The rewards of growing herbs are far greater than with other plants. Other plants in the garden are mostly planted for their decorative value. Herbs, on the other hand, can also be used for a myriad of other purposes that stretch from flavouring your food to curing your flu to ridding your home of insects.
Herbs are some of the easiest, most grateful plants to grow. If you follow the following basic guidelines for how to start your own herb garden in this article, they will richly reward you with their flavours and aromas.
Location: Where to Start Your Own Herb Garden
The ideal site for a herb garden is a sunny, open but sheltered spot with well-drained fertile soil. As far as possible it should be free from weeds and overhanging trees and have good access to the house so that the herbs can be harvested in all weather.
Most of the herbs that we can successfully grow in South Africa originated in the warmer climates of the world where they grow in full sun. It is these conditions that we must create for them. The minimum requirement is four to seven hours of direct sun per day.
Remember that your herbs will grow well even if they get less sun. They may tend to grow scraggly and will be more susceptible to diseases, but with a little extra attention they will still be successful.
Herbs are like most people: they do not like to have ‘wet feet.’ It is very important that your soil have good drainage. Most herbs will survive in poor sandy soil, but few will tolerate wet clay soil.
Culinary herbs should be planted away from possible contamination by pets, roadside pollution and agricultural sprays.
Herb Garden Ideas
The appeal of a small formal herb garden remains timeless. Formal designs are based on geometric patterns, which are framed by low hedges and paved paths. For maximum impact each bed is planted with one kind of herb, giving bold blocks of colour and texture.
Paving is an essential element, accentuating the formal lines and geometric design. Natural shades, like sand, terracotta or grey, contrast beautifully with the herbs, adding to the design element. The pathways and stepping stones also provide access to the herbs for ease of harvesting.
Herb Planting Tips
Prepare the ground well in advance, remove weeds (they compete for nutrition), fork in organic matter, such as compost, and rake the soil so that the bed is level. You don’t need to add large amounts of manure or fertiliser because that produces soft growth. The article on site preparation will give you some additional tips on the preparation of your herb garden.
Before transplanting herbs out of their “nursery” pots into the ground, water the pots well because a dry rootball is difficult to wet thoroughly once it is in the ground.
Because “nursery” pots are small, herbs tend to become root bound. To encourage new root growth gently loosen the root ball before planting in the ground. Pinch out the tips of shrubby herbs, like thyme, to encourage bushy growth. Add some bone meal or fishmeal at the bottom of each planting hole.
If you are using a planting plan, first set the herbs in their positions. It is easier to move them around while they are still in their pots, rather than having to transplant them later. Space them according to their expected height and spread so they have room to develop.
After planting firm the soil gently around the plant and water thoroughly to settle the soil and give the herb a good start.
Some herbs, like spearmint, can be invasive. Restrict their spread by planting them in sunken containers. Remove any spreading material immediately. Repot them yearly with fresh soil.
Caring for Your Herb Garden
Water newly planted herbs regularly but once they are established, they are naturally drought resistant. Watering and drainage goes hand in hand. Rather give your herbs too little than too much water. After a good soaking, allow the water to drain away and the soil to dry off. Water again when the top 2 or 3 cm of soil is dry to the touch.
Mulch your herbs once a year with bulky organic material, such as shredded bark.
Fertilizing is very important, especially if you intend to use your herbs on a regular basis. During the growing season (August to April in the Southern hemisphere) fertilize at least once a month. During the winter months one or two doses will be sufficient. Inorganic fertilizing and heavy composting is not recommended because this produces sappy growth that’s more prone to disease and pests.
Use any balanced fertilizer like 2:3:2. Always halve the dosage given on the packaging. The reason for this is that the essential oils of herbs that ‘suffer’ a bit are more concentrated, increasing their flavour, aroma and medicinal value.
If your herbs get too much fertilizer they will grow scraggly and be more susceptible to pests and diseases. Please note: If you are growing herbs for medicinal purposes do not use chemical fertilizer. Use organics. You can also make your own compost tea.
Pruning is essential to encourage healthy, bushy growth. Remove dead leaves and flowers on a regular basis. Should you frequently use your herbs, pruning may not be necessary as you would be pruning automatically.
Herbs are not very prone to pests but if you do have an infestation (aphids, red spider, white fly) either cut back the herbs or use an organic pesticide.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Collect small quantities of herbs at a time and handle them as little as possible.
Do not cut herbs at random. Take the opportunity to pinch out or prune the plant at the same time, removing unwanted shoots and encouraging bushiness. Use a sharp knife or scissors, do not break, bend or tear off the branches. Always harvest from clean, healthy plants in peak condition.
Visit the Green Living Store for a range of organic herb and veggie seeds.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in January 2015, and has been updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.