One of my all-time favorite ways to make anything taste better is by adding herbs (and lemon, but let’s stick with herbs here for a second). Though dried will work in a pinch, fresh herbs give you the pop of flavor and the freshness and can brighten up just about any dish in no time. Soup that’s sort of flat-tasting? Pasta that could use a little gussying up? Lemonade that needs a little something extra to make it special? All of these very common (LOL…) conundrums can be solved by the addition of parsley, dill, mint, basil, rosemary.
But herbs sold at the grocery store can be expensive and (sometimes) hard to find, and you almost always end up buying way more than you need, right? So what’s a girl to do? Easy (or, at least, relatively easy). You grow them yourself at home. That way, you have them within easy reach whenever you want to whip up a pesto or sprinkle them into a salad. Plus, you can trim just the amount that you need—no more tossing out old rotten herbs that had gotten lost in the depths of the refrigerator or you had no idea what to do with.
You’ve decided—an herb garden it is. Now you need to know where to start. There are so many different things to consider, from the amount of space you have, to how you want to grow your garden. Here’s what you need to know:
First things first: you might think that an apartment-based herb garden is pretty much an impossibility, especially if you don’t have access to much (or any!) outdoor space, but that’s just not true.
Where to start
If you have a space that gets about six to eight hours of sunlight on a sunny day, according to Better Homes & Gardens, you can grow herbs. Make sure that you have that sunny spot picked out, as well as the right tools you’ll need for the job: pots with good drainage, plants or seeds, the right soil, maybe a bit of fertilizer (always read and follow directions carefully), a tray to catch any excess water, and a small trowel. All of these supplies are readily available wherever you’re getting your plants, don’t worry.
What to grow
If this is all new to you, stick to heartier herbs that aren’t quite so fussy, like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and mint, as per Apartment Therapy. That way, you can get a feel for taking care of herbs and branch out from there as you start to feel more confident. Think of those as “starter herbs.” Other great ones to try? Chives, basil, parsley, and cilantro are all good herbs for beginners, as gardening expert Charlie Nardozzi told EatingWell.
My personal recommendation is to stick to herbs (as much as you can) that you like to eat, unless your only goal is to have plants around, in which case, you may just want to opt for other house plants that are easier to care for. You don’t like sage? That’s one that you don’t need to grow then. If you’re growing herbs you often (or could often!) use while cooking, they won’t go to waste. Easy enough, right?
Seeds or plants?
You may find that it’s more economical to grow your garden from seeds, rather than buying up small plants to care for, as the University of Illinois Extension noted. But it also requires a bit more patience and planning. Plant seeds about twice the thickness of the seed under the soil, as Nancy Kreith, the horticulture educator at the University of Illinois Extension, told the U of I Extension website.
If you’d rather opt for starting from plants, you can purchase them from grocery stores like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and The Fresh Market, home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, and local nurseries. Depending on what you’re buying, they may already come in a small pot or container. When it’s time to transfer them to something roomier, make sure you’re using the right soil (more on that in a minute) and break up the compact soil and roots a bit so that the roots will have room to stretch out in their new home.
Yes, the type of soil matters
If you’re creating an indoor garden, making sure that you’re using the right soil is even more key. Potting mix, rather than the kind of soil that you’d use if planting outside, is a better choice because it allows for better drainage in the pot, according to The Spruce.
There’s also a careful balance needed when it comes to watering. You’ll likely need to water your herbs daily—if the soil dries out, the herbs may not do well (though some, like thyme and sage, should be allowed to dry out a bit, according to the Penn State Extension)—but you also want to ensure that you’re not flooding your plants or you could end up with root rot.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re not fertilizing your indoor herbs too often. According to the Penn State Extension, fertilizing more than once every two weeks or so can negatively impact herbs’ flavor, which is definitely not what you want right before you toss a handful of basil into your pasta sauce.
Above all, just take it slow, be flexible and open to changing things up, and learn as you go. Just like anything else, caring for plants (including herbs!) gets easier as you learn more.
Where to start
Growing herbs outside is, of course, much like growing herbs inside. After all, you can even grow them entirely in pots outdoors, just as you would inside. Yes, you can expand your garden a bit, but the premise is generally the same. That being said, if you’re hoping to start your little garden on a fire escape, make sure that’s something that’s OK (it’s not in New York City due to fire codes, according to BuzzFeed). So first, pick your spot. Make sure it’s getting good sun (remember, about six to eight hours worth) and that there’s plenty of room for what you want to plant.
What to grow
If you’re a novice, stick to starter herbs like chives, mint, oregano, and the like, until you build up your confidence and experience. Once you do that, move on to things that are a bit more challenging (you can do it!).
Seeds or plants?
One way in which growing herbs outdoors may be different is if you’re hoping to begin with seeds. You’ll likely choose to start your seeds in pots indoors and then later transfer them to your garden outside. That requires some planning. If you live in or near Illinois, for example, U of I recommends planting your seeds in March. Many new growers (or poor planners, in my case) won’t start thinking about which herbs they may want to grow until later. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to sit the season out, but it does mean that you may not want to transfer them to the ground.
If you are transferring them, the same depth rules apply as if you’re planting in a pot: make sure you’re sowing seeds at a depth of about twice the thickness of the seed.
If you’re using plants, you can likewise start them inside before transferring them to your yard. Make sure that you consider the ground that they’ll be going into, however. Some herbs don’t like moist (I know) soil, as The Spruce noted, so if you’re hoping to cultivate those, keep them in their pots.
Once you’re ready to transfer your little plants to the garden, make sure that you keep spacing in mind. Plants placed too close together will crowd each other, potentially causing problems with the root systems, The Spruce noted. The Penn State Extension site recommends following specific spacing guidance that’s printed on the plant containers or seed packages.
When it comes to watering, your plants outside planted in your garden will likely need less frequent waterings than herbs planted in pots and containers. Martha Stewart told TODAY that you should be sure to water your herbs in the morning, rather than in the evening and to make sure to not over-water.
Martha told TODAY that fertilizer actually isn’t necessary for growing herbs, but if you are going to choose to fertilize your plants, make sure to remember not to over-fertilize. Again, (in case you skipped right down to the relevant planting outside part of this article—I’d do the same!) anything more frequently than once every two weeks or so can potentially alter the taste of your herbs. Not exactly what you wanted from your domestic goddess in the garden moment.
For more specifics about the growing guidelines for different kinds of herbs, check out this very helpful list of tips from Better Homes & Gardens. And get planting. Your cooking-at-home meals will thank you.