Edible Landscaping

How to: Start a Culinary Herb Garden

In an informally designed culinary herb garden, herbs spill over each other creating a cascade of colors and textures.

Your kitchen herb garden should be located close to the house for a quick dash to grab some dinner ingredients.

If you love to cook, especially with fresh herbs, then you must have a culinary herb garden. Nothing beats the flavor of freshly picked herbs in soups, stews, sauces, casseroles, pastas, salads and many other dishes. While you certainly can grow culinary herbs in your vegetable or flower garden, why not dedicate a small garden just for growing these tasty beauties? A culinary herb garden can be not only a functional garden, but a beautiful one as well. Many culinary herbs, such as rosemary, oregano, mint and basil, have beautiful flowers that bloom in summer. These herbs provide flowers for the kitchen and habitat for bees and pollinating insects. Some herbs, such as lemongrass, sage and thyme, have leaves with interesting textures and shapes.

Winter is a great time to plan out next year's culinary herb garden. Here are some steps to follow to get started in the right direction.

  1. Location, location, location – The first rule of any new garden is, find the right location. For a culinary herb garden it should be close to your kitchen where you can quickly scurry out and pick some ingredients for a dish on the stove.

    The second rule is choose a spot in full sun. While some herbs such as parsley, mint and chives, may get along with part sun, it's best to have at least 6 hours of direct sun a day. In hot summer areas you may want to place the garden where it gets morning sun, so the heat of the afternoon doesn't become overwhelming for your herbs.

    The final consideration is to place the culinary herb garden where it will look okay after you heavily harvest some herbs. The herb garden is very utilitarian. You may be stripping a basil plant or chopping down some dill for cooking or storing. It may not look very pretty while it recovers, so place the garden where you'll be okay with that.

  2. Good soil – Like any garden, good soil is a must. Most culinary herbs need a well drained, fertile soil to grow their best. Herbs like an organic soil, so amend your beds with compost before planting and then mulch with an organic material, such as shredded bark, after planting. The compost provides air spaces for the tender herb roots and nutrients for the plants. The mulch eventually breaks down into more organic matter for the plants.
  3. Formal and informal designs – Consider if you want a formal or informal design to your herb garden. Formal designs, such as a knot gardens, are attractively laid out in beds with brick, gravel or paved walkways in between. Sometimes evergreens, such as boxwood, are used as a border. Where it's winter hardy, rosemary makes a beautiful edible border in a formal herb garden. Beds can have culinary themes, such as Italian or Asian herbs. Think of using a bird bath, rock, statue or bench as a focal point in the formal herb garden.

    Informal herb gardens are a mix of many different types of herbs designed more like a cottage garden with plants spilling into each other. These informally designed herb gardens are less about looks and more about production. However they are designed, there should always be steps for easy access to the interior of the beds.

  4. Formal herb gardens featured evergreen hedges, such as boxwood, to define the beds.

    Basil is an attractive annual that should be grown in an out of way place in the garden since it will be stripped a few times during the growing season leaving it unattractive for a time.

  5. Mix it up – Mix up the types of culinary herbs you're growing with an eye for design. There are generally three types of culinary herbs; herbaceous, evergreen, and annual. Herbaceous herbs, such as oregano, chives, tarragon and mint, die back to the ground each year but return in spring. Evergreen herbs, such as rosemary and sage, stay alive and green through winter where they are hardy. They need spring pruning to keep them in shape and growing well. If they become too woody, they will have fewer leaves to use in the kitchen. Annuals, such as basil, cilantro and dill, die off in fall with a frost. You'll need to replant these each spring.

    Plan your culinary herb garden knowing the types of herbs you'll be growing. Grow a mix of herbaceous, evergreen, and annual herbs with an eye towards having few blank areas in the your garden during the growing season. Note which herbs are aggressive spreaders like mint, and plant these in pots sink into the soil or their own special area.

  6. Grow what you like – Once you've found the right place for your herb garden, amended the soil and decided on a design, grow the herbs you like to use in the kitchen. If you like cooking Italian food, make sure you have plenty of basil, oregano, parsley, thyme and rosemary. If you're into Asian foods, make room for Thai basil, lemongrass and hot peppers. If you like cooking Mexican cuisine, cultivate cilantro, chili peppers and epazote.
  7. Don't forget color – Finally, don't forget to add some color to the culinary herb garden. An easy way to do this is with edible flowers. Pansies, violas, calendula, marigolds and geraniums are some of the edible flowers that can be grown to compliment the leaves and flowers of your herbs. They look good in the garden and on your plate.
  8. How To grow – Using their growth habits as a guide, position tall growing herbs in the center or north side of the garden and shorter and creeping herbs in the front or south side. Position the herbs taking into account which part of the plant you'll be using. Herbs grown for their seeds may be best in a less obvious place since by the time they set seed, the plant may not be very appealing to look at. Place herbs that you'll use daily close to pathways or stepping stones so you'll have easy access to them. If you're growing specific herbs for drying or freezing, have a special bed dedicated to that herb, harvest it completely and replant another herb in its place once done.

Other culinary herb growing stories:

Herbs Grow Everywhere
Now is Prime Time for Planting Herbs
Herbs in the Desert
Herb Gardening Basics

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