Late March is a great time to start planning an Herb garden. It’s a time to shake off the winter cold and embrace the first of the sunny spring days. Though it’s a little early to get elbow deep in the garden soil you can still search out a location, plan what seed or plants you need to include and decide what materials you want to use to frame the herb garden. As you start to plan you can feel the sun start to shine on your mind, inspiration takes hold, and your spirits start to rise. So grab those seed catalogues and dream!
As with all great endeavors planning is everything. There are a few questions you can ask yourself when you plan your first Herb garden. Do you have a location that gets at least 6 hours of sun or is it more of a shaded area? Is there a water source close by? Is the location near the kitchen? Do you use herbs in cooking? Are you looking for a fragrant garden? Do you drink herbal teas? The answers to the first three questions should have you thinking about location and convenience. The answers to the last few questions give some insight into what would be the most useful herbs to grow. If an Herb garden is convenient and useful you will be more likely to enjoy working in it and enjoy the bounty that it produces.
First let’s look at location, size, and preparation. Most of the culinary herbs and many of the fragrant herbs require at least 6 hours of sunlight a day. A few of these herbs are Thyme, Sage, Basil, Parsley, Lavender, Rosemary, Oregano, and so on. Other herbs can be grown in partial shade, like Mint, Bee Balm, Lemon Balm, Sweet Woodruff and Angelica. This not an unbendable rule, I’ve seen Sage, Oregano and others grown in dryer partial shade and they still did well.
The size of a first herb garden really depends on the gardener. I suggest a 4-foot by 4-foot square that can be expanded by adding more 4×4 squares with walkways in between them. Now the dilemma, do you remove the sod, which is a lot of work, or do you build the garden on top of the existing sod? To prepare the area for planting measure out the area and put stakes in the corners, then if you choose, remove all the sod. Use some kind of edging, like rocks, landscaping timbers, cedar planks or something else to your liking to define the area. Add the Sod to the compost pile. Turn the soil over with a shovel or rototiller to loosen and increase the drainage in the soil. Heavy or clay soils must be amended with sand and compost to lighten them up because most herbs like well-drained soils.
If you choose not to remove the sod you will be building the garden on top of the sod. I’m finding that as I get older, raised beds are much easier to care for and they can be located anywhere that the meets the plants light requirements. Even on top of poor soil First, lay a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area. Next, put in place what ever you will be using for edging, I use rocks because they seem to always be popping up in the fields and gardens. Timbers or cedar planks can be used to raise the garden higher and make gardening easier on your back and knees. The edging should be placed so as to hold the paper or cardboard in place. After the edging is in place start to fill the garden area with a mixture of compost, manure, Grass clippings, bagged garden soil, Peat, etc., to the depth of about 12 inches. Now using a shovel, thoroughly blend the ingredients taking car not to break through the paper or cardboard at the bottom of the garden. An alternative to mixing the soil in the garden is to mix it on a tarp then add it to the garden. Finally, water the garden and let set. Water the garden every day for the next week before adding any plants. This will allow the soil time to settle and if the mixture is going to heat up it will have time to cool before you put any plants in that could be damaged by this composting action. Taking care to choose the right location, a size that won’t overwhelm you and taking time to prepare the garden properly will save a lot of time and work later on.
Now, for the fun part, choosing the plants for you garden. Your 4-foot x 4-foot garden can comfortably accommodate about 5 plants, one plant for the center, preferably something taller, and one for each corner. This gives the plants enough room to spread out as they mature. If you are going to cook with your herbs, plant the herbs you cook with the most. This could include a mixture of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Basil, Chives or Oregano. If you’re looking for fragrance, how about a fragrant Rose for the center and a selection of Lavender, Rosemary, catmint and maybe one of the scented Basils like Cinnamon. For a tea Garden you could include Bee Balm, Roman Chamomile, Catnip, Lemon Balm, and Pineapple Sage. Once you’ve chosen your plants and planted them you need to make sure to keep the area watered for about 2 weeks until the root systems become well establish. If the garden looks a little empty at first you try adding a few herbs in decorative pots to fill in the gaps. These can be moved elsewhere later in the summer to make room for all those delicious herbs that are being produced in your new Herb Garden. In a few weeks you will able to start to enjoy the flavors and scents of your garden.