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Herbs: growing

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last updated Jan 26, 2011
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Herbs: growing

A continuous medley of aromatic, fresh herbs are easy to grow and harvest, adding vibrant flavours and texture to any meal.

See also...

Herbs in containers
Herbs: propagation
Herbs and salad leaves: in growing-bags
Lavender growing
The Herb Society
Vegetables in containers

Book references:

Jekka’s complete herb book by Jekka McVicar (Kyle Cathie in association with the Royal Horticultural Society 2007, ISBN 9781856267410)

Herbs to try Back to top

All of the commonly used culinary herbs can easily be grown in traditional herb or vegetable gardens, raised beds, containers or the mixed border. These include;

  • Popular annuals: basil, coriander and dill
  • Biennials: caraway, chervil and parsley
  • Perennials: borage, chives, fennel, marjoram, mint, sage, tarragon and thyme

When and where to grow herbs Back to top

Herbs grow best with full sun and light, well-drained, moisture-retentive, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter incorporated. For a continuous supply:

  • Sow seeds of ones that rapidly run to seed, coriander and dill for example, on a fortnightly basis throughout spring and summer
  • Choose several cultivars, where available, with different maturing times to help to keep the herb garden productive
  • Pot up herbs such as chives, mint, parsley, or tarragon grown outdoors and bring them in for the winter, standing them on a south-facing windowsill
  • Keep a few containers near the house for easy picking
  • Pot a few larger containers with stronger-growing herbs such as mint and sage
  • Make use of new or used growing-bags especially where space is limited
  • Start early in the spring by sowing herbs under cloches and frames
  • Sow a few trays in a greenhouse, conservatory or sunny windowsill and grow plants on ready for planting out when the soil warms up

How to raise beds Back to top

Starting off

Sow seed of herbs such as basil, chives and parsley under glass with or without heat from January to early April. Additionally, as soil conditions allow, you can sow seed of chervil, coriander and dill, directly into the soil outdoors from March onwards.

Cuttings of some herbs such as bay, marjoram, mint, rosemary, sage, tarragon and thyme can be taken from late summer to early autumn.

Divide hardy herbs such as sweet marjoram, oregano, mint and thyme in spring or after flowering in late summer.

More information can be found on our page for propagating herbs.

If you do not have suitable conditions for raising your own herbs, many mail order suppliers and garden centres offer a range of young plants or plugs. When these arrive they need to be carefully removed from their packaging and potted up, either into cell trays or 9cm (3½in) pots. Grow on somewhere warm and well lit, such as a windowsill, until the roots have nicely filled (but not overcrowded) the container.

Planting out

Plant out young plants after hardening off. Make sure the soil or compost is moist at planting time:

  1. Rake the soil level, removing any large clods or stones
  2. Gently loosen plants from their trays by pushing them up from the base. Knock out plants from pots by giving a sharp tap to the bottom with the handle of your trowel
  3. Handle plants by their leaves or rootball to avoid damaging their vulnerable stems
  4. Plant so the top of the rootball is just below the soil surface
  5. Firm in
  6. Once planting is completed, water in using a watering can without a rose
  7. Shallow-rooted plants dry out quickly so water regularly when they are growing strongly

Harvesting

Some herbs and salads such as coriander, wild rocket and cress may be ready to harvest within a few days of sowing, while others may take a few weeks. They can be picked easily by pinching out or cut before flowering to promote bushy growth.

Guide to growing herbs Back to top

Here is a brief guide to growing and using some of the most commonly-grown herbs:

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

  • Grow in rich, light well-drained to dry soils in sun
  • Pinch out growing tips to encourage bushiness and delay flowering, though regular sowings are still needed to a summer-long supply
  • Leaves are picked during the growing season and used fresh or dried
  • Purple-leaved cultivars have ornamental value

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

  • Well-drained soil in sun or part shade
  • Bay also lends itself well to container-growing
  • Trim to shape in summer, removing suckers from standards and topiary as they appear
  • Leaves can be picked in summer for drying

Caraway (Carum carvi)

  • Well-drained, fertile soil in full sun, tolerant of heavy soils
  • Leaves and roots used fresh as vegetable, seeds, when ripe, used dried

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)

  • Rich, light, moisture-retentive soil in part shade
  • Delicate anise flavour, leaves used fresh in salads or in French cooking; flowers and roots are also edible

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

  • Rich, well-drained soil in full sun, though tolerant of wet conditions and heavy soils
  • Cut down to the ground after flowering to produce fresh leaves
  • Mild garlic-like flavour; leaves, bulbs and flowers are all used

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum)

  • Well-drained fertile soil in full sun, although leaves may be more productive in part shade
  • Leaves and roots used fresh, especially in Thai cooking
  • Seeds used dried in curries and pickles

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

  • Well-drained neutral to slightly acid soil in sun
  • Leaves are cut in spring and summer for using fresh or dried; seeds harvested in summer for use dried, all widely used in cooking, especially Scandinavian cookery

Marjoram (Origanum vulgare)

  • Grows best in well-drained to dry, neutral to alkaline soil in sun
  • Leaves are picked during the growing season; often used dried in Italian, Greek and Mexican cuisine

Mint (Mentha spp.)

  • Rich, moist soil in sun or part shade where it may become invasive, so it is best grown in a container and regularly divided
  • Strongly aromatic leaves used for flavouring and tea

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

  • Rich, well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in sun or part shade
  • Pick leaves just before flowering and use fresh; an essential ingredient in French, Italian and Middle East cookery

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

  • Well-drained, ideally neutral to alkaline soil in full sun with shelter in cold areas as it rarely survives prolonged freezing
  • Remove dead stems and weak growth in spring, prune after flowering to encourage bushy growth
  • Fresh or dried leaves are used for flavouring, especially meat such as lamb. Fresh sprigs can be steeped in vinegar or olive oil

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

  • Well-drained to dry neutral to alkaline soils in full sun, sage dislikes damp conditions and low light in winter
  • Many cultivars have excellent ornamental value
  • Hard prune in early spring to promote bushy growth
  • Leaves are used to flavour many dishes, especially meat. Fresh or dried leaves are used for tea

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)

  • Well-drained, neutral to slightly alkaline soil in sun
  • Pick leaves before flowering
  • Distinctive, aromatic leaves used to flavour chicken and egg dishes, salad dressing and sauces

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

  • Well-drained, even stony poor soils in sun; most thyme prefer neutral to alkaline soil
  • Trim lightly after flowering to maintain bushy habit
  • Fresh or dried leaves and flowers used to flavour many dishes especially French cookery

Problems Back to top

Herbs such as coriander, dill, basil and wild rocket can be quick to bolt especially if overcrowded or in poor dry soil. Make regular sowings to have a good supply of these crops.

Maintain air movement and ventilate greenhouses to help reduce problems with fungal diseases such as grey mould (Botrytis cinerea) and damping off of seedlings.
 
On lettuces, downy mildew can be problematic and mint rust can affect marjoram and savory as well as mint species.

Rosemary beetle can be a problem on lavender, sage and thyme as well as rosemary. Protect young seedlings from birds, slugs and snails.

Quick facts

Suitable for All culinary herbs
Timing Throughout the growing season
Difficulty Easy to moderate
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