Wish you had fresh herbs all year round? With your own herb garden, you can. Here are some helpful tips and ideas for growing herbs outdoors.
Many herbs are easy to grow not just in pots but in garden beds too. Here, we explain what to consider when selecting, arranging, growing and caring for herbs in a garden bed.
Outdoor herb garden location
Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris), usually prefer a sunny, quite dry location. Whereas many herbs native to temperate regions, such as mint (Mentha) and chives (Allium schoenoprasum), prefer a shady or partially shady area − they can also be planted under a tree or in places that are not suitable for Mediterranean herbs. Even though many herbs that are native to temperate regions are adapted to cooler weather, it is still important that the herb bed is protected from wind. A sheltered spot next to the house, for instance, is ideal and handy for picking too.
How to prepare the soil
After choosing the right location, it is time to prepare the soil. Autumn is the best time to dig up the bed and remove any weeds. The soil can then rest over the winter months. The cold temperatures in winter also help break down larger chunks of soil into small crumbs, making it much easier to work with the soil in spring. Many herbs prefer well-drained, nutrient-poor soils. Loamy and heavily compacted soils should be enriched with sand. If the soil is too sandy and permeable, it can be improved with high-quality potting compost. You can also find soil specifically made for growing herbs in shops. These are mostly used for planting in pots or planters but can also be used for enriching garden soil. Incorporating organic matter, such as compost, has the added bonus of improving soil structure and soil life.
Herb garden design
We suggest choosing herbs for your garden based on how you would like to use them. There are so many herbs to choose from for cooking or brewing herbal teas. Some plants are also extremely decorative or beautifully fragrant. All in all, it is up to personal preference and the needs of the gardener.
Best herbs for an outdoor herb garden
As a general rule, we divide herb plants into two main groups: annuals and perennials. Most herbs are perennial and can even survive temperate winters outside, sprouting again in the spring. Some of the most well-known perennial herbs are thyme, oregano (Origanum vulgare), sage (Salvia officinalis), chives, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and savory (Satureja hortensis).
Annual herbs, on the other hand, only flower for one season before forming seeds and dying back. Therefore, they must be resown each year. Keep in mind, some perennial species that are not winter hardy can act like annual herbs in places with cold winters. Some well-known annual herbs are dill (Anethum graveolens), chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla), borage (Borago officinalis) and nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). On top of this, there are biennials, like parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium), which flower in the second year and then die (unless they have already been harvested).
Another factor to consider when choosing your herbs is frost sensitivity. Some Mediterranean herbs do not fare well in colder winters. Basil, lemon verbena (Aloysia citrodora), rosemary and bay (Laurus nobilis) should be overwintered indoors and are, therefore, only suitable for herb beds to a limited extent.
Which herbs get on well together?
To make your life easier, it makes sense to plant annual and perennial herbs separately. However, it is much more important that herbs planted next to one another grow well together. The wrong neighbour can have negative effects on growth and can increase susceptibility to diseases. Basil is perhaps the most tolerable annual herb species, making a good companion plant for lots of other herbs. Among the perennial herbs, savory, oregano and sage grow very well together.
Their site requirements also give an indication of which herbs grow well together. Because of their Mediterranean origins, herbs like savory, rosemary, basil, lavender (Lavendula angustifolia), oregano, sage and thyme all tend to like sunny locations with lean soils and dislike waterlogging. Herbs such as watercress (Nasturtium officinale), dill, parsley, chives, lovage (Levisticum officinale), peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and camomile, on the other hand, are not as dependent on sunshine, and, unlike the Mediterranean herbs, they prefer humus and nutrient rich, slightly moist soils.
We have a whole article devoted to answering the question “Which herbs go together?” if you want to find out more.
Planting a herb garden: step-by-step
After loosening and preparing the soil, you can start planting your herb bed beginning around mid-May. The pots that young herbs come in are often already heavily rooted, so plant them out as soon as possible after buying. To do this, use a spade or trowel to dig a sufficiently deep hole. Free the plant from the pot and, if necessary, carefully loosen the root ball with your fingers. Then place the plant in the hole and fill it in with loose soil. Carefully press down the soil and then water the plant well. The base of the plant should be level with the rest of the soil after watering.
The basic steps to planting herbs:
- Dig a planting hole
- Free the plant from the pot and loosen the root ball
- Place the roots in the hole and fill with soil
- Press down lightly
- Water well
Herb garden care
Most herbs are relatively easy to care for. As with caring for a vegetable patch, regular weeding is essential. Likewise, during periods of dry, hot weather, water your herbs more frequently. A mulch layer of grass cuttings can also help reduce water loss. On top of this, loosen the soil every so often to maintain a healthy root environment.
It is a good idea to work some compost into the soil in spring to ensure your herbs have plenty of nutrients. Regularly pruning herbs also ensures dense growth and the regrowth of young, tender leaves. Fortunately, herbs rarely get diseases and do not attract many pests. That said, if you do need to treat your herb garden, be careful not to use chemical pesticides if the herbs will soon be eaten. If you come across infected shoots, remove them with clean pruning shears. When fertilising, use a slow-release fertiliser such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food.
Overwintering a herb garden
Perennial herbs need a bit of extra attention to help them survive the winter and sprout again in spring. The overwintering of temperate climate herbs is generally not a challenge, but Mediterranean herbs are a little trickier.
Before the first snowfall, loosen the soil and, if necessary, work in some compost. On top of this, cut back your herbs and cover them with a protective layer of evergreen branches, jute sacks or something similar. Herbs that are sensitive to cold, such as lemon verbena, can be covered with straw or garden fleece. If you have any potted herbs, bring them indoors to overwinter in a bright place at about 5 °C. A windowsill or a stairwell should do the trick. Cool, dark rooms are also an option − they can reduce the risk of rot by allowing the herbs to shed their leaves by themselves. Remember to water the potted plants during winter from time to time too so that the herbs do not dry out.
Summary: how to plant a herb garden
- First, select herbs according to their location requirements (sunny or shady).
- Buy young plants or seeds when they are available.
- Break up the soil in autumn and prepare the bed for the selected herbs (with sand or potting soil).
- Maintain the herb garden after planting (weed, mulch and water the bed).
- Prune herbs before winter and cover them; overwinter non-hardy species indoors.
Take a look at our other article for more tips on planting herbs on window sills, balconies and in the garden.