How to start a herb garden at home

As spring has well and truly sprung, and will soon sidle into summer, you’ll be wanting to while away the hours outdoors, whether that be on a balcony, backyard, or garden. 

With most of us having spent the last few months largely cooped up, it’s extra important that we make sure we’re getting daily Vitamin D from sunlight to maintain healthy bones, teeth, muscles, and immune systems. 

For your outdoor space to be a pleasant spot to plan the day ahead - and unwind at the end of it -  it should shape/create a sense/feeling of mental clarity and calm. We think, feel and sleep better when our environment is organized. The human mind tends to exaggerate mess, causing it to be a lingering distraction. It’s not ideal to keep spotting the remains of long-forgotten dog toys and knotted weeds out of the corner of your eye while you’re trying to enjoy your morning coffee. Luckily, spring is the perfect time to sow and grow. To transform your outdoor space from a tangle of undone tasks into a fragrant haven, there’s nowhere better to start than setting up a herb garden. 

Give mealtimes a helping hand 

Growing your own herbs is the perfect first foray into cultivating your own produce. Hardy and easy to tend to, once you use homegrown herbs in your cooking you’ll wonder why you didn’t ditch the bland freeze-dried versions sooner. Store-bought fresh herbs in packets aren’t very cost-effective and tend to have a short fridge life, seeming to mulch within minutes. 

To start off, do a bit of research to find out which types of herbs will make the most of the space you have. Some varieties are perfectly suited to plant beds, whilst others - like mint - spread very easily so might be better kept in a pot. All herbs need is the watering, sunlight, well-draining soil, and a little fertilizer or compost. 

Most herbs are well suited to the sun, and won’t get frazzled or droop unless the temperature goes above 90°. If you live somewhere with hot summers that outshine that, try and plant them somewhere where they’ll get half a day of sunlight and half a day of shade.

There are so many easy, outdoorsy dishes that make a flavourful herb the headline attraction: Big bowls of tabbouleh stirred through with finely chopped parsley, a Caprese salad with freshly torn basil, whole sprigs of mint which seem to make every iced pitcher that much more thirst-quenching. 

To plant herbs directly into the soil 

If you’re going to put your starter herbs straight into beds rather than in containers, the most important thing is that they have enough room to grow. This info is readily available online for each variety,  but here’s a rough guide for how much space the herbs you’re likely to want to start with will need:

1 foot - Parsley, cilantro
2 feet - Thyme, basil
Between 3-4 feet - Mint, rosemary, oregano, sage

Loosen the soil with a garden fork to non-compact it, which makes sure water can drain through properly and that roots have to wriggle room. 

Top the loosened soil with a layer of compost or vegetable fertilizer, around an inch of coverage is enough, and then fold it through with a small garden fork or trowel. 

Dig a hole and plant your starter herb, surrounding its edges snugly with soil. The easiest way to know when your plant needs watering is to stick a finger into the soil. If it’s dry where your fingertip reaches, then it needs watering. To be the best plant parent you can be, it’s always best to check the soil often, rather than guessing, as temperature and humidity fluctuations affect how often you need to water. 

The time to start harvesting is when your plant has grown to be at least 8” tall. Do a quick search to determine where to take cuttings from for each plant, as this varies depending on where the new leaves grow from. Pruning in the right place will help the leaves regrow faster and make sure you get a bumper crop for your cooking. 

Planting in pots

No garden? Not a problem. Herbs aren’t fussy about where they live, as long as they’re warm, have enough light and ample elbow room to grow. They’ll thrive happily in window boxes, on balconies, decks and on paved patios.

First up, fill your container of choice with potting soil and top up with fertilizer per the packet instructions. An 8” diameter is the minimum you need for the plant to start off with. You can use a ceramic or plastic pot, but I would always recommend going for the former. The natural finish of terracotta, or any other ceramic, looks and lasts better than the flimsier plastic alternatives.  

Add enough water for the soil to dampen the soil throughout the container. Dig a hole big enough to transplant your herb from its starter container. If you don’t want water leaking onto the surface it’s placed on, place the container on a saucer or tray. If you’re using larger planters, you can pot different varieties of compatible herbs together - grouping ones that require roughly the same amount of watering.

To move your fledgling herbs from their starter containers, turn them upside down, gently hold the base of the plant, and tap on the bottom of the pot to release. Place it in its new pot and just as you would in a plant bed, surround all edges with soil. Give it its first drink of water straight away, and from then on in just water when you notice that the soil is dry to touch. 

So...what to grow? 

Rosemary is an evergreen that is low maintenance and can handle both hot and cold temperatures. When in bloom it encourages pollinators like bees to your garden, whilst the distinct, robust aroma we savor actually discourages pests. Just a few sprigs can completely revamp your mealtime staples, pairing particularly well with roasted root vegetables or as a fragrant addition on homemade pizzas and bread.

Basil doesn’t take kindly to cold, so make sure you plant the seedlings when the ground is warm, or you can grow it in pots so that you can bring it indoors in winter and enjoy this salad staple all year round. Blitz basil and parsley into fresh spring pesto and salsa verde to create versatile sauces for stirring through pasta dishes and dolloping onto grilled fish or chicken.  

Plant mint in pots to contain the roots as it can otherwise quickly take over. Use the leaves for refreshing pitchers of frozen mint lemonade and classy concoctions like Cucumber Mint Gimlets and Mint-ginger Caipiroskas for your own at home happy hour.

Please share with us anything you grow in your garden.

Josie from Essen Team

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