Growing & Caring for Herbs
The beauty of easy, edible landscaping
You’re on the hunt for a fresh herb or two, recipe in hand, and it’s nowhere to be found in your local grocery store. Now what? Or you buy a bundle of fresh basil and use just a pinch, but hate to see the rest go to waste. Just a couple of the reasons ordinary people—some of whom have never planted a container let alone a veggie garden—try their hand at herbs.
Other bonuses? You know what your herbs are grown in, that nothing harmful has been sprayed on them and where they came from. Your yard-to-table is kind of tough to top.
Many herbs release soothing, citrusy, even minty fragrances just by passing by or gently brushing or crushing their leaves and many attract birds and butterflies. Plus, herbs make pretty borders, attractive and aromatic container plants and some are even natural mosquito repellents.
So let’s run through the basics on how to plant, grow and enjoy yours.
The best time to plant herbs outside is in spring once the soil is warm and fall, but you can plant in containers and grow indoors any time of the year, including through the winter.
Most herbs prefer full sun (at least 4-6 hours) along with good air circulation. They do best in nutrient-rich soil (i.e. good organic potting soil or organic soil amendment) but need little to no fertilizer to thrive. See ‘Fertilizing’ just below for more details.
Some herbs are considered invasive (e.g. mint or catnip) and will send underground runners to spread throughout your beds. You can still enjoy them while keeping them in check. We recommend planting in a pot or series of pots. Or if you want to plant invasive herbs in your landscape or raised beds, place them in your planting hole in their plastic containers.
For more detailed instructions on how to plant, see our Step-by-Step Guide to Planting.
Like most plants, herbs prefer a moist soil but don’t do well sitting in water. Most can stand to dry out between waterings, but this shouldn’t be your goal. We always recommend a 2-3 inch layer of mulch to seal in moisture and cut down on weeds and watering.
If you’re unsure about watering, feel an inch or two beneath the surface. If you can feel moisture, you can wait another day or two and check again. For more information on watering, you can check the Watering section of our Step-by-Step Guide to Planting & Care or even 8 Things You Can Do to Deal with Drought, which has a great primer on how and how often to water during drought and throughout the growing season. You can also check your plant tag for more specific instructions or talk to someone in the garden center.
Herbs do not require high amounts of nitrogen, one of the main components in fertilizer. In fact, too much and your herbs will actually show poor growth, flavor and/or fragrance. We recommend an organic fertilizer like Elements since it decomposes slowly over time. Follow label directions or someone in the garden center can help.
Pinching & Pruning
Turns out herbs respond well to the flower equivalent of deadheading. This means when you regularly pinch off the top 2-3 inches of the stem tips, you’ll be encouraging your herbs to branch out and stay full and healthy. And the best part? The tender new growth is the most flavorful, so you’re encouraging new growth and enjoying your herbs in the meantime.
If your perennial herbs have become lanky, thick and woody, you can cut them back by a third or approximately 4 inches from the ground before new spring growth begins. This will give you the same results as pinching off tender new growth by encouraging a fuller, more well shaped form.
You’ll also want to give your perennial herbs a little advanced warning winter is coming, so stop pinching or pruning eight weeks or more before the first frost (check here for average first frost). Or if your herbs are in containers, you can simply bring them indoors.
Harvesting & Preserving
We recommend harvesting your outdoor herbs midmorning when the morning dew has dried but they’re not wilting in the sun. You can harvest throughout the growing season, but generally remove no more than one-third of the stem, except with chives and lavender, where you’ll want to remove the full stem.
Before using your herbs in the kitchen or drying them, give them a quick swish in a sink full of tepid—but never hot—water. You don’t want to blanche them of their wonderful flavor.
Allow your herbs to air dry thoroughly on a towel-lined counter. You can snip, chop or cut off a sprig right away or follow directions for drying or preserving.
First, be sure you’ve removed any excess soil or insects that came along for the ride. Then tie several stems of your herb together in a bundle. We find a rubber band works best, but since the herbs will shrink as they dry, be sure to make it tight and check it every so often to adjust if needed.
Place your bundle in a paper bag with a few holes. You want to give them plenty of room and ventilation so they don’t rot or develop mold. Place the herbs in the bag upside down, then gather the opening and tie closed around the stems of you herbs.
We like to hang them from a high shelf in the panty for approximately 10 days to 2 weeks. You’ll know when they’re properly dried when you find a few leaves at the bottom of the bag. In the meantime, your pantry will have a delicious subtle fragrance.
You can freeze chopped, fresh herbs in airtight containers. Package them in small quantities because once they are thawed they must be used immediately (they will become limp as they thaw).
If you are freezing them for use in soups and stews, you can freeze them in ice cube trays with water. Remove the cubes from the trays and freeze in bags, then toss in soups and stews as you need them. Basil, Chives and Dill are good candidates for this freeze-and-use method.
How do you like your herbs?
We like ours as a garnish, in our tea and tossed on the grill for a fragrant and tasty kick-off to a cookout.
But there are so many things you can do with yours. Especially when they’re planted close to the door or on a windowsill where you can snip, sniff and sample on a whim.
For more information on culinary, medicinal, healing and soothing uses for herbs, check out Healing Herbs Anyone Can Grow.