A Basic Herb Garden:
The Perfect Starter Garden
Planting a basic herb garden is the fastest and most satisfying way to start your edible garden. On one hand, many herbs are perennial, meaning you’ll have years of joy from one weekend’s work. On the other, they are fairly inexpensive, so if you decide to dig it all up and move it around three times and then somebody dies, you can skip the regret and the gnashing-of-teeth.
To start your herb garden design process, you’ll need two lists: your favorite herbs to cook with, and a list of possible bed locations. For that second list, include the specific conditions, ranking it sunny to shady, wet to dry.
Want to add edible plants to an existing rose garden or shrub border? Herbs are tops when it comes to companion planting. Herbs and edible flowers.
Your favorite herbs are very likely to cluster themselves by what kind of kitchen you ru
Growing athletes in the house? Try growing herbs for pastas and pizzas outside the house in a kitchen herb garden: oregano, sage, thyme.
Like a good cup of herbal tea on a summer afternoon? An herb tea garden would include mints, chamomile, and lemon balm, for sure.
More the home medicinal herbalist? Add feverfew near a doorway, comfrey and borage by the beans, and calendula around the tomatoes. (Want to be more than an amateur herbalist?)
These practical and culinary takes on the basic herb garden are often part of a larger potager, but they don’t have to be. Even the most basic herb garden can stand on its own, or get mixed into the crush of what you already grow.
The most popular herbs to start with are basil, garlic, dill, mint, fennel, cilantro, oregano, chives, chamomile, lavender, and (sing it with me) parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
Using these as our core basic herb garden, we can build a base of understanding, adding new herbs easily with these basics under our belt(s).
Which Herbs Where?
There are four considerations for where to place herbs:
•How much sun?
•How tall? ..and
•Who are the ‘neighbors’?
Sun or Shade?
Close your eyes and think of Italy… hot sun… Italian foods… basil, oregano, garlic… These are must-have-sun herbs. This is where they thrive, and where they taste best. Add to this list fennel, chamomile, and cilantro.
Mentally, move further north, into northern France, windy, overcast… Baked potatos and roasted things… Parsley, chives, sage… These are herbs that tolerate partial shade, dappled shade, or high shade. Here, add in ginger, the mints, and, on the border lands, dill.
This can be a handy division, especially in the case of dill and fennel, which will cross pollinate and produce a strange tasting seed if they are too close together. Put the dill on the north and east sides of the house, and let fennel have the south and west.
Wet or Dry?
Again, different herbs like different conditions and many wet and dry situations are built naturally into our homes.
Rosemary and lavender are cousins, and woe is she who soaks the feet of either one. On the other hand, basil’s cousin, growing the water-loving mint where the hose drains is a classic (and mint, being more than a lil’ pushy, is better off where you can harrass it back in line).
When the right combo is missing, however, you can adjust this right in the bed of your garden, creating a mound or digging a little depression any time you want.
Every garden has a vantage point, somewhere the viewer is expected to be. The tall herbs, like mammoth
dill and lovage, need to be sequestered to where they
(a) won’t block the view to other herbs, and
(b) won’t block the sun for the other herbs (unless you’re growing a little shade for somebody in particular.)
Our example core falls into these basic groups (with varieties that are much smaller and much taller for each):
Parsley (year one! see side column)
What other plants are nearby?
This is a cross-pollination issue on one hand (see the
fennel and dill warning above) and a companion planting issue on the other.
A companion planting example: Borage is a lovely herb with the most gorgeous edible blue flowers, but if you plant it near your squash plants, it may snag the squash vine borer and turn to a sticky black mess overnight. (If this happens, rip it out and check your squash vines closely.)
This type of ‘trap plant’ can be used on purpose, but it’s not the only relationship plants can have with each other. Roses and borage get along great and both have edible flowers! Yum!
Onions (chives, garlic, etc) are not popular with the other garden plants. As a rule, they don’t get along with beans and peas, are not on good terms with tomatoes, and occassionally argue with each other. Tasty but testy.
Dill, fennel, and their cousin anise are not on good terms with tomatoes and beans either in general, though they do great with the lettuces and cabbages.
But it’s not the herbs’s fault! Beans and tomatoes are very picky vegetables. Squeaky wheel gets its own garden bed? Not necessarily.
Beans ARE good with rosemary and sage, celery, cucumber, lettuces, and corn. Tomatoes like most of their non-onion crock pot friends: basil and oregano, eggplants, peppers, etc.
We’ll do more with companion planting on other pages. The hardcore version of this are the permaculture guilds. We’ll get there. In both cases, it is easier to remember things by families and groups than one by one. As you ramp up over the years, keep an eye out for these concepts.
In the meantime, visit our Harvest Time page for recipes and tips for eating now or for freezing or drying herbs. You can enjoy even the most basic herb garden year round.
Remember: Start Where You Are At!
There’s nothing wrong with having a first garden. Every gardener out there did.
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Bonus Link for the Aspiring Herbalist: Lesley Tierra is my herbalist hero. She and Michael Tierra have opened the only school I know of that teaches Western, Chinese, and Ayurvedic herbal medicine traditions all together, a method known as Planetary Herbology.
Parsley is biennial.
It’ll be cute and tasty year one, huge and a little bitter year two. Most folks treat parsley as an annual, but some gardeners dig it up the second spring and move it further back in the garden bed.
Here, it grows huge with delicate flowers, eventually producing seed heads that can be saved and used to grow fresh ‘year one parsley’ next year. After buying parsley the first two years, these gardeners have created a perpetual cycle of abundance.