How to start a Kitchen Herb Garden
One of the things I was determined I was going to have when we built our new home (nearly 7 years ago now) was a kitchen herb garden.
What is a kitchen herb garden, you might be asking yourself?
For me, it's the luxury of having herbs growing outside, but close enough to the kitchen that I can 'pop out' and pick something quickly when I need it.
You can make yourself a kitchen herb garden even if you're living in an apartment by putting a few herbs that you use regularly in pots on a sunny windowsill, or even outside on a balcony, patio or deck.
Pro Tip: Herbs just grow better outside. They do, even on your sunny windowsill they're not going to get enough light and houses are often far too dry for herbs to grow well.
So, I want to tell you about my kitchen herb garden, what works for me and why it's a real luxury having a dedicated herb garden so close by the house and kitchen.
How do I start an outdoor herb garden?
The first thing you need to look at is the proposed location of your herb garden.
In may case, it was a no brainer. Our house is a single storey home and the kitchen/dining area opens out onto a concreted courtyard, with a pergola over it that we grow grapes over. There was a strip of ground up against the fence beyond the concrete that was fairly screaming for me to plant a herb garden.
The fence is on the northern boundary (I'm in the southern hemisphere!) so that means in the winter the strip does not get a lot of sun, but it gets enough for the herbs to grow happily. In summer, the area gets too much sun (apart from those beds shaded by the grape vine) so I spend a lot of time ferrying water (from the kitchen...) to those herb beds.
Despite the 'not perfect conditions' we put the gardens in place. The photograph at the start of the blog is the macrocarpa beds that we built and installed in the space between the concrete and the fence.
They've aged somewhat since this photo, but they're still growing great herbs.
Pro tip: Be wary of husbands who want to rip out your unruly herbs and plant "tidy plants in straight lines" in those macrocarpa beds later on.
I've found that the best way to prove to my dearly beloved that the unruly herbs should stay is to whip out of the kitchen, pick some tasty herbs and put them in many of his meals!
Unless you're going the hydroponic route, you're going to need good soil for your herbs. You should know by now that I'm a fan of "no-dig" gardens and you'll be thrilled to know that the deep macrocarpa gardens that are in the photograph were filled with all kinds of crazy things that most people would never ever consider putting into a garden.
Big logs were dropped in the bottom, along with cardboard and shredded paper and grass clippings. Pretty much anything that we could get out hands on (that was organic and that we knew would rot down) was thrown into those beds.
The big logs were fantastic because they took up a lot of space and over the years (as they've rotted down) they've acted a huge sponges to keep water in place.
Once we had the bed filled to a reasonable height, then they were topped off with a bag of compost with a bit of soil thrown in for good measure.
The herbs loved it and have grown furiously ever since.
What Herbs to grow
The first thing to do is to look in your pantry. What dried herbs are you consistently buying from the supermarket? Or what fresh potted herbs are you buying--and leaving to wither and die, or turn into sludge on the bench top before you can use them all?
Check if you can even grow the herbs you're using in your climate and also what conditions those herbs like.
Pro Tip: Stick to the staples. There really is a reason that the song lyrics, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme are so popular...it's because these are the herbs most of us use most often.
I'm lucky enough to live in a wonderful climate--I have sub-tropical summers and next to no frost in winter--which means most of my herbs grow well outside, as long as they don't get too much water, or wet feet.
That's why we made the raised beds. They take lots of watering in summer (and heavy mulching to keep the water in the beds) but they drain well in winter during our 'rainy season' so most of my herbs don't get wet feet and rot.
Should a herb garden be started with Plants or Seeds?
Once you've decided what herbs you're going to plant, you have to decide whether you are going to buy plants, or start your own from seeds.
Annual herbs are easy to start from seed (e.g., Basil, Coriander, Chives, Dill, Fennel) and some you will have to start inside in seed trays because they need extra warmth--I'm looking at you Basil, but you may want faster results from your garden.
In that case, you're going to want to go and pick up seedlings or small plants from your nursery or garden centre. Here in New Zealand there are also wonderful herb and vegetable suppliers who will mail out small plants to you. I've used many mail order services and my baby plants always arrive in wonderful condition.
I purchase most of my perennial herbs as small plants (or take cuttings from friends) but I have also had great success lately with growing lavender from seed--but it takes quite some time to grow.
What herbs can be grown outside?
Herbs are pretty hardy little plants and prefer to be grown outside during the spring, summer and autumn. If you have harsh winters (especially snow and hard frosts) then you may have to over-winter some herbs inside in pots, or put a mulch of straw over the dormant plants to keep them insulated over the winter.
Otherwise, if you lose your herbs in winter, then you may just want to treat all of your herbs in the kitchen garden as annuals and replant them every spring when the ground warms up again.
Do herb gardens like sun or shade?
Most herbs prefer the sun, but there are some that do well in the dappled shade (and damp) like members of the mint family. Other herbs that can be grown in the shade are Parsley, Coriander (Cilantro), Lemon Balm and Lovage.
Sun loving herbs will grow leggy if you try to grow them in too much shade, but it's worth experimenting to see what grows well in your own garden.
Is it better to grow herbs in pots or ground?
Most herbs prefer to grow outside in the ground, but there are some herbs that are better being grown in a pot--especially if they are likely to overrun your garden or be invasive. Mint is one of these herbs. Grow it in a deep pot unless you don't mind it taking over large portions of your garden.
If you have heavy waterlogged soil, then it can be better to grow your herbs in pots, or raised garden beds. This will give your herbs good drainage and stop their roots from rotting in the heavy ground.
My advice is not to delay in starting your herb garden.
My kitchen garden has brought me so much joy and I wanted to share that experience with you. I still get a thrill every time I step outside of the kitchen to pick herbs fresh from the planter boxes that we installed nearly 7 years ago.
There's something special about having herbs growing in the environment that you live in. I'm also a great believer that our food is our medicine.
There is a reason that herbs have been a part of our diet for hundreds of years. Why don't you take up the challenge of learning something about the culinary herbs that you've probably (like so many of us) taken for granted for so many years.
Eating locally grown food is good for us and for the planet and you can't get much more locally grown than in your own kitchen herb garden.
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Don't forget to email me (use the 'contact' page) and let me know how your herb garden is growing, or let me know what else you'd like to learn about herbs.