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Grow Your Own Culinary Herb Garden: A Flavorful Journey

June 26, 2024

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Grow Your Own Culinary Herb Garden: A Flavorful Journey

The Joy of Growing Your Own Herbs

When I first started having success as a gardener – like filling-entire-baskets-with-delicious-harvests-type of success – it was with herbs. There was the rosemary plant that I managed to keep alive all winter in my kitchen window, and then planted outdoors in the spring. There was the oregano that my mom planted by seed after I’d had my second baby, and that grew and grew even though I did nothing to tend it (the herbs, not the baby). And there were the chives that I kept in a little pot by the back door, and snipped from whenever I needed a fresh flavor for a dish.

When I think of these herbs, I recall pride at keeping a plant alive for the first time, awe at how hardy those oregano plants were in the face of my pretty severe neglect, and excitement at the prospect of never having to buy rosemary from the grocery store again. Herbs are the perfect starter plants for new and would-be gardeners. They don’t require much space, much sunlight, or even much tending. If you’re looking for a place to start, you’ve come to the right page. Learn to grow herbs successfully first, and then you can branch out to plants that require more from you.

Understanding the Unique Needs of Herbs

But how do you actually start an organic herb garden? Like with everything I do, I like to learn about the plants first. Before you start your herb garden, you should definitely get to know herb plants and understand their needs. In general, herb plants are quite different from most other plants in the vegetable garden. Their needs and care demands are unique to them, unlike tomatoes, squash, beans, or even lettuces.

So before heading out and buying a bunch of herbs from the store, it’s important to learn more about each plant and discover its particularities. My favorite way to do this is to learn which plant family each herb plant belongs to. In fact, I love this method so much I made a whole video about it! You can watch it here.

By learning the key herb plant families, you’ll begin to be able to categorize the herb plants you want to grow and understand each plant’s unique growing needs. For example, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and marjoram all belong to the mint family. Basil, lemon balm, and cilantro belong to the carrot family. Chives, garlic, and onions belong to the allium family. Knowing these plant family connections can give you a huge head start in successfully growing your own culinary herb garden.

Creating the Perfect Growing Environment for Your Herbs

Once you begin to understand herb plant families and their unique needs, it’s time to create a special space for them to grow. As you’ll learn, few of the herbs we enjoy in our kitchen originated in our home state. So when you set up your herb garden, your main goal is to re-create an environment for your herb garden that feels like home to them.

In other words, setting up an herb garden usually requires you to engineer a unique space with a different soil blend, perhaps a different level of water, and maybe even a raised garden. Creating a space that will feel similar to the area where your herb plant originated will make your herb garden so much more successful. Your herbs will literally be making themselves at home.

I’ve found the most success with starting an herb garden in a raised garden or container, rather than growing herbs directly in the ground. This is mostly because I’ve usually gardened in areas with clay soil, and few if any herbs originated in an area with heavy and wet clay soil. So a raised garden or containers provides a much better soil for herbs to grow that feels a lot more like home, particularly if you add a soil that drains quickly.

Instead of growing each herb separately in its own little pot, I’ve found better success growing several herbs together in one larger container. Herbs don’t need a lot of space to themselves, and larger containers allow them to reach for more resources like water and nutrients from the soil when they’re struggling. If you’ve killed your fair share of herbs before, it might have been due to growing them in a small container that dried out very quickly.

Sourcing High-Quality Herb Plants and Seeds

Now that you know how to set up the perfect growing environment for your herbs, where should you actually get your herb plants and seeds? Well, just buying an herb plant from a big box hardware store is likely not the best way to start out your herb garden, at least in my experience.

Most of these herb plants at large franchise stores have traveled quite a distance before reaching the store, and have most likely been treated with fungicide or synthetic fertilizers so they look great when you see them at the store. If you don’t continue to feed them the same fertilizers or fungicides when you get them home, chances are they’ll either just sit there and not grow, or just give up being green entirely.

So where then can you get great herb sources for your herb garden? Some herbs are best started from seed in your garden, like cilantro, parsley, dill, and basil. Other herbs are better to purchase from a local nursery or grower, or propagate from a neighbor or friend’s cutting. When buying herbs from a local store, be sure to ask your grower how they grew your herbs, if they used any synthetic fertilizers, and if they have any recommendations for growing them at home. In my experience, the more local the nursery you buy your herb plants from, the better.

When buying herb seeds, be sure you’re buying from a source that’s serving up organic, non-GMO seeds. Some of my favorite sources are Baker Creek, Botanical Interests, Southern Exposure, and High Mowing. Just one packet of each variety is plenty to fill your herb garden with loads and loads of fresh herbs.

Reaping the Rewards of a Thriving Herb Garden

You can absolutely have a ton of success in your herb garden. Herbs are one of the simplest and most prolific things to grow in your kitchen garden. The trick to success, though, is not to head to the plant store and definitely not to the hardware store right away. Instead, learn first.

Discover the plant family each herb you want to grow belongs to, and create a special space for your herbs that will feel like home. Then, and only then, can you head to the plant store – but make it local. When you learn first and buy last, you save tons of money and frustration, and those plants that were going to die anyway don’t end up doing so under your watch.

When you learn first and buy last, you’re well on your way to having herb garden success. And just like me, you’ll soon look back on years of gardening and remember the herbs that first made you believe you actually had a green thumb, because you definitely do.

As for me, I can’t imagine my kitchen garden without a thriving, fragrant herb patch. The fresh flavors they add to my cooking are unbeatable, and the joy of stepping out my back door to snip a few sprigs whenever I need them is priceless. Plus, with a little care and attention, many of these herbs will come back year after year, providing a reliable and cost-effective source of culinary delight.

So if you’re ready to embark on your own flavorful journey, head over to Thornapple CSA to learn more about our community-supported agriculture program. With our tips and resources, you’ll be well on your way to growing your own thriving culinary herb garden in no time. Happy gardening!

Favorite Herbs to Grow

Here’s a quick overview of some of my favorite herbs to grow and how I like to use them:

Herb Uses
Basil I love to use fresh basil to make pesto, and I’ll also dry some of the leaves for use in cooking.
Parsley I use fresh parsley in my cooking, and I’ll also dry and grind it up to keep in my spice cabinet.
Dill I like to use dill leaves and seeds when I make homemade pickles, and I’ll dry the leaves and grind them up for ranch dressing.
Cilantro I grow cilantro because I’m constantly using it for Mexican dishes and salsa. I’ll also freeze some of the fresh leaves for use in the summer months.
Peppermint I love the refreshing scent and flavor of peppermint. I’ll chew on the stems, infuse it in water and tea, and use it to settle an upset stomach.
Thyme My favorite variety is Lemon Thyme, but regular Thyme is wonderful for cooking as well. The small leaves are easy to use fresh or dried.
Rosemary I love the smell of rosemary and use it in my cooking and grilling. I’ll also dry it and add it to my spice cabinet.
Oregano I probably use oregano the most, both fresh and dried. It’s a key ingredient in many of my Italian recipes.
Marjoram Marjoram has a sweeter and milder flavor than oregano, and is great to use fresh or dried in Italian dishes.
Chives Chives are so versatile – I’ll use them in ranch dressing, dips, and I’m even trying a new recipe for chive blossom vinegar.
Sage I use sage sparingly, but when I do need it, I prefer to have it fresh because the flavor is much more intense than store-bought.

Medicinal Herbs to Grow

In addition to the culinary herbs, I’ve also experimented with growing a few medicinal herbs in my garden. While I’m not an expert, I’ve found that a few of these herbs can be quite beneficial.

Echinacea, for example, is a beautiful flower in the garden but also has powerful antiviral properties. You can make an echinacea tincture and use it at the first sign of a cold to help boost your immune system and lessen the severity of the illness.

Lemon balm is another favorite of mine. Not only does it smell amazing, but it also makes an excellent calming tea that can help with stress and anxiety. You can also use fresh lemon balm leaves to help treat cold sores.

Yarrow is a hardy, easy-to-grow medicinal herb that can help stop bleeding in minor cuts and wounds. I’ll dry the flowers and leaves and keep them on hand for this purpose.

And finally, the “toothache plant,” also known as Spilanthes, has a powerful numbing effect that can help soothe mouth sores and toothaches. Just be careful with how much you use, as it’s quite strong.

As you can see, growing your own culinary and medicinal herbs can be a truly rewarding endeavor. Whether you’re looking to spice up your meals or explore natural remedies, these plants can bring a wealth of flavor, aroma, and health benefits to your garden and kitchen. So what are you waiting for? It’s time to start planning your very own flavorful herb garden journey!

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