Learning to Love Your Herb Garden

May  2, 2012

This is the ninth in our biweekly series from Amy Pennington — urban farmer, founder of GoGo Green Garden, and author of Urban Pantry and Apartment Gardening — on how to start growing your own food, no matter how tiny your garden-to-be is.

Today: Amy gets us started on our herb gardens in outdoor beds and in pots -- with some Destiny's Child lyrics thrown in there, too.

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Happy May Day! I switched gears this week and decided we needed to chat about herbs instead of intensive gardening techniques. Herbs should be planted now and will really make your kitchen sing. Additionally, this is a great project for anyone with either a yard or a small balcony. Stay tuned next week when we get back on track, but for now, read on so that your kitchens are always stocked and your garden is always in bloom.

‘Cause My Gardens too Herbalicious for You, Babe
The ultimate goal is for a garden is to be productive. This ensures there will always be something to harvest -- leaf, flower, or seed -- that you can use in the kitchen. When growing, choose a mix of annual plants (like most vegetables) that will run through their life cycle in one season, as well as perennials (like many herbs) that will continue to come back year after year.

Kitchen herb bed, just to the side of the grill

You can also accomplish this nice rotation by allowing annual plants to drop their seed so you’re not starting completely from scratch every spring. Parsley is a great example of this, as parsley is a biennial plant. That means its life cycle spans two years at the end of which it sends up a flower and goes to seed. You can collect some seed for your spice pantry, but let most of it drop. By next spring, you’ll have parsley sprouts before you even remember to plant and the cycle starts all over again. It’s a satisfying experience to see your garden getting started before you’ve even had time to think about planting and planning.

Herbs are fairly easy to grow in a garden bed, a container, or even earth that has been uncultivated. (Meaning, you just stick the plant in some random patch of open soil because you don’t have time or energy to be twaddling around in the garden.) Many return year after year, signaling spring’s arrival. (When your perennial herbs come back it’s a great sign that the rest of the garden should be planted. No more figuring out your last frost date!) You can overwinter perennial herbs and most will come back in spring even when neglected over winter -- a great choice for the lazy gardener.

Chives, thyme, and raspberries

Herbs in Garden Beds
Anytime I plant a garden, I make sure to hold a place for a perennial bed. These plants are the ones that come back year after year and are often successful regardless of how much I neglect them. It also spares a gardener from working around stationery plants in a rotating vegetable bed. Herbs do well in borders and areas where they can really branch out and grow. If given the opportunity, many herbs will grow tall or wide -- a lovage plant in well-tilled soil can grow over 6 feet tall, whereas the lovage I grow in a large pot never tops more than a foot.

Herbs grown outside of garden beds

In the northern hemisphere, plant beds so your tallest herb is in the northern most end. This prevents tall herbs from shadowing smaller herbs as the earth rocks back and forth through spring, summer and fall. To grow herbs in a garden bed, be sure you till and break up the earth, leaving them lots of soft room to root out and grow. After you’ve cultivated your bed once, you’ll never have to do it again. If you’re a really lazy gardener and just stick your herb in a rudimentary hole, they will probably still live, though the plant may be stressed or slow to produce.

Herbs in Pots
Herbs require varying pot sizes, depending on their root systems. When planting for the first time, be sure to give plants plenty of space to stretch their roots and grow, as you will have them in your garden for longer than a year. The bigger the pot, the more herb you’ll have to harvest, so select your favorites and give them some space.

Herbs that have been in the same pot for years will benefit from fresh soil -- existing soil tends to becomes dry and caked over time. (I work directly on my deck and keep a dishpan and brush close by for sweeping up any soil that gets away.)

• Tip out the entire plant and free up any root balls that have formed.
• Break up and loosen the root ball with your fingers to free up the soil and roots.
• Then, scoop in enough fresh potting mix to cover the bottom of the container so that the plant stem is level with the container rim.
• Set down the herb and fill in the pot with fresh potting mix, holding the plant straight and firming the mix around the roots to stabilize it.
• Water well.

Transplanting herbs to a larger container will allow the plant to grow and thereby increase your overall harvest. You have to decide if transplanting is the best option for you. Want more production? Then the herb will need more space. If it was the perfect amount of harvestable plant, stick with the same container.

Using Herbs
Herbs are most definitely the champion plants in any garden: no matter how much you harvest, they keep on giving. Herbs are potent little plants with lovely-scented oils that ensure your kitchen will never be lacking with bunches of fresh stems and branches on hand. Further, herbs will grow back quickly when harvested and actually need some healthy pruning, so they are a great impetus for getting in the kitchen and getting creative. Also, at home you can grow far more herbs than are available commercially -- a perk for any food lover! (See how to make fresh herbal teas with Sunset magazine editor Margo True.)

More often than not, I cook because I have to use something -- herbs force kitchen time along on days I would otherwise not make time to cook. And even on days or weeks where you really, really don’t have time to cook you should still harvest herbs regularly -- herbs can be dried or infused to extend their life outside of the garden.

Picking Your Herbs
This is the fun part. The usual suspects, the workhorses of the herb world, are Chive, Thyme, Sage, Oregano, and Mint. Want to try something new? Lemon Verbena, Anise Hyssop, Caraway, Lemon Thyme, and Marjoram are all awesome herbs to consider planting. (As a reminder: here's seed starting 101, plus the basics of container gardening.)

Next up in City Dirt, we discuss many more Intensive Gardening options (awesome for urban gardeners and for gardeners who don't want to spend the summer weeding!), along with companion planting and some other practices that you've asked about in the comments. Keep those questions coming!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • plantsondeck
  • Ruhht
  • Margit Van Schaick
    Margit Van Schaick
  • aargersi
  • Amy Pennington
    Amy Pennington
I am a cook and food writer, author & gardener who is passionate about the environment, using sustainable resources, reducing my impact on the earth and making conscious food choices that are both smart for the planet and taste fantastic. When I'm not knee deep in dirt growing food, you can find me in the kitchen where I'm likely standing over a canning pot or staring up in to my pantry deciding what to make. In the gardens, I have a business gogo green garden, wherein I build, plant & tend edible gardens for folks in their urban backyards. I also launched a garden-sharing website in 2009 that connects urban gardeners to unused garden space across the country - Check it out!


plantsondeck May 9, 2012
Thanks for the inspirational nudge. I tend an unloved community pocket garden that just may get enough sun to become a wee herb garden. At least I hope so...basil, parsley, tarragon, chives, rosemary, sage, and mint have already been planted.
Ruhht May 7, 2012
Great initiative and gorgeous garden! Very inspiring. :)
Margit V. May 3, 2012
Amy, please make a list of herbs which are especially useful in cooking delicious meals and some tips as to how many of each would supply an adequate amount . (I'm commenting again because I love herbs so much and find that they add so much deliciousness as well as high levels of anti-oxidants to food.). Personally, my goal in the herb garden is to have ABUNDANCE--loads of basil, for example, so that I can make lots of pesto, while it is in season and storing in the freezer for Winter, to add to pasta or soups or as a flavor base, whenever I feel like a taste os Summer! To get that much basil, I recommend starting seeds over two or three intervals during warm weather, so you have a new crop coming along, and keeping up with picking the crop that's ready on a daily basis. I also love Rosemary, and grow at least 4-5 plants in order to have a sufficient supply. I bring hem indoors for the Winter, and if you're lucky enough to have a cool, bright spot in your home, the Rosemary may survive. Right now, I have one flourishing plant, which will go outside when all danger of frost is gone. I could go on and on, but would love to hear from you about which perennials survive best in Zone 4 and 5, and whether getting plant starts or direct-seeding is recommended. Also, about storing herbs in the freezer.
Margit V. May 2, 2012
Oh, do love mint-- it's wonderful with rice, cabbage, salads, tea, also in baking. Sorbet and jelly. There are several kinds, different flavors--even a chocolate mint. They are well worth growing.
Amy P. May 7, 2012
I love mint, too! I'm particularly fond of Kentucky Colonel Mint, as the leaves are large and soft - great for recipes. As for chocolate mint....I've never found a flavor I like. Have you?!?! Do tell!
Margit V. May 2, 2012
Remember that mint is a "thug". Absolutely never plant it anywhere except in a container where, no matter if it's a large pot or an entire 4x8 raised bed container, it will soon take over the whole thing! You even have to be careful that it doesn't "jump ship" and start growing outside the container. It could conceivably take over your whole garden! This advice comes from making the mistake that I could "manage" to keep mint in line! Wrong!!
aargersi May 3, 2012
Mine did just that! Naughty mint! I had it in a pot then I turned around and it was coming up on the other side of the yard! I just keep pulling the runners and eating the leaves, it a sort of standoff - it grows as fast as it can and I keep pulling and clipping ... at least I have loads of mint for cooking!
aargersi May 2, 2012
Fresh picked herbs make SUCH a difference! Things I have learned: Shiso roots - you can grow your own plant by rooting the bunch you drove to the other side of town to buy. Chives are cheerful little multipliers. Let them go to seed. Watch chives come up everywhere including the neighbors yard. Mint sneaks off and plants itself elsewhere. Then it sends out root runner things and takes over. Then you dig those up, pot them, and share with friends and family.
Now I am going to go outside to play