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Herb Gardening Basics

Herb gardening is an excellent entry point for novice gardeners. Learn how to grow common culinary herbs in your home or garden with this beginner-friendly guide to herb gardening basics.

Planting herbs in a container.

Choose which herbs to grow

When you are new to herb gardening, choosing the right herbs to grow is critical for success (and enjoyment!).

Begin by considering which herbs you use most frequently in your cooking. Then assess your climatic zone and local growing conditions to see which are likely to be successful.

Choose herbs for your climate

Climate or hardiness zones divide regions based on average minimum temperatures and growing season length. You can find your climatic zone by checking the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map or a similar resource for your country.

Use this information as a starting point to select herbs that are likely to thrive in your area, but also consider your specific garden conditions. A sunny, well-sheltered garden corner might support herbs from a warmer zone, while a windy, exposed area might only suit hardier varieties.

Also, many culinary herbs can be grown indoors, so even if your chosen herb is not well suited to your local climate, you may be able to grow it in your kitchen.

Annual or perennial

Another factor to consider is whether you want annual or perennial herbs:

  • Annual herbs like basil and cilantro complete their life cycle in one growing season and need to be replanted each year.
  • Perennial herbs such as thyme, oregano, and chives come back year after year, providing a long-term addition to your garden.

Here’s a table outlining some commonly grown herbs and their basic requirements:

HerbSunlightWater needsSoil pHAnnual/Perennial
BasilFull sunModerate6.0-7.5Annual
ParsleyFull/partialModerate6.0-7.0Biennial
CilantroFull/partialModerate6.2-6.8Annual
MintFull/partialHigh6.0-7.0Perennial
RosemaryFull sunLow6.0-7.0Perennial
ThymeFull sunLow6.0-8.0Perennial
ChivesFull/partialModerate6.0-7.0Perennial
OreganoFull sunLow6.0-8.0Perennial

For those just starting out, consider beginning with one or two low-maintenance herbs like:

  • Basil: a versatile annual herb perfect for pesto and Italian dishes.
  • Mint: a vigorous perennial great for salads, dressings, teas, and cocktails. It’s best planted in containers to prevent spreading.
  • Parsley: a hardy biennial with both flat-leaf and curly varieties available.
  • Chives: perennial herbs with a mild onion flavor. Very easy to grow and maintain.
  • Thyme: a low-growing perennial that’s relatively drought-tolerant.

Decide where to grow your herbs

Most herbs thrive in areas that receive plenty of sunlight, have good air circulation, and offer well-draining soil. Here are some key factors to consider when selecting a location for your herb garden.

Sunlight

Many popular culinary herbs originate from Mediterranean climates and prefer full sun, which means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily. Herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, and oregano fall into this category. However, some herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and mint can tolerate partial shade. Observe your chosen area throughout the day to ensure it receives adequate sunlight.

Indoors vs. outdoors

Consider whether you want to grow your herbs indoors or outdoors. An outdoor herb garden can be part of your existing landscape, incorporated into a vegetable garden, or planted in a dedicated herb bed.

If you’re short on outdoor space or live in an apartment, many herbs adapt well to indoor cultivation. A sunny windowsill, balcony, or a spot near a south-facing window can work well for indoor herb gardens.

Accessibility

Accessibility is another important factor. Place your herb garden in a location that’s easy to reach, especially if you plan to use your herbs frequently in cooking. Having your herbs close to the kitchen can make harvesting more convenient and encourage regular use.

Garden bed vs container

If you have ample outdoor space and want to establish a permanent herb garden, in-ground beds might be preferable. If you’re renting, have limited space, or want the ability to rearrange your garden easily, containers could be the better choice.

Some herbs, like mint, can be invasive and are best contained in pots.

If you’re planting outdoors, pay attention to the soil quality and drainage in your chosen location.

If growing in containers, use a pot with lots of drainage holes, and choose a good quality potting mix. Don’t use garden soil in pots: It’s too heavy and may contain pests or diseases.

You can plant different herbs together in one large container, but make sure they have similar growing requirements.

Mature size

Lastly, consider the mature size of your herbs when planning your garden layout. Some herbs, like rosemary or sage, can grow quite large over time, so be sure to factor that in when choosing a plating site.

Proper spacing will ensure good air circulation, reducing the risk of fungal diseases and allowing each plant room to flourish.

Seeds or seedlings

Many beginner gardeners prefer to start with seedlings (young plants) from a nursery or garden center. Seedlings provide a quicker start and can be less intimidating for newcomers. However, growing herbs from seeds can be rewarding and cost-effective.

When to start: Most herbs can be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last expected frost in your area. Some fast-growing herbs like basil or cilantro can be started 4 weeks before the last frost.

Direct sowing vs. starting indoors:

  • Direct sowing: Hardy herbs like dill, cilantro, and chervil can be sown directly in the garden after the last frost. This method is simpler but may result in slower growth.
  • Starting indoors: This method gives plants a head start and is ideal for tender herbs or those with longer growing seasons. It’s also useful in areas with short summers.

Starting seeds indoors

  1. Fill small pots or seed trays with seed-starting mix.
  2. Moisten the soil before planting.
  3. Plant seeds at the depth recommended on the packet (usually 1/4 inch deep).
  4. Cover lightly with soil and mist gently.
  5. Place in a warm location (most seeds germinate best around 70°F or 21°C).
  6. Keep soil moist but not waterlogged.
  7. Once seedlings emerge, provide plenty of light.
  8. When seedlings have several true leaves, they’re ready to transplant outdoors.

Planting out seedlings

Plant out seedlings after the risk of frost has passed. Early morning or late afternoon is best to minimize transplant shock.

Follow these steps to give your young herbs the best start in their new home:

  • Hardening off: Before planting, gradually acclimatize your seedlings to outdoor conditions. Over 7-10 days, place them outside for increasingly longer periods, starting with a couple of hours in a sheltered spot and working up to full days in their intended location.
  • Prepare the soil: Ensure the soil is loose and weed-free. Mix in some compost if needed.
  • Dig holes: Make holes slightly larger than the root ball of each seedling. Remember to space your seedlings according to their mature size. Most herb seedlings should be planted 6-12 inches apart, but larger herbs may need more space.
  • Remove seedlings: Gently remove seedlings from their containers. If they’re in biodegradable pots, you can plant these directly, but tear off any portion above the soil line.
  • Plant at the right depth: Place each seedling in its hole at the same depth it was growing in its pot.
  • Backfill and firm: Fill in around the roots with soil and gently press it down to remove air pockets.
  • Water well: Give your newly planted seedlings a thorough watering to help settle the soil around the roots.

Keep an eye on your newly planted seedlings and water regularly until they’re established.

Herb maintenance and care

Watering

  • Most herbs prefer soil that’s moist but not waterlogged.
  • Water deeply but less frequently to encourage deep root growth.
  • Water at the base of the plants to keep leaves dry and prevent diseases.
  • Generally, herbs need about 1 inch of water per week, either from rain or irrigation.
  • Check soil moisture by sticking your finger about an inch into the soil. If it feels dry, it’s time to water.

Pruning

Regularly pinch off the tips of your herbs to encourage bushier growth and prevent flowering, which can affect flavor.

Fertilizing

Herbs generally don’t need much fertilizer. A light application of compost or balanced, water-soluble fertilizer once or twice during the growing season is usually sufficient.

Weeding

Remove weeds regularly to prevent competition for nutrients and water.

Mulching

Apply a thin layer of organic mulch around your herbs to retain moisture and suppress weeds.

Seasonal care

In colder climates, bring tender herbs indoors or provide protection before frost.

In hot climates, provide some shade during the hottest part of the day.

Harvesting your herbs

One of the joys of growing herbs is using them fresh from your garden.

Most herbs can be harvested once they’re 6-8 inches tall and have several sets of leaves.

Here’s how to harvest your herbs for the best flavor and to keep your plants healthy:

  1. Use clean, sharp scissors or pruning shears to avoid damaging the plant.
  2. For leafy herbs (like basil, mint, or cilantro):
    • Cut stems close to a leaf intersection.
    • Take no more than 1/3 of the plant at a time.
  3. For woody herbs (like rosemary or thyme):
    • Snip off the top 2-3 inches of growth.
    • Avoid cutting into woody stems.

Remember, the more you harvest (within reason), the more your herbs will grow. Don’t be afraid to use your herbs regularly – that’s what they’re there for!

Tips:

  • Regular harvesting encourages bushier growth and higher yield.
  • Harvest often to prevent flowering, which can change the herb’s flavor.
  • If your herb does flower, you can still use the leaves, but the flavor may be slightly different.
  • Some herb flowers, like chives or basil, are edible and can add flavor and color to dishes.

Troubleshooting common problems

Even with the best care, herb gardens can sometimes face challenges. Here are some common problems and simple solutions:

  • Cause: Often due to overwatering or poor drainage.
  • Solution: Reduce watering frequency and ensure good drainage.
  • Cause: Usually underwatering, but can also be overwatering.
  • Solution: Check soil moisture. Water if dry, or improve drainage if soil is soggy.
  • Cause: Insufficient light.
  • Solution: Move plants to a sunnier spot or provide supplemental lighting.
  • Cause: Poor soil nutrients or incorrect pH.
  • Solution: Add a light layer of compost or use a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer.
  • Cause: Hot weather or stress.
  • Solution: Harvest regularly and provide some shade in hot weather.
  • Cause: Underwatering or low humidity.
  • Solution: Water more frequently and consider misting plants.
  • Cause: Frost damage or poor winter protection.
  • Solution: Bring tender herbs indoors or provide winter protection for hardier varieties.
  • Aphids: Spray plants with water or use insecticidal soap.
  • Slugs: Set up beer traps or use diatomaceous earth around plants.
  • Powdery Mildew: Improve air flow, avoid wetting leaves when watering, and remove affected parts.
  • Cause: Over-fertilization or too much shade.
  • Solution: Reduce fertilizer and ensure plants get enough sunlight.