year, and the presence (or absence) of trees that will leaf out in the summer. One of the advantages of growing herbs in containers is that you can move them around to give them optimal sun and shade. No matter what the soil you use, if the sun is not there you’ll have spindly, leggy herbs without much flavor and they will be prone to disease.
Soil is next in importance to sun for growing herbs. An additional advantage of growing herbs in containers is that you control the soil. Herbs must have good drainage whether in the garden or in containers. (I suspect that many of us who cook for one will be growing them in containers, so that will be my focus.) I use potting soil from a reputable garden supply center. I know that it’s not going to have diseases carried in it, and I know that it’s formulated to drain well as long as I put it in a pot with appropriate drain holes, and that it will also hold water in an appropriate manner as well. It’s a happy medium that I don’t have to fuss with–I can just plant herbs and cook with them.
Many of the herbs that we grow are perennials, so they won’t be moved and may not even be repotted every year, so it’s important to have good soil. If they are planted in a large pot they may need only top dressing between times when they become root-bound and need to be divided or repotted. I may fertilize more in the second year that they are in the same pot if it looks as if it is needed.
For many herbs I plant several in a much bigger pot–12 to 14 inches. It looks great and watering frequency is reduced. You do need to consider what herbs to plant together because of the differences in their likes for soil moisture and feeding. Many of the Mediterranean herbs (oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, lavender) are very drought tolerant once established and need less water. Not so with basils: basil likes sun, but likes evenly moist soil; I might plant several varieties of basil together in a large pot, or even have a basil plant share a large pot with a tomato plant, but I’d not mix basil with oregano and marjoram because of the differences in watering needs.
Basil (a fast-growing annual herb) is, in contrast to perennials (sage, oregano) is a heavy feeder as well; it will need to be “fed” more often–perhaps a dilute (quarter-strength) solution of all-purpose plant food or fish emulsion monthly. You need to consider the appetites of your herbs, as well as their proclivity for sitting in the sun, before you put them all together in a big pot. Once you get perennials established they will provide much enjoyment with very little effort.
Some herbs which can be very invasive should be kept in separate pots: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and mints, for example. Other herbs simply do not do well in pots because they develop deep taproots, e.g. dill–and you cannot provide depth enough in a reasonable sized pot for them to do well. Others are simply too big for planting in containers (e.g. angelica and borage) that we’d use here. More varieties are being developed that are “dwarf” and are suited to containers. While many dills (such as Anethum graveolens ‘Mammoth’) do not do well in containers, there are some dwarf varieties (Delikat and Fernleaf) that are suitable for containers.
You’ve got containers, and soil. Do you start with seeds or with plants? Many garden centers will have herb plants, but they may not have a large selection of different varieties–you may only be able to get a generic “sage” or “thyme”. One of the joys of herbs is seeking out different flavors and those that are especially aromatic, with high levels of essential oils. The “tarragon” that you find in the big-box garden center may not be French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus, var. sativa) which is what you want. The oregano that you find there may not be Greek oregano, but Italian oregano, which is really sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana). You’ll want to find a good garden center, or try farmers’ markets in the spring. Those growers will likely know more about the varieties of herbs that they have.
Buying plants is probably the best way to start growing herbs. Starting from seeds gives you more possibilities, but you have extra seeds, the difficulties of getting them to germinate; some are slow growing, so you won’t be able to use them as quickly. It can literally take weeks for some to germinate, the germination rate may be poor (e.g. Stevia), and then many more weeks before you can harvest for use in cooking, and that is really the point of growing your own herbs. You want to smell and taste them, and season your food with them.
I’m addicted to having fresh herbs at my doorstep…I’m also picky about what varieties I have, so I usually start with seeds. It also means that I wait impatiently to see if the seeds are going to germinate, and for the tiny plants to get big enough to transplant, and then to harvest. It’s always fun to try new varieties. You do find out that all plants labeled “sage” are not the same. Starting from seeds, there is always variability in the plants so some may be more aromatic than others. When you are purchasing a plant, you should crush a leaf and smell it to be sure that it’s what you want–fragrant and potent. Only plants taken from cuttings will be exactly the same. Some herbs can only be propagated by cuttings (French tarragon, for example) so you want to be sure that is what you get. (That’s why I’m giving you the botanical names with the common names of the herbs.)
If you get to the point where you hanker to try a new variety of mint, or basil, there are suppliers from whom you can order plants that you cannot find locally. Just for fun you might want to browse Richters Herbs , Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or Mountain Valley Growers just to get an idea of the wonderful variety that is available. (Mountain Valley Growers has some wonderful recipes on their website for herbs too.)
There will be more on selecting plants and growing specific herbs coming soon.