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Jekka's tips on starting a culinary herb garden: planning, planting, maintaining and harvesting

by Alistair McVicar |

A culinary herb garden is a must have for any keen gardener or cook. It brings flavour to any kitchen and colour and texture to the garden. 

Getting started

The first thing to decide is where you wish your culinary herb garden to be; the best site is a sunny area easily accessible to the kitchen and the importance of this is never clearer than when it is raining. Also, the sunnier the growing position, the better the flavour as the sun brings the oils to the surface of the leaf of many herbs. At its simplest, this could mean placing them along the edge of a path or in a pot outside the door. We currently have Mentha Spicata growing outside our door, which not only smells great but goes wonderfully in salad dressings and with new potatoes.

Soil Requirements for Herb Gardens

Whether your herb garden is in the ground, in containers or a mixture of both make sure that the soil is free-draining. This is because most herbs hate getting their "feet" wet for any length of time. Sandy soil is fine but clay soil will need compost and grit added liberally to loosen it up. Bear in mind where they come from, Mediterranean perennials such as rosemary and lavender thrive in a fertile, well drained gritty soil, but annuals tend to be a bit different. Basil, loves a fertile soil that is free draining so that it does not have cold feet at night, Coriander and Parsley like a soil that is fertile and retains moisture.

When planting in the ground, make sure you have easy access to each herb so that it can be easily reached for cutting, weeding and feeding, you could use stepping stones, or sawn logs, or a simple path.

Planning your Herb Garden

If you are new to garden design and do not already have an idea of how you wish to lay out your herb garden a good starting point is to divide your herbs into beds, arranged symmetrically around a central point. This follows the approach of traditional monastery gardens.

Things to consider when designing your culinary herb garden, include:

  • What would you like to use it for? Is it for continuous use for the kitchen or occasional picking?
  • What access do you need to the garden?
  • What is the aspect of the space? In full sun or partial shade?
  • Are there any features already in or near to the garden that you would like to incorporate; such as the view to the local church?
  • Do you have any established trees and, therefore, their root systems to consider?
  • Are any windows facing onto the garden?
  • What structural plants would you like to use; such as bay or box?

The simplest design would be four beds, each a square yard (or square metre) in size, around a sundial or small round bed containing one tall herb – a rosemary bush or bay tree as a permanent feature, or fennel, which would grow up every year and offer sculptural stems in winter. 

Dividing herbs into beds means that those with similar needs can be grouped together. The annuals that need a good soil and regular watering are also easier to protect from colder nights towards the end of the season if they’re planted together.

Robust herbs such as sage and rosemary stand up to each other, require little watering and a sharply drained soil. If your herb area is small, however, you might prefer to relegate these perennials to the flower borders, where they have room to expand. Sage grows prodigiously in summer and will swamp smaller herbs planted too close.

Herbs such as mint and lemon balm are best kept elsewhere, unless you want a constant battle to keep them from spreading through the other plants.

Jekka's top tip is to group herbs together in order to take advantage of their heights (taller ones near the centre of a bed) and textures. The tall stems and soft leaves of lovage, for example, contrast with the feathery delicacy of sweet cicely, but don’t forget the opportunities for different colour foliage: bronze fennel, purple sage, or lemon thyme with its variegated leaves.

Planting out your Herbs

On the Herb Farm, we initially grow cuttings and seeds in modules, after potting up they are grown on and harden off, enabling you to plant out our young plants with maximum success. For plants you have grown yourself, or brought from elsewhere, make sure you harden them off before planting out. Some tips to follow when planting herbs include:

  • Prepare the soil by loosening the soil with a fork or rake and removing any large clods or stones.
  • Make sure the soil is moist prior to planting out.
  • Gently loosen the herb from their pot or tray by pushing them up from the base. Then carefully knock the herb out the container.
  • Handle plants by their root-ball to avoid damaging their vulnerable stems.
  • Dig your hole so that when the herb is put into it the top of the root-ball is just below the soil surface.
  • Ensure the herb is sitting upright, cover with soil and firm in.
  • Once the herb is planted, water in using a watering can without a rose.

Maintaining your Herb Garden

Watering is one of the hardest aspects of maintaining a culinary herb garden. You need to ensure your herbs are watered regularly when it is sunny and, if they are in pots, that they do not dry out.

In general, herbs grown for foliage (such as mint, chives, lovage) need a cutback after flowering to encourage more shoots. Woody herbs (thyme, lavender, sage, rosemary) need a light prune to keep their shape and to prevent them from becoming too woody. Do this after flowering or in autumn.

In late summer, cut flower heads for seeds, but leave some, particularly angelica and fennel, as they are so good-looking in frosty conditions. To shape bay trees, cut them back in spring once the frosts have finished.

Harvesting your Herbs

The more you pick the healthier the plant. For example, for Chives you can pick some of the flowers to use in salads and, if the plant is then cut back to within 4cm of the ground, which might seem a bit extreme, and given a good feed of liquid fertiliser, it will produce another crop of succulent leaves within a month.

Herbs can be picked from very early in their growing season. This encourages the plant to produce vigorous new growth. Most herbs reach their peak of flavour just before they flower. Snip off stems early in the day before the sun is fully up, or, even better, on a cloudy day.

As we teach on our Master Classes, when pruning or picking herbs, always use a sharp knife, sharp scissors or secateurs, and cut whole stems at lengths of 5-8cm from the tip of the branch, this being the new, soft growth. Do not cut into any of the older, woody growth. Cut from all over the plant, leaving it looking shapely.

Jekka's suggestions for the perfect cook's Herb Garden

You can find more ideas in Jekka's new book 'A Pocketful of Herbs', browsing Jekkapedia, exploring our recipes or visiting us at our Open Days: our next Open Days are the 3rd and 4th May 2019 where you can explore our culinary herb collection and buy herb plants and seeds. Alternatively you can use our enquiry form to arrange a herb farm collection.