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 can be planted in the border, or grown containers and many have the added 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 commonly grouped and grown together, but they are a very wide range of plants.

It is because they are a diverse group of plants that planting all different herbs in the same place in the garden sounds attractive as a herb garden, but is only a good idea in theory. The Mediterranean type herbs are a good example in point, and include some common herbs we like to cook with such 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 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 as 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 the herbs detailed on this page can be grown in containers and you can have a herb garden even if you have no garden, just a windowsill or patio.  Mint is so vigorous it should only be grown in a container. 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 requring 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 are grouped together because these herbs all have similar growing requirements and so can be planted in the same area or in a large container together. 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 Rosemany

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. All the Mediterranean type of herbs dislike intensely having their roots in cold, wet soil or being in a cold wind. This means if your garden has cold winds it can chill the plant causing the needles to go brown and die back. This winter of 2018 when we have sustained bitterly cold winds was too much for an established R. officinalis '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 in the late spring. 

Horizontal form of Rosemary

 Rosemary officinalis is the upright form,  illustrated above and which when grown in ideal conditions can reach a height of 1.5 meters. There is also creeping, horizontal form, Rosemarinus officinalis Prostratus Group, (an impressive specimen illustrated  here was grown the Botanical garden Cap Roig in Spain) and which is less hardy and  needs winter protection. This is not always made clear on the plant label and it is disappointing to buy a plant and find it does not survive the winter. The 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 advertently cutting off the wood on which the flowers would form. 

Herbs in containers on windowsill

Growing Thyme

Thymus vulgaris

 In contrast to Rosemary which is in limited sizes, Thyme comes in a number of sizes 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 different types of Thyme, most but not all 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, as a low growing plant Thyme looks good along-side paths in gravel and make 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, but 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. It is easy to grow in containers. Sage requires no maintenance and will look after itself in the right spot. Although it can look a bit tired after winter, come the spring it soon 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.  

Growing Marjoram and Oregano

Marjoram with butterfly

Another Mediterranean herb which is easy to grow and much loved by the bees is Marjoram, which I mainly grow because the bees and butterflies love it. 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 prolific 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 that 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 wants as you may expect, a warm spot. 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 is one of the herbs which 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. 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. I cook with a lot of basil and make several sowings during late spring and early 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 tastes, it is more aniseed flavoured and is a great addition to Asian and Thai dishes. . Seeds can be purchased in most garden centres. It is no more difficult that 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 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. EU regulations in relation to seeds 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 clearly is only just over half the seed in the packet has the propensity to 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.)

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 perennial and die back over the winter months and start growing again very early in the spring.

If the plant is looking a bit tatty by mid summer, Chives can be cut back and will produce new fresh green growth and often new flowers as well. The 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 Allium a 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 perennial herb which would suggest that you can plant it and it 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 I would definitely think twice before planting in the veg plot or border. Also, if planted with other herbs it will overtake them, it is a bit of a herb thug and is much better grown in a container to control it.

After a year or so Mint can look a bit 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) and it is better grown in a container so it cannot run away with itself.  It is important to contain Mint as it really can be rampant and I would always recommend planting in a container.  There are now lots of different varieties of mint to choose from such as, Apple mint, Spearmint, Pineapple and Ginger Mint. Mint is one of the herbs which will tolerate partial shade.

Growing Bay

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

Bay are not fully hardy, they will tolerate temperatures down to -5 . However Bay do not  like it very cold 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 has the stronger flavour and Russian which is hardier. The French Tarragon not will survive outside over winter and should 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 thrives really needs to be grown in full sun, 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 no 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 generally run out of steam after 2/3 years and will need replacing.  

updated 21.10.2019