Tell Me About Creating an Herb Garden

I’m moving in to a townhouse in a few weeks. I’ll be living on my own for the first time in like 5 years and am looking forward to having my own kitchen again.

I would love to experiment more with cooking, and would love to have a small herb garden off my back patio. It would have to be a container garden - I can’t dig in the dirt. I don’t have a lot of windows, so most of the time the containers would be outside.

If you have an herb garden - can you tell me a bit about it? I’m not the ultimate green thumb - but I’m going to try. Any hints would be appreciated!

Container herb gardens are great! It’s awesome to be able to jazz up all kinds of recipes.

My best recommendation is to start with live plants. This will be a little bit more expensive, but is a lot easier than starting from seed when it’s cold if you have limited space. Usually, any place with a garden center will have most standbys. If you have more exotic tastes, try a local greenhouse.

It’s best, though, to start with what you know. A frequent problem is that you plant all kinds of interesting-sounding things which you then never use! I’d recommend starting with the basics:

  • Parsley. I do both curly and Italian, which was handy when the rabbits decided they really liked the Italian. Grows like a weed, too.

  • Chives. It’s a perennial and survives in pretty harsh conditions (when I moved houses in winter, I just stashed the container in the garage with the intent of throwing out the dirt in the container in spring; it grew about a foot tall in the garage with little to no light before I noticed it). Easy to snip off a little bit.

  • Basil. I love basil and use it in practically everything, and I never can quite grow enough. Just needs a really sunny spot. If you’re feeling saucy, plant both sweet basil and holy (Thai) basil.

  • Mint. Grows like a weed times ten so it’s really good in containers where it won’t take over.

  • Dill. Tremendously easy to grow and works in a surprising number of applications. Heck, I’ll just throw the fronds in a salad for extra zip.

You can add things like thyme, rosemary, sage, and what have you if you use them often but a lot of times they just end up sitting around. I think it’s best to start simple and see how your level of interest goes throughout the first year.

If you have more space, consider adding patio tomatoes (small tomato plants).

Omg - this is exactly the kind of info I was looking for - thanks! Of course, I’ll have to gage the light over the course of the first few weeks I’m there.

I’ve heard that if you buy the plants vs. the seeds you shouldn’t re-pot them - is that true? I was thinking of buying a window box stand and putting the pots in that - maybe not re-potting until I made sure they were going strong.

Tell me more about this. My mom used to have tomato plants around the edges of our pool growing up - and they seemed to do pretty well - along with some strawberry plants. The only problem was that the birds seemed to get them before we ever could!

Not sure where you heard this, but if it applies to some things, it doesn’t apply to herbs bought as small plants. Usually the little plastic cups they’re in are already too small for them when you buy them.

At any rate, herbs are basically weeds and for the most part, hard to kill as long as there’s sun. I like growing peppermint (it is, literally an invasive perennial weed that should only be grown in a container). I don’t use it that much in cooking, but you can dry it for tea. It has pretty flowers too.

Herbs are perfect for someone who doesn’t have a green thumb, because they’re essentially weeds. You chuck 'em into a pot, put 'em out in the sunshine, and keep them watered a few times a week. Cut 'em back now and again. Even a black thumb like me can do it with no problems.

When growing herbs, you can’t give them too much sun, too much water, or too much space. Our herb garden is on the patio, which gets sun from about 9 on down to sunset. We water a couple-three times a week unless it rains, and we never, ever put even the compact herbs into a pot smaller than 8". Most things go into 10 or 12" pots, big stuff like sweet basil gets about a 16" pot. Even if you don’t have enough sun to support the kind of growth we get (our sweet basils are typically hip-high by the end of the season, and everything else is commensurately large), a bigger pot is easier because it doesn’t dry out so quickly as a small one.

One word of warning, though-- a lot of herbs, especially Mediterranean ones like basil, don’t grow much early in the season when it’s still fairly cool at night. They just kind of sit there, making you wonder what you’re doing wrong, and then when the overnight temp gets about 70, they take off like a rocket.

Sage tends to survive very late in the season. In the Chicago suburbs, we’ve had sage living well into November as long as there isn’t too much of a problem with frost - and I’ve even seen the apparently-fine plant poking out of snow. This is perfect since I’ve used home-grown sage for Thanksgiving some years!

I’ve never had luck growing cilantro, so maybe I’m missing something. It seems to “bolt” (shoots up, gets spindly, grows flowers which will go to seed if you don’t remove them) quickly, even if I get the slow-bolt varieties. It’s a pity since cilantro is lovely stuff, and absolutely must be used fresh rather than dried.

Average last spring frost date in Charlotte is April 2. Don’t plant your herbs much before that (unless you’re growing from seeds), or else have some plans to bring your containers inside or into the garage in case of frost. Basil especially is sensitive to frost.

Basil will die off over the winter unless you live somewhere like California or Florida, or unless you bring it inside in the winter. Other herbs may survive the winter outside, or may not. My sage, thyme, and one of my oregano plants survived last winter, my rosemary and the other oregano plant didn’t make it. Right now, everything is completely covered in snow. After it melts, I’ll have to see what made it. Of course, things will have a better chance of surviving your winters than they do ours…

Containers of dirt are heavier than you think they are. Be careful when moving them.

I don’t use weed-killers or other chemicals in my herb garden. If you put any chemicals on your plants, for any purpose, make sure they are safe for use on edible plants.

ETA: I have had fresh sage from my herb garden for both Thanksgivings I’ve hosted since we moved to our house.

If I bring them inside and don’t have a lot of natural sunlight - do I need to invest in a grow light? I know the chives may be okay - but I wasn’t sure about the rest of them.

I’d add thyme to fluiddruid’s essentil list. I use it a lot.

I have an outdoor herb garden (& a lot of room) so I don’t have to be selective about what I grow.

Don’t plant them in “fertilizer included” potting soil for container plants. Those mixes contain the fertilizer balance that encourages flowering, and you don’t want your herbs (especially not the basil) to flower. You want a lot of leaf growth.

The only herb I’ve heard that you shouldn’t repot is cilantro, because repotting makes it “bolt” (i.e., go to seed, which is fine if you want coriander seeds, but not if you want to make salsa.) Plant clinatro seeds in the pot where you want them to grow, and plant a few every week, so when the older plants are pooping out and bolting, you’ll still have younger ones to harvest from.

Thyme is super-no-brainer easy. Very tolerant of benign neglect. Mine overwinters in a concrete pot with no problem.

The little plants you buy at the store are intended to be re-potted. I’ve never had a problem, though it is a good idea to keep the receipt just in case you get a bad one for some reason.

I always plant them in their destination sooner rather than later since they need room for their roots to grow. One tip: if the roots have curled really heavily around the base, I tend to try to unwind them a little bit (very gently) to help the roots get established in the new pot.

Pests can be a problem. I never had a problem with birds, though I did have a slug problem (solved with the ol’ beer-in-a-pie-plate trick). I actually got a whole bunch of tomato plants for free on this local plant exchange back when I rented a house, and I stuck them all in containers. With plenty of water, they grew like weeds. However, they did sort of splay all over the place (I didn’t bother staking them or anything), so they were a mite unsightly. Next time, I’d get a [“url=”]patio tomato variety, which are smaller.

With plenty of sun and water, even a few containers can grow a boatload of tomatoes. Honestly I didn’t worry about losing some of the crop to pests since I had so many tomatoes I didn’t know what to do with them. They’re really pretty easy to grow.

Strawberries also take well to container gardening. I have also heard peppers do as well, which is my plan for this year. My point is that you shouldn’t just stick to herbs if you have containers; if you only see yourself using sage or thyme a couple of times, chances are you might enjoy a small vegetable container better.

Some herbs and plants (e.g. mint, dill) like to overtake the garden. Best to plant these in separate containers.

Have you considered an Aerogarden? It’s probably pricier than doing it your way but it’s as uninvolved and foolproof as gardening gets. Mine has already paid for itself in terms of savings from buying grocery store herbs.

+1 in the Aerogarden, if you’re not sure you’ll use it, start off with the 3-pod garden, it’s the cheapest of their models

that said, you can DIY a hydroponic garden yourself for significantly less, you’ll need a watertight container and lid, (Sterlite or Tupperware), a 1" hole saw, an aquarium air pump, air-line tubing and an airstone, and some form of bright, overhead light (Home Despot has a nice compact fluorescent desktop lamp that would work. it uses flat CF bulbs), a light timer would be nice too

use the 1" hole saw to cut holes in the lid of the container for the AeroGarden seed pods, drill a small hole for air-line tubing and the airstone, and set the lamp over the container, and you have your own, cheaper-but-uglier hydro garden for less than an AG

for herbs, you generally want 12-14 hours of bright light, depending on what windowsill you put the pots on, the plants may not get the right amount of light

the nice thing about the AG is that it has timers for light, and feeding, and it tells you when to add water, it’s about as foolproof as you can get, plus plants grown hydroponically grow approx. twice as fast as the same plants in dirt, the flavours are more intense as well

Lots of great advice so far, so all I’m going to do is throw in the list of herbs that I always, always, always end up planting:

Thyme (both regular and lemon varieties)
Sage (I usually go with the purple kind… it looks quite pretty with all the green stuff)
Lemon Verbena (because the only way to get it around here is to grow it yourself, and it makes wicked good herbal tea)
Basil (I buy both the traditional Italian and the darker purple-stemmed Thai basil)
Chives (preferably garlic chives)
Mint (I can’t imagine a summer without fresh mint… it’s been a few years since I’ve had to plant it in my herb pot, though, because we have a giant patch of the stuff courtesy of the previous homeowners)

I tend to avoid parsley and cilantro because I use them in large quantities, which means it’s cheaper just to buy a fresh bunch at the store whenever I need some, rather than spending the same amount of money for a plant that I’ll probably defoliate completely within a month.

I’ve had very little luck keeping the herbs going indoors in the winter, unfortunately. There simply isn’t enough light with the shorter winter days to keep them happy, and the windowsills are way too drafty for some of the more tender herbs. Rosemary does okay as long as you keep it by a sunny window and water very infrequently, but everything else usually dies within a couple of weeks.

BTW, if you want to keep the birds away from your tomatoes, most garden stores do carry light plastic netting that can be wrapped around the plants. We’ve been using it to fend off birds and squirrels for a couple of years now, and it works like a charm.

Rosemary is a tough shrub. Some of them can get big. I gave my Mom cuttings from my bush when she moved into a mildly snowy area and it thrived. Then when I moved, she gave me cuttings back. Here in Stockton, we get weeks over 100 oF and usually three days or more over 105. It’ll grow in corners of the flower bed that bake and dry out. All in all, it’s tough to kill once it’s established.

Some people consider lavender to be an herb. It’s a household, rather than a culinary herb. Some types are almost impossible to kill. Sturdy and shrubby, like the rosemary.

I’ve also had luck with culinary bay trees, for the leaves. But they’ll grow to tree size eventually, so you have to be careful where you plant them. I grew one in half a barrel once, but had to leave it behind when I moved, so may as well have planted that one, too.

I’ve heard that if you plant **dill **and fennel too close together, they’ll crossbreed and you’ll end up with something that’s neither one nor the other. Don’t know how true that is. They’re similar looking, so it’s plausable.

Sage can get woody after a few years. I’ve heard some people say prune back to encourage new growth and others say just replace the plant. **Clary sage **is an annual (or acts like one in our area), but it reseeds. I’ve never used it culinarily, but it has nice purple flowers.

French Tarragon (the good stuff) can only be planted as a plant. It doesn’t set seed. I love fresh tarragon. I’ll have to plant some again. This house doesn’t have any.

I’ve tried planting saffron bulbs twice, and failed both times. I’ll try again this year. I’ll get it right eventually.

Start with what you love and go from there. I never used to cook with herbs at all until I started growing them.

Lavender has its culinary uses. It’s one of the ingredients in Herbs de Provence.

Good to know.

My recommendation is to start with just a few herbs you commonly use. For example, I use a lot of parsley and basil, so I started with those.

If you’re new to this, start with live plants - some herbs (I’m looking at you, parsley!) take a loooong time to come up from seeds. This can be frustrating, and you want to minimize frustration.

If you bring the containers indoors with intention of growing them over the winter a grow-light is a good idea, and the further north you are the better an idea it is.

Personally, I grow herbs in my garden then dry them myself for winter use - but your mileage may vary.

If the OP will permit a hijack - would you please be so kind as to explain how you dry and save what herbs? We generally grow chives, parsley, basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano - and maybe a couple of others, but we have never attempted to save it. I always find it always sad when the plants finally give up the ghost, and I go back to the dried bits in the jars in our cabinets.

Do you harvest and dry throughout the growing season, or just at the end?