Wondering how to get started herb gardening and what herbs to grow? Unsure about soil preferences of herbs or their growth habits? Interested in growing your own herbs for herbal healing?
If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, there are a couple of books I’d like to recommend to you – The Practical Herb Garden and The Complete Illustrated Holistic Herbal. (There may be others that are just as good, but I have these, and I like them, and they are CHEAP because they are no longer brand spanking new. 🙂 If you have a favorite you’d like to recommend, please leave a comment below.)
In my garden, I’m prone to try new plants on a whim for a season or two, just to get a feeling for their growth habits in different conditions (our temperatures and moisture levels have fluctuated pretty wildly the last few years). Usually, this works just fine, as most fruits and vegetables are annuals that don’t self-seed easily. Herbs can be a little trickier.
Many herbs are really easy to grow, whether they are annuals or perennials. Sometimes, they’re almost too easy to grow. When I first laid out the center bed of my garden circle with herbs and flowers, it was very neat and orderly. Over the last five years, certain herbs (most notably yarrow and lemon balm) have escaped their original planting areas and choked out some of their companions. I got so excited about planting that I didn’t plan ahead like I should have done.
Don’t make my mistakes! This growing season, I’m going to need to do a complete overhaul of the center bed, and I know it’s going to be a lot of work to salvage the more desirable plants and thin out those that have gotten overgrown. Get some good reference books and read them before you plant, instead of after. 🙂
What Herbs Should I Plant?
First, decide if you want to grow herbs for culinary use, medicinal use or both. Many common culinary herbs, such as dill, parsley, and cilantro, are easy to grow herbs that can be tucked in almost anywhere in the garden or grown in pots. (These three herbs also have medicinal properties, just FYI.)
If you know the herbs you’re looking for by name, you can look them up in The Practical Herb Garden to find out if they are annuals or perennials, prone to become invasive, and their preferred growing conditions.
If you have a specific health condition you would like to address with herbs, you can look up the health condition in The Holistic Herbal to find plants that may be helpful, and then cross-reference with The Practical Herb Garden to determine growing conditions.
Should I Plant Herbs in With My Fruits and Vegetables, or Plant Them in Their Own Bed?
I do both. Strong scented herbs often make wonderful companion plants in the garden, deterring pests, offering habitat for beneficial insects and in some cases increasing the essential oil content of the plants they are planted near. (See the book Great Garden Companions for more information on companion planting.)
Some herbs benefit from having their own beds. For instance, those that spread rapidly are best planted in an area that could be mowed around to contain them (I love how mint smells when it’s mowed), or planted inside a container, such as a large pot sunk into the ground. Chamomile and borage readily reseed (and spread all over), so it’s best to deadhead or isolate unless you don’t mind the renegades taking over.
Shrubs, trees or perennials may not fit well into a standard garden bed, but may work well in a border bed or placed around the yard. The Practical Herb Garden gives a great assortment of beautiful herb garden designs, both formal and informal.
Do I Need Special Tools or Soil for Herb Gardening?
Herbs are cultivated, for the most part, just like other garden plants. What types of herbs you can grow depends primarily on your climate, as many herbs are found only in the tropic. There are still dozens of herbs available to the average home gardener. Check The Practical Herb Garden for soil and climate preference of the herbs you want to grow. Some herb seed must be stratified to germinate (frozen for a period of time), but most will grow without this step.
How Do I Use Herbs That I Grow at Home?
With culinary herbs, most are used fresh, but many can also be dried for long term storage. Other options include herbal vinegars and oils, which can be lovely to look at as well as delicious. The Practical Herb Garden gives detailed instructions for drying, herbal oils, herbal vinegars and freezing herbs.
With medicinal herbs, some are used fresh, but many are prepared in some sort of solution for internal or external use. The Holistic Herbal gives instructions for infusions, decoctions, teas, alcoholic tinctures, vinegar-based tinctures, glycerine-based tinctures, syrups, oxymels. capsules, pills, lozenges. baths, douches, ointments, suppositories, compresses, poultices, liniments, and oils.
Quick tip: Take a handful of fresh catnip and crush it in your hands, then rub it over exposed skin to protect from mosquitoes. Catnip contains a compound that is more effective than DEET for repelling insects.
*Note – although many herbal preparations tend to have few or no side effects, some people may still have bad reactions to them, as people have reactions to different plant materials. Always use caution when trying new home remedies.
I love the color and scents that herb add to my garden, and I’m enjoying experimenting with them in cooking and for healing. You can find seeds online or at almost any place they sell garden seeds. My favorite seeds sources can be found in this post. All of my favorites sell some herbs for culinary and medicinal use. Pinetree Garden seeds also carries herbs for dying fabric and yarn. Mountain Rose Herbs also sells many herb seeds.
I hope you enjoy growing herbs in your garden, too, and let me know if you have any great resources you’d like to recommend.
Originally published 2012, updated 2016.