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University of Illinois Extension
Herb Gardening

Gardening with Herbs

There are many ways to define an herb. In the botanical sense, an “herb” is an herbaceous plant that lacks a woody stem and dies to the ground each winter. Another definition describes herbs as any plant or plant part that has historically been used for culinary or fragrance purposes. And a broad definition of an herb is defined as a “useful plant” but one has to wonder what is meant by useful.

Herbs are easy to grow.

With a broad look at the word herb, it is possible to include hundreds of plants that fit the definition. While many herbs are in fact herbaceous, there are a lot that do develop woody stems. A gardener may wish to choose herb plants that have culinary value and aromatic value. And in addition to these traditional qualities, many herbs also offer a great deal of ornamental value to the garden as well.

Herbs can be classified as being either annual, perennial or biennial depending on whether they need to grow from seed each year or come back from overwintering crowns, roots, or bulbs. There are many herbs classified as tender perennials that are sold in parts of the country that do not allow them to overwinter successfully outdoors. These herbs are often grown in containers during the summer months and moved indoors before cold weather where they are overwintered in a sunny location of the home. Then next season they are moved back outdoors.

It is good to note the hardiness zones of the perennial herbs you buy and the hardiness zone where you garden. This helps to avoid disappointment thinking the herb you bought will be a permanent part of the garden when it may not be for the zone in which you are located. This necessitates planning on how you are going to overwinter the plant for next season.

Herbs can also be classified as either robust or fine (mild) herbs. Robust herbs are full bodied, rich in flavor and are often used alone or mixed with a few other herbs. Robust herbs stand up to cooking and may be used in dishes that are roasted, braised or grilled. Herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, and garlic would be classified as robust.

Fine herbs mix well with other herbs or when cooked, become milder. They are often added toward the end of the cooking process. Fine herbs are used in salads or eaten raw. Dill, basil, and parsley are considered mild and fine herbs.

Size and Design of Herb Gardens

As far as what an herb garden should look like and how big it should be, is all left for the gardener to decide. While a garden devoted to just growing herbs and laid out in a meticulous fashion can be a charming addition to the landscape, such gardens are not necessary and are often not very practical.

Herbs lend themselves to being incorporated into the vegetable garden and mix nicely with either perennial or annual flowers. A few square feet allotted to growing herbs outside the kitchen window or along the patio can also serve the needs of those wanting a few fresh herbs. Herbs planted where they can be brushed against while walking in the garden can add a fragerance to your garden. Many make attractive hedges, ground covers or edges along walkways. Their foliage color and texture blends in well with just about any planting. Herbs are extremely useful and attractive when used in containers. A single herb can be grown in a container as a specimen plant or several herbs can be planted together to give the balcony or patio gardener a functional culinary herb garden.

General Culture

Herbs are easy to grow. Just follow a few basic cultural requirements. Most herbs do best in full sun. There are a few that will tolerate partial shade. Any good garden soil is satisfactory for growing herbs. It is suggested that adequate amounts of organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure be worked into the soil prior to planting. This will help improve overall soil structure and aeration and supply some nutrients. Good drainage is also critical especially with many of the perennial herbs. Wet, poorly drained soils, particularly over the winter will shorten the useful life of many perennial type herbs. If the area selected for growing herbs is poorly drained, consider building raised beds. Fertilize the herb garden in much the same way you would a vegetable garden. Good fertility encourages maximum amount of growth that produces large amounts of flavor oils.

As far as what an herb garden should look like and how big it should be, is all left for the gardener to decide.

Careful attention to timely watering is also a key to producing good herbs. Many of the perennial type of herbs, once they become established can tolerate soils that may tend to dry out between waterings. Annual type herbs tend to do better when watering is done to keep soils moist. This will allow the herbs to produce abundant leaf growth that is high in flavor oils. The use of mulches is a good gardening practice that helps to conserve soil moisture and also reduce weed growth.

With container grown herbs, use a suitable sized container with ample drainage holes. Fill the container with a prepared potting mix. After planting, place the container in a sunny location. Regular, timely watering to keep the soil moist as well as a regular fertilization program will result in container herb gardens that produce all summer and maintain good appearance. A general purpose liquid fertilizer mixed properly (as per label direction) and applied every two weeks is sufficient to maintain quality plants.

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