Why You Should Grow Your Own Herbs
There are at least three reasons to grow your own herbs.
First, herbs are one of the easiest plants to grow in the garden.
- are low-maintenance plants that give you lots of harvests almost immediately after planting.
- don't require a ton of sunlight or nutrients to grow.
- will grow in whatever limited space you give them or stretch out beautifully into a large space like the corner of a raised bed.
Second, just-harvested herbs and herbs you dry yourself have so much more flavor and nutrients than a store-bought variety.
Third, you can harvest from most herb plants again and again, making the most of every plant in your garden.
If you're craving a more garden-to-table lifestyle, the easiest way to accomplish that is to pot up some herbs or create an herb garden outdoors that you can dash out to, cut some sprigs, and bring them indoors to toss onto whatever you're cooking.
When I was just getting started in the garden, I had my first growing wins with herbs.
Similarly, many of my Rooted Garden clients have first learned to successfully grow herbs before they've branched out into other plants.
But how do you actually start an organic herb garden?
Well, I like to learn a bit about the herb plants first.
The Best Herbs to Plant in an Herb Garden
Here is a comprehensive list of our favorite herbs to grow in the herb garden for their beauty, their nutrition, and their flavor.
- Anise Hyssop
- Bay Laurel
- Lemon Balm
- Summer Savory
- Winter Savory
Most of the herbs on this list fit into four different plant families. If you learn a bit about each of these different plant families, you'll be able to better understand the unique growing needs of the herbs you want to have in your garden. And when herbs feel like their simple needs are being met, they'll give you harvest after harvest.
Let's look at these different families.
The Mint Plant Family
The Best Cut-and-Come-Again Varieties Come from the Mint Plant Family
This family is formally called the Lamiaceae family, and it includes anise hyssop, basil, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, and summer and winter savory. Oh, and of course, mint!
Most of the herbs here are from Mediterranean-type climates and prefer dryer conditions, so you can do more harm than good by having a heavy hand with the watering can. Their shallow roots make them ideal for growing in containers only six inches deep.
The members of this plant family are incredible. The more you cut from them, the more they give you. You cannot start an herb garden without including your favorite members of this family.
The Carrot Plant Family
Some of the Most Common Kitchen Herbs Come from the Carrot Family
This family is also called the umbellifer or Apiaceae family, and like carrots, the herbs in this family have a sizable taproot. When you're growing cilantro, cumin, dill, fennel, and parsley, make sure to give their root at least one foot of soil to stretch down into.
These herbs prefer cooler weather and more moisture in the soil than herbs in the mint family, and when it's time for Apiaceae herbs to go to seed as the weather warms, their flowers will attract every butterfly in the area.
The Daisy Plant Family
Most of the Flowering Herbs Come from the Daisy Family
Inside this family, you'll find chamomile, calendula, echinacea, and marigolds (plus feverfew and dandelions). The flowers from these herbs are edible and have long been used in teas and medicines.
If you're looking to harvest flowers from these herbs, you're in for a longer wait since flower production comes near the end of a plant's life cycle.
The Onion Plant Family
The Easiest Herb to Grow Comes from the Onion Family
This family, formally known as the Amaryllidaceae family, gives us chives, and while I'm sure some people wouldn't consider chives an herb, I'm including it here. Chives are used often to add flavor to food, and they match with plants like rosemary, oregano, and thyme in terms of ease of care and preferred growing conditions.
I had some of my first gardening success ever with chives, and I love how the plants come back every spring with incredibly gorgeous blossoms.
What's the Definition of an Herb?
There's room for debate, but we're going to go with an herb is any plant that contains a plant part (i.e., seeds, flowers, leaves) that can be used to add flavor or nutrition to food or medicine.
Additionally, plants that we classify as herbs tend to share certain characteristics, including the following:
- take up a relatively small space in your garden
- will continue to grow with just 2 to 4 hours of sunlight
- are ready to harvest quickly, if not immediately, upon planting
While most herbs are grown for their leaves, we grow some herbs for their flowers (like echinacea, calendula, chamomile, and marigold) and some for their seeds (coriander).
Annual vs Perennial Herbs
Which Herbs Are Annuals?
Annual herbs are also referred to as soft herbs. These herbs complete their entire life cycle in one season and will need to be planted by seed again each year.
Most herbs in the Apiaceae family, including dill and cilantro, are annuals. Parsley is actually a biennial, which means it can remain in the garden for two years before producing seeds.
Thanks to the cold weather most of us experience during the winter, basil is often grown as an annual.
Which Herbs Are Perennials?
Perennials are your woody herbs that either continue growing throughout the entire year in moderate climates or, in colder places, die back and pop back up from their roots for another year or two of growth once the weather warms.
In places like Houston, perennial herbs can keep growing until they become bushes or even small trees, like bay laurel. These same herbs in climates like mine that have frost and snow will only grow to be about a foot tall within the growing season before they go dormant.
Most herbs in the mint family (think rosemary, oregano, thyme, etc.) are perennials, and even basil can survive for several seasons in the right climate.
Which Herbs Are Easy to Grow?
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to start from seed. Thyme and oregano are both easy to grow and keep alive throughout the year, while sage and rosemary can be a bit more difficult.
Overall, though, herbs are incredibly easy to grow and master compared to other plants you might grow in the garden. That's why we typically recommend that new gardeners start with herbs, then salad greens, before they ever move onto more needy and space-hogging plants like tomatoes and eggplants.
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Setting Up an Herb Garden
How to Create a Growing Space for Herbs
Once you understand a bit more about herb plant families and their needs, it's time to create a special space for them to grow.
Your main goal when setting up your herb garden is to re-create an environment that feels like home to the herbs you'll be growing. Unless you live somewhere like Italy or southern France, the herbs you'll be growing are probably not native to your area, so it's up to you to provide them with their ideal growing conditions. This is how you'll see more success with your herb garden.
I've found the most success with starting an herb garden in a raised garden or container, rather than growing herbs directly in the ground. This is mostly because I've usually gardened in areas with clay soil, and few if no herbs originated in an area with heavy and wet clay soil. A raised garden filled with soil that drains quickly feels a lot more like home to your herbs.
What Type of Container Is Best for Growing Herbs?
Most herbs are smaller plants with shallow root systems. The planter, pot, or container you pick to grow your herbs in needs to be at least 6 inches deep, but I recommend going for something that's a foot deep, especially if you're growing herbs in the Apiaceae family like parsley and cilantro, which grow a large taproot. I also recommend picking something at least a foot wide so that you can grow several different types of herbs in one container.
While you can certainly grow each of your favorite herbs in an individual pot, you'll have to be more attentive to their needs and water much more frequently since small pots dry out quickly. If you've tried growing this way in the past and not had much success, try growing your herbs together in a larger container instead. A larger container gives herbs more space to hunt for resources they need, and it might just work better for you too. You can easily move it indoors or out, water all your herbs at once, and grow lots of leaves in a small space.
If you do prefer to grow in pots, make sure to monitor the soil's moisture more often than if your herbs were growing in larger containers or raised beds. I like terra cotta pots because they help regulate the moisture level and come with a nice, big drainage hole. They're also a great budget option but still quite attractive.
I grow herbs in my raised beds, but I also fill a rollable steel planter with herbs. It was super easy to put together and can be rolled around my deck to chase sunlight. I drilled drainage holes in the bottom so that my herbs don't sit in water. At 2' x 6', it's small compared to my raised beds, but you'd be shocked how much I can grow in this little 12-square-foot bed.
Another of my favorite options for under $50 is this 17-gallon steel tub from Behrens. I've used this brand a lot, and their tubs are typically easy to find at stores like Home Depot.
When selecting your container, choose natural materials that are as close to their natural state as possible. My favorites are cedar, steel, and terra cotta clay. Here are three options for easy herb garden planters on Amazon. If you're shopping around on your own, look for words like "food grade" and "untreated" to ensure you're using the most natural of materials for your organic herbs.
If your container doesn't already have good drainage holes in the bottom, make sure to add some with a drill. Herbs dislike sitting in extra water.
Before filling your container with soil, put a landscape cloth or weed barrier cloth inside the bottom of the container to keep the soil from leaving the container every time you water.
The Best Soil Mix for Growing Herbs
Fill your herb pot or container with a well-draining soil. My perfect soil blend is called the 103, and I feature it in my first book, Kitchen Garden Revival. The 103 is a mixture of topsoil, compost, and sand, plus a little something extra to give your herbs lots of nutrients they need to grow.
You'll want to find a coarse sand like paver sand for your soil mix to add drainage (this type of sand is available in the construction section of most hardware stores). Remember, most of the herbs you might want to grow are from places like the Mediterranean, so they really love a sandy soil to make them feel at home.
Once you've filled your container almost to the top with equal parts topsoil, compost, and sand, use your hands or a small tool like a hori hori to mix up the three. You want everything to be nice and combined when you scoop up a handful. The result is a pretty light soil that still provides structure for herb roots to dig into—plus food to keep them strong and healthy.
The little something extra I mentioned is something like earthworm castings for an extra boost of nutrients for your herbs right as they settle into your container. Sprinkle earthworm castings right on top of your container (it doesn't need to be a lot), and then level your mix with a hand rake or a hori hori.
What Herbs Can Be Planted Together?
When considering which herbs to plant together in a container, the most important consideration is water preferences. I like to plant herbs in the mint family on the outer edges of my raised beds or herb planter, where the soil will dry out first.
The only herbs that you might think twice about before planting with others are mint, anise hyssop, and lemon balm. These guys really like to spread out. In fact, you might hear some gardeners talk about them "taking over" as though these little plants are set on world domination!
Mint is one of my favorite herbs, and I still prefer to grow it in a large container with my other favs (perhaps because I've had too many mint plants die agonizingly slow deaths in pots that I forgot to water). It does send underground runners and grows about 4 inches a month. If left unchecked, I'm sure it could take over my little container, but that hasn't happened yet...
If you're not a risk-taker, you might want to grow mint in its own container. Your herb garden should make you happy. Do what will make you happy.
The best herbs to plant together
Dill, cilantro, and parsley are a perfect trio to grow together since they have the same water and temperature preferences. Basil is in a different family but can be grown with this trio because it likes its soil to be more consistently moist.
Woody herbs like rosemary, oregano, marjoram, lavender, sage, and thyme like their soil to stay dry and do well being grown together. You can still grow them with dill, cilantro, and parsley, but place herbs that like more moisture near the middle of your container, where they'll dry out slower.
How Close Together Can You Grow Herbs?
Overall, herbs grow more vertically than they do horizontally, which means you can pack more plants together.
Herbs like rosemary and sage should be planted no more than two per square foot.
Cilantro, parsley, and dill, which grow taller than they do wide, can be planted four to six per square foot.
Flowering herbs can be planted one to two per square foot.
The closer together you pack your herbs, the more prepared you need to be to hop out frequently to your herb garden to harvest leaves often. Harvesting often will ensure each herb plant has access to the sunlight and air circulation it needs.
How Much Sunlight Do Herbs Need?
Herbs like as much sunlight as they can get. Most herbs will continue to grow under low light conditions, but they will produce more leaves when given four to eight hours of sunlight per day.
Rosemary, oregano, and basil are three herbs that require the most sunshine hours to thrive. Prioritize sun when choosing a location to grow these three herbs.
Herbs that grow in shade
Sage, thyme, and mint will still grow in part sun. Dill, cilantro, and parsley require only four hours or so of sunlight a day and can be grown in lower-light areas of your outdoor space. Flowering herbs and chives can also grow in part shade.
When Is the Best Time to Grow Herbs?
Herbs in the mint family tend to love long and warm days (75°F and above). Basil loves warm weather—the warmer, the better—and will die at the first sign of wintery weather. Most of its cousins in the mint family are a bit more cold hardy and can withstand temperatures below freezing for a short time. Perennials in the mint family will often die back during the winter and then send up new growth in the spring.
Cilantro, parsley, and dill love cooler weather (45 to 75°F). They perform best in your herb garden during the spring and fall. You can sow seeds for these herbs outdoors as soon as your soil is workable, even when there's still a chance of frost. These herbs will bolt and form flowers when the weather becomes too warm.
Most flowering herbs also belong to the cool season but will continue to flourish over the summer. They will not survive a hard frost.
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Herbs You Can Grow Indoors
You can grow any herb from the mint family indoors if you have a sunny window sill, preferably one that faces south.
I like to keep my garden outside, where I can rely on mother nature to help me keep my plants alive, but I do move my herb garden indoors over the long Chicago winters. It's not worth the effort for me to pot up annuals like cilantro or dill (Their taproots also don't like to be moved), but I do move my herbs from the mint family indoors. I've found the most success transitioning sage, rosemary, thyme, and lavender.
Herbs moved indoors might not produce as many leaves as they did when they were outside, but most will continue growing moderately.
In the spring, I move my herbs back outdoors.
Read more on how to overwinter herbs indoors.
Sourcing Plants for Your Herb Garden
Which Herbs Should Be Started by Seed?
Annual herbs have tender roots that can be harmed during the transplanting process, so it's best to sow seeds for these guys directly into the garden area where they will grow.
Herbs to start by seed in the garden:
Other herbs are not quite so sensitive to transplanting and can be started indoors to maximize the time they get to spend in your garden once the weather warms.
Herbs to start by seed indoors:
Flowering herbs are quick to germinate and should be started indoors about 45 days before your final frost date. If you have a longer growing season, you can also start these herbs directly in the ground once you're no longer anticipating cold weather.
Read more about herbs you can easily start from seed.
When buying herb seeds, be sure you're buying from a source that's serving up organic, non-GMO seeds. Some of my favorite sources are Botanical Interests, Baker Creek, Southern Exposure, and High Mowing. Just one packet of each is plenty to fill your herb garden with loads and loads of fresh herbs.
Learn more about indoor seed starting, including the best trays, LED lights, and seed starting soil mix to use.
Which Herbs Should Be Grown Through Propagation?
Perennial herbs in the mint family tend to do well growing roots after being cut from a mature plant. Ask friends, family members, or even friendly neighbors if you can take a small cutting from their plant to make a new plant. Most gardeners are more than happy to share.
Herbs to start through propagation
- African blue basil
Not only is propagation magical (I mean, who doesn't love free plants?), some herbs prefer to be started this way than by seed.
Which Herbs Should Be Bought From the Store?
You'll be able to get more enjoyment out of some herbs if you buy them from a nursery or a local grower. This includes many herbs in the mint family and some flowering herbs.
Herbs to buy:
Avoid buying herbs from big box stores. Most of them will have traveled quite a distance before reaching the store and have most likely been treated with fungicide or synthetic fertilizers so they look great when you see them at the store. If you don't continue to feed them the same fertilizers or fungicides when you get them home, chances are, they'll either sit there and not grow or just give up being green entirely. In my experience, the more local the nursery you buy your herb plants from, the better.
Basil is super easy to grow from seed, but if you do buy a basil plant from the store, you're probably actually getting as many as 10 to 20 plants. Growers often over-seed these pots to make them look fuller and more appealing to buyers. Read this post about how you can (very gently) separate those tiny plants and give them the space they need to grow to their fullest potential.
While buying mature plants is more expensive than cheap seeds or free cuttings, these herbs should hopefully last a while in your garden and more than make up for your investment.
Caring for Your Herb Garden
How Often to Water Herbs
Herbs in the mint family tend to prefer well-draining soil and hate to be overwatered. It's best to water your herb garden consistently but let the soil dry out a bit between watering. Stick your finger into the soil before watering and check the soil an inch or two below the surface. If it's still wet, don't water just yet.
Parsley, dill, cilantro, and the flowering herbs prefer to be watered more often, but still make sure their containers have good drainage. Aim for about one inch of water per week.
Shop our favorite garden tools for your herbs
This set contains a mini dibber to help plant your herbs, mini pruners to help keep your herb garden looking tidy, special herb scissors to harvest all those leaves, and cute little wooden plant labels to keep track of all your herbs.
How to Fertilize Herbs
Herbs grown in soil rich in organic matter don't require much else to keep them happy and healthy. If you want to boost a plant's leaf growth, add a fertilizer high in nitrogen.
Refreshing a Small Herb Garden Each Season
If you're growing in small pots and containers, you can overwinter your herbs indoors.
If you're replanting a favorite herb garden container, it's really easy to prepare it for a fresh round of herbs—no need to replace all the soil.
You'll first pull any old, spent herbs out. Chives will often return from their roots in the spring, and cilantro often reseeds itself. If parsley still looks healthy, keep it. It's a biennial and can last another year. You choose whether you're going to pull herbs that come back or leave them.
Then, rake the top of the garden space to clear some of the leaf debris left over from the last herbs.
Add a couple inches of fresh compost and rake it in. Your container is ready to go for your new herbs!
Herb Harvesting Guide
How to Harvest Herbs
It's important to regularly prune the outer and lower leaves of your herb plants to encourage more leaf production (and to have delicious leaves to take indoors and eat). Harvesting often also helps prevent pest pressure and deters disease. It's a win all around.
When harvesting, always start by cutting from the outermost branches and then work your way in. The one exception is basil, which will be harvested a little differently to help it bush out more.
How to Save and Store Herbs from Your Garden
One of the many rewards of growing your own herbs is that you can save and store enough to last you through the winter months. Learn our favorite techniques for drying, freezing, and prolonging the freshness of your favorite herbs.
Some of Our Favorite Herbs to Grow in the Herb Garden
I know that some people can't stand the flavor, but I love cilantro. I enjoy growing cilantro throughout my two cool seasons, and when cilantro bolts in the warmer weather, its beautiful flowers bring pollinators into my garden just as my tomatoes are really taking off.
Basil is easy to start from seed but can also be propagated from cuttings. This herb loves lots of sun and warmer weather.
There are a million different basil varieties, but my favorite for flavor is Sweet Basil. I also love Thai Basil for the flowers, and Purple Basil because it's just so pretty.
This beautiful herb with its velvety gray-green leaves is surprisingly easy to grow in the garden. When temperatures get higher, sage will produce the prettiest light pink or purple flowers that attract pollinators and contain hidden treasure once they dry: more and more seeds!
Not only does dill add a zesty punch to your garden-fresh meals, but it's also a beautiful herb beloved by swallowtail butterflies, which is why I grow dill in my raised beds and in my pollinator garden. Dill plants are forgiving of most gardening conditions and are fast growers (they can easily reach several feet tall in your garden).
Calendula grows well even in my in-ground pollinator garden and is easy to start from seed. The flowers are beautiful and bring a cottage vibe to my garden. Plus, this herb has proven to be great for maintaining the health of my organic kitchen garden as a trap crop.
Mint is the herbal equivalent of "how refreshing!" Experiment with growing spearmint, peppermint, or even chocolate mint—just make sure to keep each variety a couple feet apart so they retain their unique scent and flavor.
Native to Greek hillsides, oregano has been used for thousands of years to add an earthy flavor to dishes. In fact, you might think of oregano as the "pizza herb" thanks to its prominence in Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines. This low-maintenance herb is a perennial that will last for years in your kitchen garden. In fact, oregano is so hardy it can spread quickly, making it good ground cover. When oregano does go to seed, it produces beautiful purplish white flower spikes that bees and other pollinators love.
Learn more about how to grow your own oregano.
This beautiful and easy-to-grow herb provides bright splashes of color to your garden for months, attracts beneficial insects to your yard, and even helps protect surrounding plants by repelling pests. That's right. The roots of marigold plants release a toxic chemical that prevents nematodes from reproducing and feeding on your prized lettuce plants. Bonus: marigold blooms are 100 percent edible.
Learn how to grow marigolds from seeds.
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When Starting an Herb Garden, Learn First, Buy Last
You can absolutely have a ton of success in your herb garden. Herbs are one of the simplest and most prolific things to grow in your kitchen garden. The trick to success, though, is not to head to the plant store or hardware store right away.
Instead, learn first. Discover the plant family each herb you want to grow belongs to and create a special space for your herbs that will feel like home. Then, and only then, can you head to the plant store... but make it local. When you learn first and buy last, you save tons of money and frustration, and those plants that were going to die anyway don't end up doing so under your watch.
When you learn first and buy last, you're well on your way to having herb garden success.
Love from my herb garden to yours!
(BTW: Save our handy little infographic below to help you out with your first herb garden!)