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Tips for Growing Herbs

Date:7/14/2021
Author:Terry Baldwin
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up-close  view of basil growing in an outdoor herb garden

If you cook with fresh herbs, you know 2 things: 1) that herbs boost the flavor of even the simplest dish, and 2) store-bought fresh herbs are not cheap!

Solution? Grow you own. Then you can inexpensively and lavishly season your food with fresh and dried herbs all year long.

You don't need a yard to grow herbs. You can keep it small and grow a few plants in pots. If you're lucky enough to have the space, you can go all in and plant many varieties in a raised or in-ground bed.

To get the most out of your herb garden, follow these tips.

looking down on a herb garden with basil, fennel, tarragon, dill, eucalyptus, parsley, and oregano 

Best Location for Herb Gardens

To get the best flavor and fragrance, place your herbs where they’ll get plenty of sun. Most herbs need a minimum 6 of sun, the more the better.

Sunlight causes essential oils to develop. These oils are responsible for flavor and fragrance. So, more sun exposure = better taste and scent, according to Jill McKenzie and Shirley Mah Kooyman of the University of Minnesota.

Best Soil for Herb Gardens

Most herbs are not picky about soil, preferring average, sometimes poor, soils. In fact, rich soil will not give you the best results. Why? Extremely fertile soil causes herbs to produce too many leaves with weak flavor (University of Maryland Extension).

Avoid clay soil. Water drains poorly from clay soils, which can cause your herbs to rot. You’ll either need to amend the soil to correct drainage, or plant in pots or raised beds.

If you go the raised bed/container route, use a soilless mix blended with some compost for best results.

Containers must have drainage holes. Ideally, raised beds will have open bottoms.

Caring for Your Herb Garden

Most herbs don’t require heavy watering. For container-grown plants, stick your finger into the soil and water when the top inch or two feels dry.

Herbs in beds should be watered when the top few inches of soil are dry. Water until the top 6-8 inches of soil are moist. Too much water will rot the root and weaken flavor. (Penn State University Extension.)

You can fertilize herbs lightly (see rich soils, above) with a liquid fertilizer at half strength every 3-4 weeks (University of Minnesota Extension), but usually just compost is enough.

For detailed information on growing specific herbs where you live, check your area university extension.

Avoid pesticides if you'll be eating your herbs. Pick off troublemakers. Remove and throw away (don’t compost) leaves with yellow or brown splotches—this indicates a fungus.

gray fungus spots on thai basil leaf 
Thai basil leaf with fungal disease

Are critters devouring your dill and parsley before you have a chance? Fencing is your best hope. A cheap (but not pretty) way is to surround your garden with chicken wire or plastic netting (just make sure you can reach the plants). Black or dark green fence material is less noticeable.

chicken wire around a herb garden in a metal stock tank
Chicken wire, an unattractive but effective way of keeping bunnies out of the parsley

Harvesting Herbs

The more you pick bushy herbs, the more they’ll grow, so harvest often. To get the most essential oils, the University of Missouri Extension advises cutting herbs in the morning after the dew has dried, preferably when the weather has been sunny for a few days in a row.

Snip stems just above a set of new leaves to encourage branching and growth.

a white circle is around 2 sets of small leaves on a stem of thai basil
Cut above a pair of new leaves

Storing fresh herbs in plastic bags can cause them to spoil quickly. I put mine in a jar of water and store it in the fridge. Bonus: some herbs, such as basil, will grow roots when placed in water, giving you another plant!

Flowering can signal plants to stop growing, so remove blooms from plants such as basil and oregano and put them in bouquets.

On the other hand, you may want the flowers from herbs that produce tasty seeds, such as fennel and dill. In this case, let them flower and go to seed. Snip the green seed heads when they begin turning brown.

closeup view of 2 yellow fennel flower heads in a garden
Fennel flower umbels that will produce fennel seed

Preserving Herbs

To preserve herbs, you can dry or freeze them. Garden writer Margaret Roach has several ways to freeze herbs.

To dry, hang bunches upside down or place stems on screens in a dark, dry, airy location. I clip my bunches to wire hangers with clothes pins and binder clips and hang them in a little-used closet. This works well for me.

It helps to label the plants—once dry, they look similar!

2 bunches of herbs, tarragon and basil, hanging with clothes pins on a wire coat hanger 

Microwaving is another drying method. However, the University of Minnesota Extension says that herbs lose more of those desirable essential oils when dried this way. Maybe you have another method? Let us know!

To preserve seeds for culinary use, the University of Maryland Extension recommends drying seed heads on cloth or paper and, when partly dry, rubbing them gently to remove dirt and hulls. You can also put seed heads inside paper bags to dry.

3 small glass jars of herbs on a gray and white kitchen towel 

When completely dry, put your bounty into jars with tight-fitting lids (I reuse old spice jars and small condiment jars). If it’s a humid day and the herbs feel damp, give them a few minutes of extra drying time on a cookie sheet in a 125° oven (University of Missouri Extension).

Label jars with the plant name and date, so you’ll use up your oldest herbs first.

RESOURCES

Growing Herbs Outdoors, Penn State University Extension

Growing Herbs at Home, University of Missouri Extension

Growing and Using Herbs, Michigan State University Extension

Growing Herbs in Home Gardens, University of Minnesota Extension

10 Herbs to Start Growing, the Chicago Botanic Garden

Care of Herbs and Starting Herbs from Seed, University of Maryland Extension

 

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