Herbs and spices make a world of difference when it comes to cooking. Herbs and spices both contain antioxidants, minerals, vitamins and natural oils that are beneficial to our overall health. They also give normally bland food a superb taste.
Growing your own herbs and spices is surprisingly easy, fun and can really save you money while giving you a superior product. This guide will take you through the basics of growing and preserving beginner-friendly herbs as well as a few DIY seasoning mixes you can put together easily.
We’ll begin with growing herbs, since herbs are often the most forgiving and grow in a wider range of climates compared to spices. (We’ll look at spices in the next installment.)
Easy and Useful Herbs to Grow
There are a huge variety of herbs that you can grow depending on the zone you live in. When it comes down to usefulness in the kitchen, the following herbs really are the most versatile. They’re also among the healthiest.
These herbs also tend to be fairly easy to case for and grow well in a large range of zones.
There are many varieties within these herbs, so taking some time to shop online or through catalogs is a great way to pick the right variety for your needs.
Getting Your Herb Garden Started
Herbs can be grown within garden beds, in containers or right out in your yard as edible landscaping. They tend to be easy for new gardeners to grow and are ideal for those who are short on space. Though most herbs are very hardy and will grow even in poor soil, here is how to get the most from your plants.
Use a Loam to Loam-Sand Soil
These herbs listed above will all grow well in loamy to loamy-sandy soil. Loamy soil is characterized by being a fairly dark, rich soil that can form a ball in your hands but will crumple easily. Loamy soil offers enough drainage that your herb’s roots won’t be kept too wet, but it also holds in moisture and nutrients. Very leafy herbs like basil do best in loamy soil, whereas stalky herbs like thyme thrive in a sandy loamy soil. Sandy loamy soil simply contains more sand and allows for further drainage which keeps the plant drier.
Most store-bought soil mixes will be a loam unless it’s clearly specified to be something else. Since you’ll be growing herbs for the purposes of eating, it is important to choose a soil that is free from chemicals, especially chemical fertilizers. High-quality organic soils are the best option for growing edible plants. An even better option is to create your own soils.
Creating your own soil isn’t rocket-science but it may be a more complicated task than some people want to take on. The truth is that store-bought soils really pale in comparison to the quality and nutrient levels of home-mixed soils. I highly recommend that you seriously consider mixing your own soil. I’ve personally used the basics of the recipe highlighted on this website page and suggest you check it out as well.
Keep Your Herbs in an Area With Partial to Full Sun
All of the herbs listed in this article will grow very well in partial to full sun. Some varieties of these herbs do better in partial sun, so if you notice your plants not looking so perky, try moving them or shading them so they don’t get full sun. The term full sun means the plant needs a minimum of six hours of sunlight every day, although six to eight hours is ideal. Partial sun will require around four hours of sun per day.
Read your particular variety’s seed packet to determine which area in your garden is most suitable. If you use containers, this isn’t as much of an issue since you can simply move the pots.
Choose Suitable Containers
Herbs really aren’t picky when it comes to the container. Most would happily grow in an old tin can as long as it’s big enough. However, certain types of pots will make your job as gardener easier. Light color pots will keep your plants cooler than dark pots. Plastic pots are safer for homes with kids and pets, as they won’t break if knocked over. Dark plastic pots are ideal for growing herbs or other plants in shaded areas.
Terracotta and ceramic pots are the best choice for gardeners wanting to add decoration to their gardens, since they come in so many designs and colors. Terracotta and ceramic pots should be used in partial sun to shaded areas. These pots also hold in moisture much better than plastic pots.
Metal planters can also be used but tend to heat up very quickly and have poor insulation. Wood planters made from redwood or cedar can be ideal herb boxes and offer great insulation. The wood also helps keep the soil and roots at a healthy temperatures in full sun locations.
Getting Your Herbs Started
Depending on your growing season, you may need to start your herbs indoors. Many herbs are fairly fast growing, so if you’re already into summer you can probably still get a nice little harvest. Some of the hardier varieties can be sown directly into the soil in your garden if you’re past your last frost date, but starting the seeds indoors increases your chances of success.
All 10 herbs listed earlier can be started indoors in much the same way.
1. Gather Your Pots and Prepare
First off, you need to prepare your planting containers first, since they will need to be ready to go ASAP with this next step.
Going the traditional route of planting seeds in very small pots for eventual replanting will work with all the herbs mentioned except in the case of cilantro, parsley and some varieties of oregano and thyme. For these more fussy herbs you will want to plant them directly into their permanent pots or at least in pots large enough for the herbs to grow to near maturity before you replant.
You can buy seed-starting trays or use this opportunity to upcycle. Small containers like old Styrofoam cups, small tin cans or old Tupperware that you normally might toss are ideal for starting seeds. I’ve used old single-serving washed milk cartons from a local school with excellent success. You can also get creative by making seed-starting cups from newspaper (check that out here) or even egg shells, if you are patient. This paper pot tool makes very quick work of using newspaper and possibly other long-fiber papers as tiny seedling pots.
Once you have your pots ready to go, just fill them with your soil mix and dampen.
2. Soaking Your Seeds
Soaking your seeds greatly increases the chance of germination and will show you which seeds in your packet aren’t viable. What you will need to do is simply fill a glass with warm water, dump in the seeds (the entire packet or a small amount — whatever you want planted) and let them soak for 24 hours. After the 24 hours is up, toss any floating seeds. Floating herb seeds are almost always non-viable BUT this isn’t a hard rule. Generally with how many seeds you get in a packet, it’s a safe bet than if all of the seeds sank except for a few, those few that floated are bad.
3. Sow Your Seeds
Immediately after the 24-hour soak is up, you want to get those seeds planted. Don’t wait longer than this time, especially if the seeds are now just sitting out, since they can spoil. Almost all of the 10 herbs can be planted at around a quarter-inch deep. Generally, the depth the seed is planted should be equivalent to about two to three times the size of the seed. Lightly cover the seeds with soil and do not make the mistake of packing the soil down hard, especially for delicate herbs like parsley. Water the seedlings once more and move them under a grow light or into a sunny windowsill.
4. Wait for Germination
Now it is time to wait. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be waiting in anticipation to see the first little seedling pop out of the soil. Here is a quick guide to average germination times, though you just might notice faster germination if you soaked them (step 1).
- Basil: 4–7 days.
- Oregano & lemongrass: 7-14 days.
- Sage, thyme, parsley & rosemary: 14-28 days.
- Cilantro & Chives: 7–10 days.
- Mint: 10-18 days.
5. Care for Your Seedlings
Caring for seedlings requires that you keep the soil moist, keep the plants warm and get them plenty of light. Your seedlings will need about 14 to 16 hours of light for maximum growth. Be very careful you do not overwater your seedlings. Water them gently, perhaps by using a spray bottle. You should aim to keep your plants at 70 degrees Fahrenheit at least. A little warmer may be OK, but be cautious of temps of 75 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. Sure, your seedlings will grow faster but they will be weaker.
6. Transplant Your Seedlings
This final step in seedling care should not be rushed. Transplanting is stressful on your plants, so much that some varieties suffer from it. Commonly, it’s believed you should wait for 5 or 6 weeks before transplanting. You can make an exception to this in two cases: 1) your seedlings already have their true leaves, and 2) your seedlings are running out of space for their roots. After you get the hang of growing your own herbs, it’s easy to tell when it’s safe to graduate your seedlings to their “adult” pots.
Once your seedlings mature, they won’t require as much TLC, but there are a few key things to remember.
Caring for Your Mature Herb Plants
Mature herb plants tend to be pretty hardy and easy to care for. Here are some things to keep in mind when caring for your herbs:
- Water your herbs a little every other day rather than one heavy watering a week.
- Don’t go crazy with fertilizing. Start with a good quality soil and you won’t need anything else.
- Inspect your plants daily to check that they are getting the right amount of sun.
- Pests should be addressed immediately. Bugs on herbs are rare but if it happens use a nontoxic, organic product .
- Cut or pluck any flower heads that you see forming ASAP. This will force your plant to grow more leaves.
- Regularly harvest leaves from the top of the plant only. Always leave the large bottom leaves alone unless you plan to get rid of the entire plant at the end of the year.
- When you cut leaves, cut above the tops of the next leaves rather than right below the leaves you are harvesting.
- If you find you would like more plants, simply trim off a part of the plant as you would if you were harvesting normally. Take this twig and pluck off the bottom leaves so you have a stem. Pop this twig into a small pot with very damp soil in a shady area and within about 2 weeks it should have rooted and started growing.
Part two of this guide will delve into growing spices for beginners.
Have you grown herbs? What are your best tips? Share them in the section below: