When I first started having success as a gardener, like loads of success, it was with salad greens. So, when I started my business, Rooted Garden, I told everyone that the way I’d learned to garden was by growing lettuce plants. And to an extent, that was true.
But when I looked back to some of my very first successes with plants, I realized that before salad greens, I actually had my first plant wins with herbs.
That was the first plant I was truly successful with keeping alive in my Charlottesville, Virginia, garden. I bought a beautiful plant grown by a local nursery, kept it alive through winter, and then planted it outdoors when spring arrived. It grew and grew and grew some more, and I quickly realized I’d never need to buy rosemary from the store again, and that was a very good feeling.
Oregano was next. My mom sprinkled oregano seeds right there in my Charlottesville front yard garden, right next to the heather and the other bushes we’d just planted. And it grew from that seed… and grew some more. And after a harsh winter, I couldn’t believe it, but it came back and grew even more.
The chives were next. Mom again. This time she came to our Nashville home and brought me a pot of garlic chives. “Cut these when you need some fresh flavor for a dish,” she said. And I did. The chives grew, and every time I harvested, they came back double.
So, looking back, it was herbs I learned to grow first, and then came the salad greens.
And as I’ve consulted with all our Rooted Garden clients, I’ve actually found that to be true again: it’s the herbs they learn to grow successfully first.
But, how to actually start an herb garden? Like with everything I do, I like to learn about the plants first.
the best way to start an herb garden is to categorize herb plants
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.
Learn the Main Herb Plant Families
I recorded a video to introduce you to the main herb plant families right here. Once you know the main plant families for the key herbs you want to grow, you’ll know how to start your herb garden.
the second step to start an herb garden is to create a space
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 as you discover the herb plant families, few of the ones 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 set up 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 no herbs originated in an area with heavy and wet clay soil. So, a raised garden 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.
the third step to set up an herb garden is finding great herb sources
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, now you know what not to do. Where, then, can you get great herb sources for your herb garden?
Some herbs are best started from seed in your garden. These include 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, Southern Exposure, and High Mowing. Just one packet of each is plenty to fill your herb garden with loads and loads of fresh herbs.
Learn More about the Herb Garden Guide
The Herb Garden Guide is a four module online course that leads you through every step in setting up, planning, planting, tending and enjoying your own delicious organic herbs from your own raised bed or container herb garden. Learn more about the course here.
the best way to start an herb garden is to learn first, buy last
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 families each herb you want to grow belongs to, then create a special space for your herbs that will feel like home, and then finally, you can 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!).
Learn How to Propagate Rosemary