Growing Herbs – Getting Started

There’s nothing more rewarding than growing your own herbs and stepping out – into the garden or onto the balcony or even reaching across the sink to the windowsill – to clip a spring of rosemary or thyme or sage to liven up your cooking or even make a refreshing herbal tea. Different herbs go in and out of fashion thanks to chefs discovering new flavour combinations but even if you keep it simple and stick to a few traditional favourites, you’ll wonder why you’ve never grown your own before. Although you can grown your own from seed (and the best time to sow herbs is between March and August) the best way to start if you’re new to this is to buy pre-potted plants from the garden centre and plant them as soon as you get home. The biggest mistake most people make when they start out when they decide to grow herbs in pots is to forget about drainage. Your pot needs holes in the bottom and a stand so water can drain freely otherwise the roots will drown and your plant will die.

If you can afford to use terracotta pots these look great and are porous and stable but they conduct heat and so can dry out very quickly which means you need to keep an eye on watering. Always water in the evening and since your plant is on a stand, you can fill the stand with water and allow the plant to soak up what it needs. A coarse compost will help with drainage and keep your herbs healthy. You can buy a general compost and then mix in your own which will give the plant plenty of nutrients.

Little and often is the key when it comes to maintaining herbs – watering and trimming. The latter is important because if you don’t trim the plant it will do what it does naturally and bolt, producing flowers in an attempt to reproduce. You might want to allow a few varieties in the garden to do this – chive flowers are a great addition to a summer salad – but straggly plants on windowsills and balconies is not what we’re aiming for here. Primarily it’s the leaves that get used in cooking and so trimming the plant back will keep those healthy and plentiful. If you’ve decided on a dedicated border, raised bed or other part of the garden as your herb garden, then make sure when you plant your herbs you give them space to grow and room to breathe. Nobody likes overcrowding – think of a packed tube train – and neither do plants.

If you are growing traditional woody herbs – thyme, rosemary and sage for example – keep in mind that they prefer a hot, dry location and that although they can survive a UK winter, they won’t be as productive over winter. The so-called ‘softer’ herbs, basil, chives, coriander and marjoram, are more delicate than their woody counterparts and so will need more careful maintenance. Basil and coriander don’t really like the UK climate so will fare better grown on the windowsill indoors.

Once you’ve got the herb-growing bug, you can really start being more adventurous in the kitchen and start incorporating your herbs into your baking, as well as your savoury dishes. Lavender scones anyone?