Starting an Herb Garden

Indoor Herb Plant Garden in Flower Pots

Enhance your meals and well-being by starting an herb garden.

Gardening is the springtime activity many Vermonters crave after a long winter. Digging, raking, and the other physical work necessary to prepare for planting is a great workout. Just as important, being outside in the sunshine and fresh air lifts our mood and improves mental health.

This spring you can reap the health benefits of gardening and make your meals healthier by starting an herb garden. Not only will fresh herbs add flavor to your favorite dishes, they can also help you:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduce cholesterol
  • Prevent diseases like cancer and diabetes
  • Improve digestion

Many herbs have high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which reduce damage to the body’s cells. Some also have compounds that fight tumors, viruses, and bacteria. 

Growing fresh herbs doesn’t require much garden space or labor. You can even grow them in containers. In this article, we’ll provide tips on how to start an herb garden, so that you too can enjoy the many health benefits of herbs.

Deciding Which Herbs to Grow

Before you can start planting, you need to know which herbs you’re going to grow. With dozens of possibilities, it can be confusing. To help you decide:

  • Think about how the herbs will be used. Which herbs do your favorite recipes call for? Will you use your herbs in teas and other beverages? Do you want to preserve some to use during the winter?
  • Determine your budget. Would you rather make the one-time investment in perennial herbs (that don’t have to be replanted) or are you willing to spend every year on new seedlings and seeds?
  • Learn about various herbs. Herbs are categorized by families, such as the Lamiaceae family, which includes rosemary, thyme, and sage. By learning about an herb family and its members, you’ll better understand their characteristics. 

Some suggested herbs to grow for beginners are:

  • Basil — an annual that can be grown in shade from seed or seedlings. Basil can help lower blood pressure and control cholesterol.
  • Thyme — quick growing perennial. Thyme is rich in vitamins A and C.
  • Oregano — prefers dry and warm conditions, doesn’t need much water. Oregano has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties.
  • Parsley — easy to grow and resilient. Parsley is rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants.
  • Mint — hardy perennial that will grow in partial sun. Among its many health benefits, mint can help relieve indigestion and improve other digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Rosemary — prefers smaller pots and full sun. Rosemary has compounds such as rosmarinic acid, which can help fight cancer, diabetes, and many other conditions. 
  • Sage — easy to grow perennial, drought tolerant. Along with vitamins A and C, sage is rich in vitamin K, which aids in clotting blood.
  • Chives — like to invade nearby plants, best grown in a separate pot. The essential oils in chives act as an expectorant, fight bacteria, and reduce inflammation. 
  • Dill — best grown in full sun, can be grown from seed. Dill may help with cholesterol reduction and diabetes management. 

Creating a Space

Once you’ve selected herbs, you’ll need to create space for them to grow. That could be directly in the ground, in a raised bed, or in a container. When planning your space: 

  • Look at each herb’s growing characteristics. Do they need a lot of room to spread or are they compact? Do they need frequent watering or do they like it dry? What kind of soils do they prefer or can tolerate?
  • Consider your available resources. Do you have space for an in-ground or raised-bed herb garden? Or would a container garden be better?
  • Do you want to extend the growing season? If having fresh herbs in the colder months is appealing, think about using containers that can be brought inside in the fall when the outdoor temperatures drop.

If you are not an experienced gardener, starting an herb garden in a raised bed or a few containers may be the best choice. It will be easier to control the soil conditions and keep up with watering demands.

Consider growing several herbs together in one large container, especially one on wheels that can be moved around. Most herbs don’t require a lot of room and do very well sharing space in a container with compatible neighbors. An advantage of a large container, over several smaller ones, is that the bigger vessel offers more soil and water for the herbs to use when they need it. Your local garden center may offer a selection of gardening containers, and they are available online as well.

Soil for growing herbs should be well draining. Water should not sit for too long or drain quickly. You can augment your in-ground garden’s soil with compost to achieve the right drainage conditions. If you are growing herbs in containers, buy a good quality organic potting mix. You should water your herbs regularly — usually every couple of days for herbs growing in containers. Water in the morning when it is cooler so that the moisture doesn’t evaporate quickly and the herbs have a chance to absorb it.

In considering where to locate your herb garden, choose a location that gets at least four to six hours of full sun daily. Some herbs will need shade when it is very hot so that they don’t dry out, so a spot with some afternoon shade may be beneficial.

Fertilizing herbs is not required. If you do choose to use fertilizer, only use a little, as you don’t want to stimulate excess growth or early flowering.

Sources for Herbs

Herbs that are best started from seed include parsley, dill, and basil. Look for a seed supplier that offers organic, non-GMO seeds. For example, High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott offers a large selection of herb seeds.

If you are starting herbs from seedlings, it’s best to purchase them from a local nursery. Be sure to ask how often they’ve been watering the seedlings so you can continue that routine at home. To find local growers, you can use the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s searchable farms and producers directory and select seedlings in the products offered dropdown menu.

If you have friends who grow herbs, you can ask them for cuttings from their herb plants that you can propagate in your garden. For more information, check out this guide to propagating herbs from cuttings.

Harvesting and Using Herbs

When should you harvest your herbs so they have the most flavor? The best time is right before they flower. When cutting, don’t remove more than one-third of the plant to ensure it will grow back properly. Also, cut close to the intersection of the leaf and stem so that the plant will regrow quickly.

If you harvest more than you can use right away, you can either freeze or dry the excess to enjoy later. Herbs with thick leaves like rosemary can be frozen whole or chopped up before freezing. Thin leaves like basil tend to blacken when frozen, so mix them with oil after chopping to prevent discoloration. 

Herbs can be dried indoors by keeping them out of direct sunlight to avoid fading and loss of flavor. Stripping leaves off the stems will help them dry faster.

Home-grown herbs — whether fresh, frozen, or dried — will add flavor to any meal. You can mix herbs into salads or add them when cooking vegetables and meats. Ideas for using herbs include:

  • Spread basil or oregano on top of pizza
  • Toss herbs with pasta
  • Incorporate herbs into sandwiches and wraps
  • Sprinkle chopped herbs on omelets and frittatas
  • Rub meat or fish with herbs before baking or grilling

Where to Get Answers

We hope this brief article has inspired you to give herb gardening a try. It’s easy to do and will give you many health benefits. If you run into any problems or have questions, the University of Vermont Extension Service offers a free gardening helpline, where volunteers who are extension master gardeners answer questions by phone or email.