Easy to grow Herbs

 Most herbs are easy to grow and some are available all the year round ready to pick for the kitchen. Herbs are an ideal container plant, and have the bonus of being attractive to bees and butterflies. Herbs are so easy to grow and it's good to have them on hand ready for cooking. Supermarket herbs are expensive, and the pots quickly get tired and need to be replaced. 

Herbs are a diverse group of plants. Planting different herbs together to make a herb garden may sound attractive, but is only a good idea in theory as it overlooks their different growing requirements.

The Mediterranean type herbs are a good example. This group includes some common herbs such as Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, but they have different growing requirements to say, Chives, Basil and Parsley. Some herbs can be planted together, such as the Mediterranean herbs, but not all. Chives, Parsley and Coriander dislike the baking heat and dry conditions which the Mediterranean herbs enjoy and should be planted in a cooler spot with semi shade. Because they prefer different types of growing conditions, Herbs are often better  grown ornamental plants mixing with many garden favourites and not limited being planted in a herb garden or vegetable plot.

Also easy to grow and suitable for the veg plot or containers are Garlic and Chilies.

Not enough sun in your garden ? Check out Herbs for Shade. 

Check out also my blog with Thompson and Morgan about starting a Starting a culinary herb garden

Growing Herbs in containers

A container herb garden

All these herbs can be grown in containers on a windowsill or patio.  

Mint is so vigorous it should only be grown in a container to prevent it from spreading and taking over all the space.

The Mediterranean herbs can be grown together in one large container, or grouped in single containers. Rosemary and Sage are physically the largest of the herbs and will outgrow a container requiring repotting after a  couple of years. Some herbs, such as tarragon and Mint, are short-lived and will need replacing. Herbs look lovely in containers and make a pretty display for the cooks and the bees.  

There are also some vegetables suitable for growing in containers.

Growing Herbs Rosemary Thyme Oregano and Sage

 These herbs are all are sun-loving plants which like well drained or dry conditions and can be grown easily on average soil. These herbs are not fussy about the soil conditions, provided the soil is not wet. They do not need rich soil and are good in walls, rockeries and containers.  

How to grow Rosemary

Blue flowers on Rosemary

Rosemary is a perennial evergreen shrub which can grow outside all year round. This Mediterranean type herb grows best in a warm sheltered sunny spot with well-drained soil. The upright form of Rosemary is H4 hardy, and will survive well in the garden providing it is planted in well drained soil.

Rosemary officinalis is now known as Salvia rosmarinus and is now a member of the Sage family.

All the Mediterranean type of herbs dislike having their roots in cold, wet soil or being in a cold wind. If your garden has cold winds, it can chill the plant, causing the needles to go brown and die back.  In the winter of 2018, we have sustained bitterly icy winds was too much for an established Rosemary 'Miss Jessopp's Upright' and it became dead stems and brown leaves. Time to plant again. In a sheltered spot, Rosemary will do well and has lovely blue flowers.

The upright form illustrated above, which when grown in ideal conditions, can reach a height of 1.5 meters. It can be clipped into topiary shapes and when pruning, it is important not to cut into the wood, as the plant will not recover.

 

Horizontal form of Rosemary

There is also creeping, horizontal form, Salvia rosmarinus (Prostrata group,)  illustrated right. This impressive specimen was growing in the Botanical garden Cap Roig in Spain, but it will grow well in the UK if planted in the right place.

This variety of Rosemary is less hardy, H3 and needs winter protection. This trailing variety of Rosemary is best in a greenhouse over winter, in contrast with the upright variety will survive an English winter provided it is in a sheltered spot.  

If you wonder why your Rosemary does not flower well it maybe because like me, you are cutting and snipping off the growing points for cooking and inadvertently cutting off the wood on which the flowers would form. 

Good varieties of Rosemary to grow

Between 2017-2021 the RHS conducted a trial of Rosemary  at Wisely. You can view the full results,

some suggested varieties to grow which retained/were awarded the RHS award of garden merit:

The longstanding favourite 'Miss Jessopp's Upright' retained its position a lovely garden variety; a pink flowering variety S. rosmarinus 'Rosea' ; and 'Majorca Pink' which again flowers pink and has arching habit.

Herbs in containers on windowsill

Growing Thyme

Thymus vulgaris

In size, Thyme varies from low-growing plants with some varieties are only a few centimetres high, to a small shrub Thymus vulgaris up to 30cms. Thymus are evergreen perennials and love a sunny, well-drained spot in the garden.

There are many types of Thyme, most are suitable for cooking, including T. citriodorus common name lemon scented Thyme which is fully hardy and good varieties are ' Archers Gold' and 'Golden King' with lovely gold variegated leaves and 'Silver Posie and Silver Queen' with cream variegated leaves; T.doerfleri 'Bressingham' a prostrate mat forming variety with purple pink flowers in the summer; T. 'Doone Valley' another fully hardy mat forming Thyme with lavender pink flowers.

Thyme is attractive to bees and butterflies and will happily grow in poor soils. A low growing plant Thyme looks good along-side paths in gravel and makes an attractive edging to a path. Thyme can get leggy and benefit from cutting back after flowering.

Personally, if I could grow only one type of Thyme (possibly only one herb) it would be Thymus vulgaris which is illustrated. I appreciate you are looking at the image, thinking it's not very exciting looking, but it is a fabulous cooking herb. This variety of Thyme has a lovely sweet flavour, and upright growth and shape means that you can cut a couple of branches and easily strip off the leaves. Some Thymes are very fiddly to remove the leaves, but not the simple T. vulgaris. 

How to grow Sage

sage plant

Sage falls into the same group of easy to grow sun loving herbs. Sage is more of a shrubby plant and is very hardy. As a Mediterranean herb, it needs a spot which is dry and sheltered. A bad winter can damage the plant, especially if it is wet.

Sage is easy to grow in containers and requires no maintenance. Although it can look a bit tired after winter, as soon as spring arrives, it picks up and produced new fresh growth. The leaves are very soft, almost downy and it makes a good garden shrub, being neat and well behaved, growing into a tidy round mound growing up to around 60cms.  

Rooting Sage in water

If you find taking cuttings difficult, here is an easier way. Take a cutting about the size in the image left of Sage and place in water for a couple of weeks. The cutting will grow lots of roots as shown, and then you can pot it up into a small pot and grow on.

It may take a few months, or a season, but it will root well and be garden ready.

This is a simple way to raise plants from cuttings . This also works for Sedum, Mint herb and Nepeta, penstemon, Rosemary, Pelargonium, Artemisia and Basil.

Growing Marjoram and Oregano

Marjoram with butterfly

Another Mediterranean herb which is easy to grow. It is more than much loved by the bees. Marjoram is absolutely adored by bees and in summer, the herb will hum with activity.

Growing conditions for Marjoram and Oregano are the same, essentially a dry spot with sun, although Oregano is much tougher and will grow in most places. In fact, the main drawback is that Oregano is a self seeder and pops up everywhere. It is vigorous, and you need to check it, but the bees and pollinators cannot get enough of it in the summer.

It's not cooked with widely, but as the image shows, it looks great and keeps the bees happy and busy in the garden. I remove the shoots of new plants as soon as I see them growing in the borders to keep the Oregano under control. Oregano is best cut back each spring and new growth will form. It can get quite large and is receptive to the Chelsea chop in May to make it more compact.
Below is an image taken at Beningbrough Hall a National Trust property in North Yorkshire with an interest incorporation of Oregano as topiary into a mixed border.  It was a reoccurring theme within the border and looked effective.

Oregano as Topiary

How to grow Italian and Thai Basil

No herb garden is complete without Basil, with powerfully scented leaves a staple of so many lovely summer dishes.

Basil is a tender herb and needs a warm spot. It is best to grow Basil in the greenhouse or indoors until the summer picks up (if it does) and then find a warm sheltered spot on the patio is ideal. Basil is very tender and cannot be left outside over winter. Even if it is chilly, the leaves will discolour and develop light brown patches and tend to curl. Because Basil is so tender and likes it warm, I tend to keep it inside in the house or in a greenhouse until summer fully arrives. 

 Basil germinates easily from seed. To grow Basil from seed, just sprinkle 2/3 seeds into a small pot and create a mini propagator by covering the pot with a poly bag and securing with an elastic band. I also place a small pea stick or twig in the pot to hold the poly bag away from the plant. Fill the pot with good quality compost, mist with a water spray and cover the seed lightly with compost. Cover with the bag and seal and it will germinate easily within a few days if placed somewhere warm, such as a windowsill or greenhouse. (Video how to make a homemade propagator.) As soon as the seedlings appear, take off the polythene bag and grow on ensuring the plant does not dry out. Once it has reached a decent size and has good roots, which will take a few weeks, pot on into a larger pot and it is ready to provide you with pickings all summer long.  You can make several sowings during late spring and early summer to ensure a supply all summer. 

Just as easy to germinate and grow, and requiring very similar conditions, is Thai Basil, image above right, the traditional basil used in curries and Thai dishes. Thai basil has a different taste, more aniseed in flavour and is a great addition to Asian and Thai dishes. It is no more difficult than ordinary Basil to grow from seed, and it needs the same warm sheltered conditions. Thai Basil has the benefit of attractive purple flowers, although these are best removed rather than admired, because flowering will cause the plant to set seed and stop growing.

There are quite a few different types of Basil to choose from depending on your cooking requirements. Sweet Basil is the most widely grown, a good variety is 'Genovese'. Thai Basil 'Siam Queen' is widely sold and has lovely pink purples flowers. Greek Basil has much smaller compact leaves, and whilst there are several red/purple varieties, 'Purple Ruffles' is very attractive and could be planted in flower beds with it's lovely ruffled leaves. 

It is important when growing Basil to keep removing its flowers, otherwise the plant will stop its production of leaves and come to a stop.

Growing Parsley

Flat leaved Parsley flourishing in the winter

Every cook needs Parsley and the usual varieties grown and used in cooking are P.crispum which is the traditional curly leaved Parsley, and var.neapolitanum which is the French and Italian flat leaf variety, illustrated left.

The image left is not of the best Parsley I have ever grown, but what is interesting is that I took the image on 14th December, and the Parsley was still going strong with plenty of growth. The plant will survive, although there will be less and less growth. 

 Parsley can be tricky to germinate from seed, often slow, and sometimes it will not germinate. Parsley seeds need warmth, good rich soil and to be kept damp. Early in the year, the soil is too cold for Parsley to germinate easily and I would recommend sowing in the greenhouse or inside. The key to growing from seed is to ensure plenty of warmth, moisture, and patience, allow several days or weeks to germinate without the seed drying out. And if nothing happens, sow again (and if needs be again.)

EU regulations in relation to seeds (assuming the regs still apply, and who knows,) are such that there are minimum requirements for seed viability, which varies, but can be as low as 65% so not all the seed in the packet will germinate. This means if your seed doesn't germinate, it may not be your fault because at 65% viability, only just over half the seed in the packet has the propensity to germinate. 

Growing Chives

Bee friendly Chives

Chives are a member of the onion family, easy to grow and the bees love them. Latin name is Allium schoneoprasum, fully hardy and will tolerate partial shade.  Chives have lovely purple flower heads and also make an ideal edging plant and are suitable for growing at the front of a border, reaching a height of around 30-40cms. Because Chives are hardy, you can leave them out in the garden all the year round and they will be perfectly happy. They are also one of the few herbs which will tolerate partial shade. Chive flower heads are attractive to bees and are long lasting. Chives are a herbaceous perennial, which means they die back over the winter months and start growing again very early in the spring.

Chives cutting back

Often by mid summer around June time Chives can look a bit tatty with faded flowers as shown in the image left.

In June cut hives back and within a week or so there will be new fresh green growth and later a further flush of flowers.  I cut the Chives in the image left back  mid June and within a couple of weeks had good green growth, and new flower heads within a month. 

 

Chive flowers are edible and look good in salad

Chive flowers are edible and have become popular with the cooking trend of adding various flowers to salad dishes. Allium tuberosum is the Garlic flavoured chive, which has very similar growing requirements and has attractive white flowers. Both types of Chives will grow easily in full sun, or partial shade with no special soil requirements other than not to be waterlogged. Chives like so many herbs are easy to grow with little or no maintenance required.

One of the absolute best variety of chives to grow for bee attraction is an Allium variety called nutans, common name Siberian Chives. This video shows just how many bees and pollinators are attracted to Chives, and this variety.

Growing Mint

Mint in greenhouse

Mint is a vigorous, hardy, short-lived perennial herb which will happily look after itself. The problem with mint is that it is vigorous and will take over if left to its own devices. It sets out runners which will colonise an area quickly and it is not recommended to plant in the veg plot or border. Also, if planted with other herbs, it will overtake them. It is a herb thug and is much better grown in a container to control it.

After a year or so, Mint can look tatty, with unappetising leaves which become tough and it is often best treated as an annual. I find it lasts longer if overwintered in the greenhouse (as in the image left alongside some parsley. ) There are now lots of different varieties of mint to choose from such as, Apple mint, Spearmint, Pineapple and Ginger Mint, and always best grown in a container.  Mint is one herb which will tolerate partial shade.

Growing Bay

It is easy to decide which Bay to grow,  as there is only one Laurus nobilis.  Bay is often trained into topiary for decoration, looking smart in containers adorning front doorsteps, which can overlook the fact that Bay is a culinary herb and good for adding to stews and casseroles. One plant is often enough, and you can train it into a topiary shape, lollipops are popular, and still eat it!

Bay is not fully hardy, toleratant of temperatures down to -5 . Bay does not like it freezing for which reason they are best grown in containers which can be moved under cover to shelter over the winter. If left to its own devices, Bay will become a largish sized shrub, although slow growing, eventually around 10m.

Growing Tarragon

Tarragon growing

Tarragon is a great herb to grow, especially because it is not always readily available in the supermarket and has a lovely aniseed flavour. There are two types, French, which have the stronger flavour and Russian, which is hardier. French Tarragon not will survive outside over winter and can be overwintered in a greenhouse or conservatory, unless your garden is sheltered and it may survive covered with a good mulch.

Tarragon, Latin name Artemisia dracunculus, is part of the Artemisia genus which all have aromatic foliage, often grey or silver leaves which make attractive border plants. Tarragon needs to be grown in full sun, in a warm sheltered spot and in well-drained soil.

Tarragon is classified as fully hardy, though it thrives best in warmer spots and needs to be overwintered out of the frost and chill winds. French Tarragon does not often set seed and is usually grown from small plants. Russian Tarragon can be raised from seed although its flavour is different and personally I do not think it is anyway as nice as French Tarragon. French Tarragon can be propagated from cuttings and grown all the year round if kept under glass. Plants run out of steam after 2/3 years and will need replacing.  Sometimes it is just easier to buy a couple of new plants each spring.

updated 20.12.2021