Herbs have been used since man has been on this planet as medicine and as food. They are the most wonderfully diverse and useful plants, coming in all shapes and sizes, textures, colours, perfumes and uses.
They are the most generous of plants as they can turn a meal into a feast and a simple herb infusion can ease tension and lift the spirits. Growing your own medicinal and culinary herbs is a rewarding activity for any home cook, gardener or enthusiast of all ages.
As many herbs like Rosemary and Thyme are evergreen it is possible to have fresh herbs all year round. In our opinion nothing beats the flavour of fresh herbs.
Most herbs are relatively easy to grow, they adapt to most situations including within a traditional vegetable garden. If you are able to grow herbs in a dedicated herb garden harvesting is easier and it also creates a wonderful colourful and aromatic display. If you do not have the space to dedicate to herbs, then they can be planted in flower beds and borders, which not only look attractive but will also attract many pollinating insects including bees and butterflies to your garden wherever they are located. Alternatively, you can make a stunning culinary herb border. See Jekka's Blog on planning a culinary herb garden for more advice.
Sowing & propagating herbs
Herbs are propagated either by seed, cutting or division. The time of year is important, when sowing UK native herbs one should sow the seeds in the autumn, following nature. When growing herbs from the Mediterranean or warmer climates it is best to start in the spring.
If one wants to get a head start on the season, either use a propagator or sow seeds under cloches to protect the young seedlings from the weather. If you want to sow direct into the soil on an allotment or garden, with no protection, make sure the soil is warm enough. Do not start too early on the first sunny day in spring. Check the soil by putting the back of your hand on it. If it feels cold then wait a bit longer.
Some common herbs grown from seed, cuttings and division:
- Herbs grown from seed in the spring: Basil, Chives, Chervil, Coriander, Dill and Oregano
- Herbs grown by cuttings taken before flowering, or off new non flowering shoots: Bay, Mint, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon and Thyme
- Herbs grown by division: Mint and Tarragon
Most herbs benefit from being sown in seed trays or modules and then planted out once they are fully rooted and when all threat of frost has passed. Alternatively, once rooted, they can be potted up. Jekka advises to always start in small pots and not over pot as the plant will not grow until its roots touch the side of the pot and this can be a struggle for many seedlings.
Annual and biennial herbs like basil, coriander, parsley, dill, and chervil are fast growing and best sown at intervals throughout the spring and summer so you are guaranteed a continuous fresh supply. You can sow hardy annual or biennial herbs like dill, chervil and coriander from March directly into their final positions. This is especially important for coriander, chervil and dill because of their tap root they are difficult to transplant. Also read our blog on winter sowing which suggests several herbs that can be sown into early Autumn.
Propagate from cuttings perennial herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme in late spring before flowering. Take the cuttings from strong shoots, then place under cover in the warmth, and pot them on once they are rooted. Harden off plants in a cold frames or tunnels before planting into their final positions.
Some popular herbs you might wish to start with are:
Planting herbs out
When growing any plant, you should consider where the plant comes from and try to reproduce that environment. Although herbs are from all around the world, most of the culinary herbs we use today come from the Mediterranean and the Middle East and grow best with full sun, in a sheltered location with light, well-drained, moisture-retentive, fertile soil with plenty of organic matter incorporated. If you have heavy clay soil then incorporate some coarse grit and organic matter to improve drainage. See Jekka's guide to soil for more information.
In Jekka’s Herbetum, we grow our herbs in raised beds and therefore we can control the drainage and soil type. If you have moist, shady conditions consider planting chervil, parsley, meadowsweet, mint, lemon balm, or chives.
At Jekka’s we sell herbs in 1 Ltr and 2 Ltr pots. These are established and hardy herb plants that are grown to survive the UK climate. After purchasing your herbs you need to either pot them up or plant them out. Jekka’s tip is to pot up a plant one size of pot at a time as going from a 1 Ltr pot to a 10 Ltr pot in one go will stress the plant and can quite often kill it. Position them somewhere warm and well-lit until the roots have nicely filled (but not overcrowded) the container. The best compost in which to grow herbs is peat free and loam-based; if your options are limited go for a standard John Innes.
Jekkapedia will give you the acidity of the soil that the herbs prefer but, in general, most herbs will tolerate a slightly acid soil with the best pH-level for growing herbs being neutral to alkaline. Prior to planting out prepare the soil by raking the soil level and removing any large clods or stones, make sure the soil or compost is moist at planting time. Gently loosen plants from their pots by gently squeezing the pot and pushing them up from the base or knock out plants from pots by giving a sharp tap to the bottom with the handle of your trowel. Handle plants by the rootball to avoid damaging the stems and leaves, planting in a prepared hole so the top of the rootball is just below the soil surface.
Once planting is completed, water in using a watering can without a rose. Shallow-rooted plants dry out quickly so water regularly when they are growing strongly.
It is becoming increasingly popular to plant Thyme, Corsican mint and Lawn chamomile in paths. If you wish to do this, we recommend creating a good growing space, either by removing a slab or by cutting a slab in half. Plants do not grow in small cracks, seeds will appear but only last a season or two. Nor do plants grow in straight lines. Remember the paving stones will become very hot in summer, this makes the small roots, that the creeping herbs use to grow, shrivel up. So, if you require herbs in your path, give them space.
Growing herbs in containers
Growing herbs in pots and containers is a great way to grow fresh produce in smaller spaces or near to the kitchen for easy use. Some herbs like Mint can be invasive making it a good idea to grow them in sunken containers like old buckets with drainage holes or plastic pots, to restrict root growth. See Jekka's guide to Mint for more information on growing Mint.
Make sure your containers have adequate drainage holes and you can put some broken pot, ‘crocks’, in the bottom to make sure the draining hole remains open. It might be wise to raise your pots on bricks or 'pot feet' to prevent water logging in the winter. It’s also worth protecting pots in severe icy weather by placing them against a house wall and/or wrapping the pot in bubble wrap or horticultural fleece.
Herbs require routine watering and feeding when grown in containers. Feed your container-grown herbs regularly with a balanced fertiliser throughout the growing season. We use a liquid seaweed as this contains all the nutrients herbs need.
Should your container-grown herbs start to look weak check that they are not pot bound. Lift the plant and tease apart the roots on the edge of the pot before replanting in a bigger pot. Jekka’s tip is never to put herbs in too big a pot as they will put down roots before any top growth.
Once the frost has finished, this is the main time to sow outdoors and it is also time to cut and prune your hardy perennial herbs into shape. Trimming herbs in the spring encourages a flush of new healthy leaves. For container-grown herbs you can pot up if needed. Remember to water and feed regularly. Read Jekka's Blogs on maintaining your herbs in early and late spring.
Cut back and prune your herbs and preserve any herbs you have a glut of as outlined below. You can also nip out any growing tips to encourage bushing out and take soft-wood cuttings for any new herbs that are needed. Remember to cut back after flowering to preserve your plants shape and encourage growth.
This is the time to sow your last herbs for a winter harvest (check out our blog post on this). Otherwise, it is time to tidy the garden and dead head. It is best to leave any dead foliage on the plant to help protect it during the winter. Read Jekka's Blog on maintaining your herbs in Autumn.
Some herbs grown outside can be lifted, divided and brought indoors for the winter. For those left outside, you will need to protect any tender herbs with fleece or mulch if necessary.
Check out our blogs for more details on maintaining your herbs at different times of the year.
Herbs are best harvested in the morning before any essential oils evaporate. When harvesting herbs, remove foliage from the outside of the plant, allowing new leaves to develop in the centre, and remember not to cut into the wood or to use flowering stems.
You can harvest perennial herbs like Rosemary, Sage and Thyme almost all year round, but be aware that in late autumn no new growth will occur until spring. Some annual or biennial herbs, such as Coriander and Chervil, may be ready to harvest within a few weeks of sowing, while others may take over a month.
Herbs are easily preserved in oils, vinegars or by freezing, enabling you to enjoy their flavours all year round. This is especially useful when you have a glut. When freezing, either use whole sprigs in freezer bags or freeze chopped herbs with or without water in ice cube trays.
Some common problems with growing herbs
- 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.
- 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 mice, birds, slugs and snails.