Where to Begin With Herbs for Your Garden?
For the last several years, I have grown the usual herbs – basil, rosemary, and thyme – in containers on the patio just off my kitchen. I wanted to continue growing these culinary herbs that I bought from local nurseries, but I was interested in trying some new ones.
After seeing some herb gardens in our area, I was tempted to grow herbs directly in the garden. I also liked the idea of interspersing some ornamental herbs among the culinary herbs.
However, after much research, I decided to continue growing my herbs in their patio containers because of the convenience of having the fresh herbs close at hand during meal time and the ease of caring for them.
That shouldn’t dissuade those of you willing to venture farther into the garden.
Some Things to Consider
Types of Herbs: What type of herbs do you want in your garden? Do you want herbs for culinary or ornamental use or both? Unless you have a lot of room, choose the herbs you will use the most or enjoy looking at. In my garden this year, I planted basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, chives and mint for culinary use, and provence lavender (which has purple blooms) and pineapple sage (which will bear red flowers this summer) for ornamental beauty.
Location: Decide where you want to plant your herbs. You can grow a garden solely devoted to herbs, or you can grow herbs alongside or amidst other plants in your yard, where they will add color and texture. Many people grow herbs in containers as they do not have sufficient garden space or value the convenience. For information on types of containers, size of pots for various herbs, soil and planting, see Cornell’s website.
Most herbs do best in a sunny location where they will receive at least 6 hours of sun a day. A few species, such as angelica, woodruff and sweet cicely, prefer partial shade, which means 3 to 6 hours of sun a day.
Herbs like good drainage. If you are planting in containers, make sure the containers have drainage holes on the bottom or sides. I place pot feet at the bottoms of my containers to allow excess water to drain.
Some herbs, such as basil, mint and lovage do best in moist soil. Others, including rosemary and thyme, prefer rather dry soil. If you are planting herbs in containers, for purposes of watering, you will want to separate the moisture loving plants from those that like dry soil. Read the label which comes with the plant for more information.
Hardiness: The term “cold hardiness” in gardening means tolerance to cold. Larchmont is in zone 6. While many perennial herbs are hardy in our zone, there are some which are not, including rosemary, marjoram, Greek oregano and lemon verbena. Non-hardy herbs need to overwinter indoors.
Varieties: When you are looking for herbs, you will often see a number of varieties for each species. Take mint, as an example. You can plant spearmint, peppermint, Corsican, apple, pineapple, mountain and chocolate mint, among others. Spearmint and peppermint can reach 2 ½ and 3 feet respectively in height. Corsican mint is a low creeping perennial that grows to about 1 inch high. Also note that mint is invasive and propagates through runners. To help contain the plant, grow mint in containers or in plastic pots with drainage holes, buried in the ground, with the rim of the pot projecting 3 to 4 inches above the surface of the soil.
When choosing varieties of a particular herb, consider the flavor of the herbs you want to use in your kitchen. Greek oregano, for example, has a distinctively stronger flavor than Italian oregano. Consider the differences in flavor between common thyme and lemon thyme.
For ornamental purposes, look at the foliage and flower color. What is the color and texture of the leaves? What color are the flowers? Garden sage has velvety, gray-green leaves and violet flowers. Different varieties have pink or white flowers or variegated leaves. Foliage variants of sage rarely flower. Varieties include ‘Purpurea’ – upper leaves reddish purple; ‘Aurea’ – leaves variegated with yellow; and ‘Tricolor’ – lower leaves with white margins, upper leaves tinged purple with pink margins. The foliage of ‘Tricolor’ is quite attractive and this herb can be found at one of our local nurseries.
Propagation: There are several ways to start or expand your herb garden. The easiest way is to go to a nursery to buy herbs. You can also sow seed indoors or directly in the soil outside after danger of frost has passed. I grew basil from seed indoors this year, and it is doing well. For some herbs, like rosemary, propagation by seed is slow. In other cases, propagation by seed produces variable plants. Few mints come true from seed, so that mint produced from seed may be a mutation and not the type of mint you were expecting.
Herbs can also be propagated by division, stem cuttings, or layering. Chives, mint and French tarragon are commonly propagated by division. Previously, in Flowers-Plant, Fertilize, Divide, we talked about dividing plants. The chive plant in my garden was given to me by a friend using this method. Some herbs, such as lavender, rosemary and foliage variants of sage can be propagated by stem cuttings. Layering is another method of propagation and works on thyme, winter savory and sage. The idea of layering is to produce roots on a stem while it is still attached to the parent plant. The rooted stem is then detached to become a new plant.
Harvesting: One of the joys of a culinary herb garden comes when the plants are ready to be harvested. You can harvest the leaves of many culinary herbs throughout the growing season, provided you do not cut off too much to impede further growth. For best flavor, harvest herbs before the flowers emerge. It is beneficial to clip a few sprigs from the ends of stems to encourage branching and bushier plants. Chives and parsley should be cut off from the base rather than the top. Herbs can be dried and stored for winter use.
Some Nearby Herb Gardens to Visit
There are several herb gardens in the area which are worth a visit. The John Jay Homestead in Katonah has a formal herb garden, including special sections for culinary herbs and fragrant herbs. At the New York Botanical Gardens, the Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden is being redesigned by Martha Stewart, and you can view over 50 types of culinary herbs.
Closer to home is the Hart’s Brook Nature Preserve on Ridge Road in Hartsdale. In addition to the more familiar herbs such as sage and thyme, the garden contains less well know herbs such as lovage and sweet cicely. The Cornell Master Gardeners are at Hart’s Brook on Tuesday mornings if you have questions about the garden.
Whatever you do, enjoy your garden! Experiment and add some new herbs to your garden this year.
To Do List for Early June
- Continue planting annuals and perennials which you did not complete in May.
- Tall flowers such as lilies may need staking.
- Cut yellowed foliage of spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, off at the base.
- Check moisture level in plant containers every day or two. Plants dry out more quickly than when in the ground. Do not overwater plants.
- Keep up with the weeding. Roots are easier to pull now than mid-summer.