Basic Wisdom for Your Herb Garden

By Angelica Frey

Whether you plan to plant herbs in your backyard or keep your garden confined to a sunlit windowsill, here is some basic wisdom for your herb garden.

Seeds or starter plant?

There is no consensus on whether you’re better off starting with seeds or a starter plant. Seeds are certainly more time consuming, but they do offer advantages—you can plant a wider variety of plants at low cost, and you’ll be able to swap seeds with fellow plant enthusiasts, which will enrich your herb collection.

Keep in mind that raising a plant from seed is quite a delicate operation, requiring specific, space-consuming tools (containers, trays, and grow lights). Too much water, the wrong amount of light, or a random bout of negligence can easily sabotage the seedling.

If you’re impatient to get your garden going or don’t have the strongest green thumb, we recommend beginning with a starter plant from a local nursery.

Caring essentials for your herb garden

Unlike many hearty house plants that need only one substantial watering per week, herbs do better with consistent, moderate watering. Water when the top inch or so of soil is dry, and remember that slight neglect is better than overdoing it—waterlogged roots are a quick way to kill your herbs. Luckily, plants like basil will indicate quite clearly when they’ve been overwatered by producing yellowed leaves at the base.

As for sun exposure, herbs generally need five to six hours of sun, which triggers the production of their distinctive essential oils.

Best herbs for beginners

The amateur gardener may need gateway herbs to get their herb garden going. Basil, chives, and mint are great starters.

1. Basil

Basil grows enthusiastically; produces a warm, peppery smell; and is an essential ingredient in plenty of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. It’s also quite communicative of its needs: basil will immediately look wilted if it needs to be watered.

Cut off the top leaves instead of the bottom to maintain health and avoid a spindly plant, and trim before its flowers bloom—otherwise it will stop producing leaves. Keep in mind that basil grows best in a deep pot, as its roots need depth to thrive.

2. Chives

Although a close relative of garlic and shallot, chives are often used like herbs and can be grown—as easily as basil—under the same guidance. This sunlight-craving plant produces beautiful, pom-pom-like purple flowers.

Chives are vitamin-rich and contain organosulfur compounds that help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Its leaves are a milder-tasting culinary substitute for onions. What’s more, its blossoms, grass-like hollow leaves, and bulbs are all edible—ever heard of chive blossom vinegar?

3. Mint

Mint is a stalwart in any herb garden but if not properly tended to, it will cannibalize more docile plant neighbors. Be sure to keep it in individual containers, or if planted in a garden bed, that any type of edging, whether metal or plastic, is buried quite deeply in order to avoid lateral spreading. If you want your mint to grow less aggressively, plant it in partial shadow.

Left Basil

Right Chives in bloom

Herbs love teamwork

Most herbs make great growing companions, both to vegetable plants and other herbs. When choosing which plants to pair, beware of combining only those that need a similar amount of water. Rosemary and sage make a great team, and cilantro can truly flourish when grown alongside caraway, anise, and dill.

Fennel repels aphids and fleas and attracts good pollinators, and is well planted in full sunlight along with its cousins caraway and dill.

The citrusy scents of lemongrass and lemon balm are a natural insect repellent—to the point that citronella-scented candles are sold for this very purpose.

Left Yarrow

Right Wild garlic

Add weeds to your herb garden

While weeds are typically thought of as erratic and damaging plants fit only to be pulled, many have beneficial properties—and some even produce beautiful blooms. Dandelions, yarrow, and wild garlic are wonderful additions to an herb garden.

1. Dandelion

Dandelion—rich in vitamins and minerals, like iron, potassium, and zinc—are natural fertilizers that prevent soil erosion. Dandelions also have cleansing properties, so try a cup of toxin-flushing dandelion tea.

2. Yarrow

Yarrow is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and appears in remedies for hay fever, the common cold, GI discomfort, and toothaches—just to name a few. Not only that, its leaves make a great addition to salad.

3. Wild garlic

Wild garlic—also known as ramsons, Bear leek, Bear’s garlic, buckrams, or broad-leaved garlic—is another highly useful herb often considered a weed. This plant is actually a close relative of the chive and not strictly an herb.

Not only does wild garlic produce blossoms of delicate white flowers, but it lowers blood pressure and can work wonders in the home. Its oil can be applied to insect bites and stings, and its tea has been used to treat coughs. Wild garlic leaves can be eaten raw or lightly cooked and—more subtle than cultivated garlic—its flavor is reminiscent of mild onion.

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