Anyone can start a herb garden, no matter how little space they have available. Some people create bespoke culinary herb gardens, while others tuck these flavour-packed plants into any empty space they can find.
We asked The Sunday Gardener, Carol Bartlett, for her top tips on growing herbs at home. Here’s her sage advice…
What is a herb?
‘Herb’ is a generic term. It covers a wide group of plants that don’t necessarily share the same preferences for growing conditions. It’s true to say that, as a group, herbs mostly prefer sun – especially those of Mediterranean origin. But for those of us who don’t have sunny, south-facing gardens, there are enough herbs that tolerate semi-shade to keep a keen cook happy.
Should you grow herbs from seeds or plants?
Many herbs germinate readily from seed – an easy and inexpensive way to get started. Early in the year (before May), it’s best to sow on a windowsill or under glass. Simply place several seeds in a small plant pot, and cover with a light sprinkling of soil. Keep the soil warm and ensure you keep it moist.
From May onwards you can sow herb seeds directly outdoors into containers or your veg plot. It’s best to sow crops like parsley and coriander fortnightly, to ensure a regular supply. If you want to grow from seed, I suggest parsley, coriander, chives and basil – you’ll need a regular succession of these plants to keep your kitchen in business.
If you don’t have time to grow from seed, there’s a wide variety of herbs available to buy as plants for an instant, ready-made herb garden. It makes more sense to buy herb plants if you only need a few of each. I suggest buying mint, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme and lemon balm this way to get started.
Where to plant Mediterranean herbs
Sun-loving Mediterranean herbs include thyme, rosemary, oregano and sage. They need to be planted in dry, well-drained soil and get plenty of sun to grow well. Some of them, like thyme and oregano are particularly attractive to bees and pollinators – ideal if you’re trying to attract more wildlife into your garden.
Different varieties of thyme are available with small, pretty flowers in white, mauve and pink. These plants look attractive in containers, and they also like to grow in small crevices in walls and paving. Because of its compact size, thyme is ideal for growing on a windowsill. It’s easy to grow and requires little maintenance except for a light trim after flowering. For culinary use, I consider Thymus Vulgaris (common Thyme) best. It has a lovely aromatic sweet flavour and easy to pick leaves.
Rosemary is a larger plant that grows to somewhere between 60 cms and 1m, but it’s relatively slow growing. It’s reasonably hardy, but less so in poorly drained soils and it dislikes cold, chilling winds. If conditions aren’t ideal, there’s a tendency for the needles to brown.
The other common variety of rosemary, from the prostrate group, is not fully hardy and requires winter protection. As the name suggests, this is a trailing plant which is best grown in a container so that you can move it under glass for winter protection.
Sage is fully hardy and happily grows outside all year round. It can look a bit battered at the beginning of the growing season but quickly picks up. Both sage and oregano do get quite large as they mature, up to around 60cms tall with an equal spread.
Oregano is a fully hardy perennial that benefits from being cut back in the spring.
One oregano shrub usually provides enough pickings for a family, but I always grow more to feed the wildlife. Origanum vulgare is an attractive shrub which has pretty mauve flowers that bees and butterflies just love. Mine are covered all summer with busy pollinators. Many herbs are attractive to bees and butterflies, but oregano is one of the best.
Which herbs grow in semi-shade?
Don’t have a south-facing garden? A number of culinary herbs tolerate semi-shade – particularly chives, parsley, mint, lemon balm and coriander. As long as they’re in the sun for at least half a day (preferably morning), these herbs don’t mind living without full sun.
Chives are very hardy – they die back over winter and regrow in the spring. They’re also another bee magnet if you want to attract wildlife into your garden.
This herb can be slow to germinate, but once it gets going it’s pretty tough. Planted outside, parsley produces good pickings well into the winter and tolerates frosts, and although biennial, it should be treated as an annual.
Of the various herbs discussed here, parsley is the only one which can be difficult to germinate from seed. Patience and more than one sowing may be necessary, but once established, it’s robust and hardy.
There’s a gardening ‘health warning’ attached to mint because it’s so invasive. If you want to plant mint in a border, it must be contained to prevent it from taking over, (and the same is true of tansy should you have an urge to plant it.) It’s much better to grow mint in a container to restrict its spread. A perennial plant, it’s often treated as an annual because the leaves become coarse with age.
Coriander grows as an annual in our climate. Because it resents transplanting, sow the seeds where you want them to grow and take care that the plants don’t dry out. Fortnightly sowing is best to provide a regular supply for your favourite recipes – and it’s best to pick the leaves before flowering.
One of the more tricky herbs to grow in our climate is basil, despite the fact that it always looks so tempting in supermarket pots! Basil is easy to grow from seed and germinates quickly. The drawback is that it’s very temperature sensitive. It should never be placed outside until the summer is in full swing and then only in a warm sheltered spot. If it’s too cool, the plant leaves tend to yellow, and develop unappealing beige patches. Conversely, basil is ideal to grow indoors and perfect for your windowsills.
Even more tempting, and requiring the same growing conditions, Thai basil is a fantastic addition to authentic curries. Thai basil germinates easily from seed when placed in a warm spot with good drainage. It will do well all summer, but later in the year both Thai and Italian basil should be brought indoors to extend the growing season.
Growing your own herbs makes an aromatic garden display, attracts lots of bees and butterflies to your garden and gives you a wonderful fresh supply of herbs for the kitchen all the year round. What’s more, you can pick them at their best and freeze any excess if you find you have too much. Happy herb growing!
Carol Bartlett, The Sunday Gardener, lives in the north of England where she has created a diverse garden including wildflowers, natural areas, herbaceous borders, a wildlife pond, trees and wetland plants, along with a vegetable plot. She has been gardening, reading, researching and photographing plants for over twenty years and her website is a popular resource for gardeners young and old.