Herbs: Easy Enough for the Black Thumbed Gardener

Rows of lavender is one of the prettiest sights in the world. If you're going to grow this Mediterranean plant, be sure it has full sun and excellent drainage. If planting in the landscape, plant high and use amendment or permatil for better drainage.  Especially if you have heavy clay or compacted soils.  

Herbs are one of the most popular plants in the garden center. No one can pass by the aromatic corner of the annual department without at least putting a pot of basil in their buggie. Pesto anyone? 

Herbs are grown for their foliage (lavender, oregano, thyme), for the flowers (chives, borage, chamomile), for aromatic effect (rosemary, mint, marjoram), and for cooking. And bonus, with minimal effort, even folks with the proverbial black thumb can grow herbs. Read on for a quick how-to. 

Getting creative with herbs is easy. It doesn't always have to be spiral herb gardens, sometimes it's as simple as potted herbs on your back steps.

Sun or Shade

Sun. Herbs, almost unilaterally, need full sun. This is defined as 6-8 hours a day to produce the oils that give herbs their taste and scent. It's best if it's the middle of the day sun, not morning or late afternoon. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is perfect. What we call, parking lot sun--unobstructed, direct sunlight. You can fudge a bit on either side of that time frame, but if you're looking up at a forest canopy, then herbs won't perform well in your landscape. 

That said, there are a few exceptions to every rule. These herbs are more shade tolerant, but, still need at least 4 hours of direct sunlight. 

Mint is one of the more popular herbs grown, but most gardeners know to keep it in a pot. It is invasive in the garden, popping up in places you don't want it. Still, it can take quite a bit of shade. For those gardeners who like it's crushed leaves in their sweet tea, a pot of mint will work in some shade. Experiment with your part shade spots.

  • Cilantro
  • Chives
  • Lemon Balm
  • Mint
  • Parsley
  • Tarragon

Good Drainage, Not So Much With the Fertilizer, and Neutral Soil

Herbs work best in well-drained soil. They should dry out between watering, and never be soggy. If your soil is compacted or mostly clay, then amend it with soil conditioner and possibly permatill. Or, consider raised beds or containers.

If herbs are in containers, where nutrients are leached out with each watering, a little fertilizer is necessary. In the landscape, it isn't as important. Here, a little goes a long way. Too much fertilizer and the plants will grow larger, but again, the plants won't produce the oils that give herbs the flavor and scent we love. So, while it's important to fertilize your flowering annuals and perennials weekly, skip the herbs. Once during the growing season is sufficient. 

Plant in a neutral soil of 6.0-7.0 pH. (If you don't know what your pH is we have test kits.)

Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow and their flowers are worth it. Add them to your perennial garden and divide every 3-5 years to keep plants thriving. Remove seed heads to keep from reseeding (or not!). 

Seed or Transplant

Garden long enough and you figure out which plants are super easy to start from seed and which ones are best grown from transplants. These are easy to grow from seed:

  • Basil
  • Borage
  • Chamomile
  • Cilantro
  • Dill 
  • Fennel
  • Parsley

Perennial Herbs

Many herbs are perennial and will return to your garden year after year, especially if you divide every 3-5 years to keep plants vigorous. Chives, thyme, sage, oregano, lovage, and marjoram are a few. Lavender and rosemary are perennial with a woody structure that benefits from spring pruning. 

Growing Herbs in Pots

Because herbs love good drainage, containers are an excellent choice for growing herbs. However, if you want to grow them indoors, you must have a very sunny window. They do best outside in containers, but can be grown indoors if the conditions are right. Add them to your seasonal containers for double duty. African blue basil, a perennial basil in zone 10, makes a dramatic statement in pots with it's purple foliage and lavender/white blooms. It can be used for cooking and dressing up pots.

Harvesting

Harvest your herbs frequently. The more you pick, the more the plant produces. Harvesting frequently is one way to keep herbs from bolting too soon.

Many of us envision a kitchen window sill, full of herbs, ready for use for our tasty dishes. This isn't always possible due to lack of sunlight, but as noted above, if you have a sunny spot outdoors (perhaps by the kitchen door), they're one of the easiest plants to grow. Minimal care rewards you with a season of fresh herbs whether you cook or not. 

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach, blog writer, and outside sales staff.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina and Tennessee.