For those of who enjoy cooking—in addition to gardening—creating your own herb garden is a delightful endeavor. Having a variety of fresh herbs on hand provides an easy way to enhance the flavor of just about any culinary creation. For example, fresh cilantro can make the difference between, say, Mexican cuisine that is simply ho-hum and that which is truly mouth-watering. And, a mint julep on a hot summer day just wouldn’t seem as refreshing without the mint.
Herbs have also long been valued for their medicinal and healing qualities. Although it requires an experienced herbalist to know how to extract the beneficial substances from many herbs, some can be easily prepared for use in soothing teas and balms.
Herbs are easy to grow from seed by those armed with a little knowledge and can be continuously harvested throughout the growing season, requiring little maintenance. And, you don’t need a lot of space to grow herbs; most are relatively compact, and well suited to container gardening, especially given their esthetic appeal. Not only are herbs a fragrant, attractive addition to containers and garden beds, they also serve a purpose beyond their culinary value: some ward off insect pests and attract beneficial ones.
You don’t have to have a green thumb to grow and enjoy your own herbs successfully. Here are some tips for getting started:
Growing Herbs from Seed
While fledgling gardeners may feel trepidation growing herbs from seed, it’s really not hard, as long as you adhere to a few basic guidelines:
- Light: Almost all herbs need full sun in order to grow properly. If you’re growing herbs indoors, you’re likely to require grow lights during certain time periods, unless you happen to reside in a year-round sunny region with an exceptionally sunny spot in your home.
- Soil & Air Temperature: While some mature herb plants tolerate very cold air temperatures, seedlings like it warm. And, if soil temperatures are too low, your seeds won’t even germinate. Generally, in order for seeds to sprout, air temperatures should be over 50° and soil temperatures should be 70° F or warmer. For this reason, gardeners in the northern half of the country are advised to start seeds indoors—where temperatures can be controlled—in early spring, and to transplant seedlings outdoors once spring has progressed and temperatures have moderated.
- Water: It’s really important to keep your seeds and seedlings consistently moist, but NOT soaked. Otherwise, the seeds won’t germinate. Regular, gentle watering is important, which is another reason to start seeds indoors in a controlled environment. Mature plants, while much more resilient than seedlings, will need supplemental watering during periods of drought and may not thrive during particularly wet, cool summers.
- Fertilizer: Once your seedlings approach maturity, you can apply an organic, time-release fertilizer to ensure healthy growth. Indoor plants will need regular application.
- Pinch-off Flower Buds: While it may seem counterintuitive at first, you must pinch-off any flower buds that appear. Herbs produce flowers as they reach the end of their life cycle; flowering is a way to set seed for the next generation. By pinching off the flower buds, you will force the plants to put all their energy into growing more yummy foliage.
You can start harvesting your herbs at any time after they’re about 6-8” high and/or have developed enough healthy foliage there’s clearly some to spare. When harvesting herb foliage, you always want to be sure to leave enough behind so that the plant can continue growing. As you may remember from Biology class, plants need some foliage to photosynthesize. The preferred method of harvest will vary from herb to herb. When harvesting chives, for example, you will want to cut off the stalks close to the ground. Basil, on the other hand, is best harvested by cutting stalks and leaves from the top of the plant, to encourage bushy re-growth. Eventually (sadly!), as the days of summer start to wane, you may decide to try and forestall the inevitable end of your glorious herb crop. You have two choices: you could harvest it in its entirety and preserve it; or, you can move it indoors if you have the space and light.
To preserve fresh herbs for use throughout the fall and winter, you have two choices: you can dry them or freeze them. Different herbs lend themselves to each of these methods. Air drying works well for herbs that have a low moisture content such as oregano, thyme, sweet marjoram, summer savory, and sage. You can air dry these herbs naturally or you can use an oven. The latter, though it uses more energy, is faster and more reliable. To oven dry your herbs, spread them on a parchment-paper lined baking sheet (to avoid off flavors from the metal) and bake them at 150° F with the oven door slightly open. Keep a close eye on them and remove them when they crumble to the touch (times will vary from one to several hours). Pack them in an airtight container for use until the following summer. Freezing works well for herbs with a higher moisture content such as basil, chives, cilantro and parsley. Our favorite method is to chop up the herbs and pack them into ice trays topped off with water or vegetable broth and freeze them. For best results, transfer the frozen herb cubes into an airtight container to remain in the freezer for use over the course of the next few months.
Continuing Growing Herbs Indoors
If you’re lucky enough to have the space and light indoors, it’s a no brainer to move your herbs indoors to continue growing throughout the colder months. Obviously, it’s easiest if you’re already growing the herbs in containers; otherwise, you can transplant them from the garden into containers. Growing plants indoors is not without its challenges, but herbs are relatively easy. Growing your own herbs is easy and satisfying and something we highly recommend. If you’re thinking about starting a garden, we say herbs should be first on the list. Whether you simply enjoy them for their appearance and fragrance, or use them as herbal remedies or to enhance your culinary creations, they are enormously appealing. And, once you start, you won’t be able to stop, much to the delight of your visiting friends, family, and neighbors.