Are you an organic gardener thinking about growing your own herbs? Have you been dreaming about the wonderful aroma of sweet basil; or perhaps the taste of savory and chemical free oregano in your pasta sauce? Even if you’re a novice gardener concerned about the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, you’ll be glad to know that organic herbs are as easy to grow as they are pleasing to your senses.
The information in this article will help you on your way to enjoying organic herbs in your home and garden.
The Allure of Herbs
Many things come to mind when we think of growing and using herbs. For example, the spicy and piney scent of rosemary growing in the garden, a steaming hot cup of mint tea, an aromatic bath with lavender, or a delicious Italian meal with lots of oregano and garlic.
If you’ve ever come down with a cold and wanted to naturally boost your immune system, you’ve probably relied on herbs such as Echinacea or Goldenseal. Additionally, many herbs can be used as coloring agents, cosmetics, and natural room deodorizers. Not to mention that the simple act of growing herbs in your home or garden is a relaxing and rewarding experience.
What is an herb?
Herbs have so many uses and play such a vital role in our lives, but how exactly do we define what an herb is? According to one dictionary, an herb can be defined as “a seed-producing annual, biennial, or perennial that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season.” Furthermore, we can define an herb as “a plant or plant part valued for its medicinal, savory, or aromatic qualities.”
Savory, aromatic, and medicinal, these are the basic properties we speak of when we talk about herbs. We can also think of the joy of using herbs as ornamentals. So let’s move on and begin exploring this wonderful, healthy, and exotic world of organic herbal gardening!
We can look to practically every culture around the world to learn something about the history of herbs. The Chinese have a long history of using herbs for medicinal purposes. Some Chinese herb books date from about 2700 B.C. and have extensive lists of medicinal plants. India is the home of Ayurvedic herbal medicine which is based on long-established Hindu traditions and is still practiced today. Indigenous cultures throughout the world have used herbs for centuries for anything from tanning leather to curing hair loss. When we think of aroma, Italy, India and Thailand may come to mind for a proud history of using herbs in the kitchen.
The Greeks and Romans had the unusual practice of crowning their heroes with dill and laurel. The Greeks also used mint leaves as a soothing bath lotion for their athletes. Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – 377 B.C.) used herbs extensively in his medical practice.
You don’t have to look far from home to learn something about the history of herbs. You can think about your favorite recipes and their origins and maybe even ask a parent or grandparent the story behind their culinary secrets regarding herbs.
Growing Organic Herbs
The Secret to Organic Herb Gardening
People have been growing herbs organically for centuries. It is only recently with the advent of chemical pesticides and herbicides that we’ve lost this knowledge and have chosen the convenience of chemicals. Traditionally, herbs were harvested in the wild from their native habitats and then later they were domesticated to be grown in gardens.
So really , the secret to successful organic herb gardening, or organic gardening of any kind, is to understand how nature works and how these plants grow in their natural setting. If we try to approximate the environment in which plants grow in the wild, we tend will have a healthier and more natural garden.
The secret to successful gardening is rich, fertile soil. If you aren’t already composting, start now! Use a compost bin to turn your yard waste and kitchen scraps into compost, the “black gold” of gardening.
The Nature of Plants and Herbs
When you look at your garden, consider that your herbs, trees, flowers and other plants all share common properties. They always try to maintain equilibrium—the point of perfect balance. Water and nutrients are absorbed into the root system and pulled up through the stems into the leaves. The plants then use Photosynthesis with the raw ingredients of water and energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates that plants use for growth and other plant functions.
Carbohydrates are stored in the branches and stems of herbs and other plants. These stored carbohydrates are used as reserve energy for the plant. When a crisis occurs, such as a broken stem or pathogenic attack, a plant can use these stored carbohydrates. Stored carbohydrates are also used in the spring to create new stems and foliage.
Soil organisms, from earthworms to fungi, provide needed nutrients to plant roots. A healthy root system allows herbs and other plants to create chemicals that repel pathogens and chemicals that attract beneficial bacteria and other soil organisms. Yes, your herbs do have an immune system.
A pathogenic attack, whether it is white flies or a fungal infection, is always caused by the same problem—an imbalance in the plant. When herbs or other plants are near the point of perfect equilibrium, pathogens are less likely to attack them. When your plants are sick, they are out of balance. If you find out the cause of the imbalance and fix it, the disease will generally go away.
The most frequent problem we see with herbs and other garden plants is with the soil. The fix-all for most soil problems is to add organic material to the soil. Composting and mulching is a great way to recycle organic waste material from you home and use it as hummus in your garden.
Other common problems that affect plant health are root damage, a build-up of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, over-pruning, and too much or too little water. A good way to prevent over or under watering is with a Soil Moisture Tester. Giving your plant too much or too little light can also affect their health.
One more important thing to look at is what other plants can be found in your garden and their compatibility with the herbs you wish to grow. Plants in the wild often grow close together because they share a mutually beneficial relationship. You can duplicate these relationships at home. Many herbs will actually benefit the health of your garden, attracting beneficial insects of repelling pests with their strong scent. However, some plants won’t get along together in your garden and are not recommended to plant together. This concept is known as companion planting.
Simply put, some plants grow well together and some don’t. If you start to grow certain herbs in your flower or vegetable garden, the resulting combination of plants may help all the plants to be healthier. If you have a garden of strictly herbs, the addition of flowers or vegetables can also be beneficial for overall garden health.
A classic example of companion planting long known to Native Americans is the “Three Sisters” combination of corns, beans, and squash. The beans serve as nitrogen-fixers for the other plants, the beans climb the stalks of corn, and the squash shades the ground to hold in moisture. Check out this great website on the “Three Sisters.”
Another example of companion planting is roses and garlic. The scent of garlic will repel some of the rose’s worst enemies such as aphids. Roses Love Garlic, a book by Louise Riotte, is a classic gardening book that explains many beneficial plant relationships. She is also the author of Carrots Love Tomatoes, which expands on this theme. This web site is an excellent resource for free Tomato Gardening Tips.
Be aware that some plants are not good companions at all. For example, Irish Potatoes don’t go well with turnips or pumpkins. Plants may not get along in the garden for various reasons. For instance, tall plants might block out the light for low-lying sun-loving plants. Other plants may create negative biochemical reactions with those around them. Vining plants love trellises and garden arbors.
With these few examples, you can see how companion planting can add a powerful tool to your organic gardening toolbox.
Planning your Herb Garden — Where to Begin?
Your herb garden can take many forms—from a couple of potted herbs in your kitchen, to a large and diverse plot in your yard. The most challenging part of growing herbs can actually be deciding which to plant! You can check out our list of Popular Garden Herbs to help you generate ideas. Answering the following questions may also be helpful:
Do you want herbs mostly for culinary, ornamental or medicinal purposes?
How much room do you have to plant your herbs?
Will you plant them with vegetables or flowers? If so, you may want to consider texture, height, color, fragrance, and any other factors that affect the appearance and attractiveness of your garden.
Where do you plan or planting your herbs? Is it a sunny or shady place? Note that most herbs need at least six hours of light, and others like shade.
Do you plan on growing herbs in containers or in the ground?
Answering these questions may generate others that will help you plan out your garden. Writing out your ideas and making sketches is a great way to start visualizing your garden.
How to Start an Herb Garden
You can begin creating your herb, herb/vegetable, or herb/flower garden now that you know the basics.
You can use containers or planters for gardening if your space is limited, or if you want to add character to your yard.
Adding a few herbs to your vegetable or flower garden is easy. Just pick some herbs out at the nursery and consider the issues of companion planting previously mentioned. Experiment with the herbs to see what looks good with your existing plants and continue trying different combinations.
If you want to create a new plot, you will need to do a little more planning. A good sized kitchen garden will take up around 90 square feet. When you begin planning, take a look at your house and its colors and shapes, as well as existing lawns, driveways, walkways, etc. The computer program Garden Composer might be helpful if you have a large space to plan.
Keep colors and heights of the other plants in yard in mind as you plan. Also think about the possibility of adding raised beds, borders, walkways, benches, trellises, and other peripherals to the space you have to work with. You can always use containers or planters for gardening if your space is limited or if you want to add character to your yard. Keep track of your ideas on draft paper, making sketches with colored pencils.
When you have finished making your design, map it out in your yard. Place pegs, rocks, or other markers to outline the shape of the garden plot. Also outline the shapes of the various plant concentrations. You might even want to lay out colored paper or something similar to represent the herbs and other plants. Mapping your garden accurately will give you a good idea of how it will look when it is done, and what effect it will have on the appearance of your house and the rest of the yard.
You can consider purchasing several samples of each of the herbs and other plants you are thinking of using and placing them in the appropriate locations in your mapped-out garden. You can take back the ones that aren’t quite right and purchase others.
After designing your plot, the next step is to start preparing your soil so that it’s ready to receive your plants. As mentioned above, one of the best things you can do to insure a healthy garden is to have healthy soil.
Soil Basics for Herb Gardening
Soil is often divided into various categories, such as clay, sand, silt, loam, and peat, although there are actually an infinite number of soil varieties. Soil compositions vary in organic matter, large and small rocks, minerals, pH, and other factors.
Most gardeners consider soil that has a combination of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter to be good soil. Measuring the pH of your soil is also a good indicator of how your herbs will perform and will help you determine if you need to make changes to the soil composition. Here is a terrific little electronic soil testing tool that can tell you how your soil is doing quickly and easily.
Herb Gardening and pH
pH is a scale used to measure the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14. Acidic substances have smaller pH numbers and more hydrogen ions. Alkaline substances have larger pH numbers and fewer hydrogen ions. 0 is extremely acid; 7 is neutral; and 14 is extremely alkaline. Limestone is an example of a very alkaline mineral. Sulfur is an example of a very acidic mineral. Note that arid regions tend to have alkaline soils and regions with heavy rainfall tend to have acidic soils.
Although the pH scale only has a 0 to 14 range, it is a logarithmic scale that is designed to measure vast differences. Think of the Ritcher Scale of earthquake magnitude as another example of a logarithmic scale. For example, a pH of 7 is neutral, but a pH of 6 is ten times more acid than a neutral 7. A pH of 5 is a hundred times more acid than a neutral 7, and a pH of 4 is a thousand times more acid than a neutral 7.
Likewise, a pH of 8 is ten times more alkaline than a neutral 7. A pH of 9 is a hundred times more alkaline than a neutral 7, and a pH of 10 is a thousand times more alkaline than a neutral 7. A pH of 6.5 is considered the point where nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and the trace minerals that plants need to grow are most easily available to your herbs.
Testing Your Soil
To test your soil, it is a good idea to dig out samples from several places to see what the soil is like. Soil that hasn’t been worked is seldom ready for new plantings. It may have too much clay, too much sand, tons of rocks, very little organic material, a high or low pH, or other issues that you’ll need to deal with before you plant.
A good way to test the texture of your soil is with the “Ribbon Test.” After you take a soil sample, roll it back and forth in your hand. If it sticks together easily, it is high in clay, if it simply falls apart, it is probably has a lot of sand. Clay soils don’t drain well and are difficult for the roots to penetrate. Sandy soils drain well but don’t retain nutrients. Adding organic material will help both sandy and clay soils.
Learn more: Plants you can grow in sandy soil.
You can test the pH of your soil with a simple pH testing kit. A good quality pH test kit is worth the extra expense because inexpensive ones are often inaccurate. Remember that most herbs grow well with a soil pH between 6 and 7, although a pH of 6.5 is ideal for most herbs.
The most accurate way to test the overall health of your soil is with a Garden Soil Testing Kit. These kits are relatively inexpensive and come in various styles. You can even buy an electronic soil tester that will also test the pH, as well as fertility, how much light you are getting, and other aspects of herb gardening.
The Magic of Humus
If your soil is extremely acid, which can happen in an area with heavy rainfall, or with soil that has had overdoses of chemical N-P-K fertilizer, you may need to add limestone to ‘sweeten’ the soil.
Adding compost can also work wonders if your soil is out of the ideal pH range. This technique will also improve soil that is too sandy, has too much clay, or is low in the organic material that plants need to thrive. If you don’t know much about composting, don’t worry. You can find more information on composting at the Compost Guide.
Soil drainage is also critical to herb gardening. Mixing in compost is the best way to improve drainage. You can also try digging out a good quantity of the soil, around 16 inches deep, and placing a layer of fine gravel at the bottom.
If you don’t have humus available from well composted material, you can help your garden through mulching. Mulching is nature’s way of composting. Forests provide a good example of nature’s mulching and composting system.
Forests are a complete growing community. Everything in a forest is related and works together. Leaves and dead branches fall from trees and other forest plants. Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, and other habitants of the soil help break down the leaves and other debris into humus. Humus is a natural living environment that benefits tree and plant roots.
To reproduce the mulch that forests naturally create, you can use garden waste from your home, such as shredded leaves, hay, shredded bark, or other similar substance. By spreading the material over the top of your garden dirt, you are mimicking the decomposing leaves and branches that make up a forest floor.
Mulching helps to keep weeds from growing and facilitates moisture retention in the soil. Mulching also begins the process of natural composting. Between treatments, soil organisms help to decompose the mulch that is closest to the ground. Earthworms and other critters that live in the soil pull composted material into the ground and naturally feed your plant’s roots.
You should add a little more mulch each year to your garden to keep the process going. You can use mulch even when your soil is in excellent shape. The mulch will keep the soil healthy and productive. You can further support your soil by adding a dose of organic fertilizer. Your mulch will work best when you add this natural fertilizer over the entire herb/flower/vegetable bed so that the whole area will gradually become healthier.
Planting Your Herb Garden
Tips for an outdoor herb garden
An easy way to get started with your garden is to purchase starter plants from your local nursery and plant them in your garden in the spring. It can however be difficult to find a nursery that hasn’t already treated their starter plants with chemicals. Ask around to find a nursery dedicated to organic gardening. There are more and more popping up every day.
The best way to ensure that your garden starts out chemical free is to grow your own starter plants. Most herbs are easily grown from seed. Plant your seeds indoors in shallow containers a month or so before the start of spring. Use a well-drained soil specifically designed for seedlings and make sure not to plant the seeds too deeply.
As a general rule, the bigger the seed, the deeper you should sow them. Some herbs such as coriander and fennel don’t transplant well so it’s best to sow them directly in your garden.
A light, well-drained soil is good for starting the seedlings indoors. Water with a fine mist sprayer to avoid uncovered the seeds with the force of the water. When your herbs have good growth and appear firmly rooted in the soil, transplant them to your garden and give them a good drink right after transplanting.
You can also grow some herbs through cuttings or divisions taken from other organically grown plants. Lavender is a good plant to grow through cuttings. You can divide and replant some herbs that tend to spread out, like mint. This is also a good way to keep mints, which spread easily, from taking over your garden.
As far as pests are concerned, there are only a few you need to worry about with most herbs. Be on the lookout for red spider mites and aphids particularly. If you plant mints, check periodically for rust. You can mix a little castile soap with water and use a fine sprayer to wash off your herbs periodically to prevent these common pests.
Tips for an indoor herb garden
Again, soil is the key for growing herbs indoors. You can cut a standard potting soil with a little sand or gravel to ensure proper drainage. You can quickly kill potted herbs by leaving their feet wet. A good way to avoid this problem is to use a mist sprayer to give your herbs just a taste of water every now and then without drowning them. This will allow you to give them a deep watering less frequently.
Placing your herbs by a south-facing window will insure that they get enough light. If you don’t have much light in your home or apartment, you may want to invest in a growing lamp, especially if you’re interested in growing a large number of herbs indoors.
You can place potted perennial herbs outdoors during the summer to give them a little extra light and fresh air, but annuals will do fine if they stay indoors. As your perennial herbs grow, keep an eye on the roots to make sure they don’t get root-bound. This problem is easy to solve by repotting your plants in a larger container as they start to get bigger. It’s also a good idea to change out the soil from time to time even if your plants aren’t root-bound.
Tips for using your herbs
Herbs can be used fresh or dried. Air and oven drying are two simple methods described below to prepare your herbs for future use. You can also extract the essential oils of herbs by soaking the leaves, stems, roots, flowers, etc. in a bottle full of oil, such as olive oil. See below for details. Other methods of preparing your herbs include with salt or silica gel, but we recommend the above mentioned methods which are simple and effective.
It’s best to use your herbs before they flower for maximum potency. If you’re harvesting an annual, you can choose to use the entire plant, but if you’re using a perennial, prune off less than half of the plant to ensure that it will regrow. After collecting the part you’re going to use, wash off any soil, and pat the herbs dry with a paper towel. Let the herbs air dry until the remaining moisture is gone.
Tie clusters of herbs together and hang them upside down in a dry, dark place that maintains a warm temperature. Check that the herbs are ready to use by testing to see if the leaves crumble, around two weeks of drying. If you decide to dry your herbs in the oven, use a low heat for a prolonged period of time. Try around 150 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours.
In the case that you’re harvesting seeds, place the seeds on a sheet of paper and let them dry out for a few days. Then, rub the seeds vigorously between your hands to remove the shells. Dispose of the debris and continue to dry the seeds for a few more days before using.
As described above, you can extract the essential oils of herbs by soaking the fresh or dried herbs in a caped bottle of oil. A sterilized glass bottle that has been boiled in water for 10 minutes is recommended. Olive oil works great as a base. Place the bottle in the sun for several days, and then strain the oil through cheesecloth, disposing of the used plant in your compost bin. The oil can be used for cooking, or in the case of medicinal plants, to make massage oils or salves.
In addition to using fresh herbs, drying them or extracting the essential oils, you can make an herbal tincture with medicinal herbs using alcohol and store it for up to two years.