Growing Herbs for Flavor, Aroma, & Medicine
These plants are those that can be used as culinary or medicinal herbs. Though there are many more herbaceous plants, when we talk about herbs, we are usually referring to those that are useful to us, in the kitchen, or in herbal medicine.
Growing your own herbs at home is a pursuit that brings a huge range of rewards.
When we talk about herbs we are typically talking about plants that typically provide us with edible and/or medicinal yields. Botanically speaking, however, herbs are officially herbaceous plants – plants without a woody structure above ground.
So confusion creeps in because in everyday speech, we don't typically refer to all herbaceous plants as herbs, and some of the common plants we can herbs are actually sub-shrubs or other types of plant.
In this article, we are talking about herbs in the looser, everyday way. We're talking about plants that we grow in our gardens or other growing areas for flavor, medicine and more...
Why Grow Herbs?
First of all, if we want to grow herbs, it can be helpful to think about why we wish to grow them. This can help us make the right decisions about which ones to grow.
When we think about why we grow herbs, the first herbs that spring to mind are likely to be those that have some culinary use. We may also frequently think about herbal medicines.
But when we look more closely into the wonderful world of plants we will soon see that growing herbs can provide us with many other benefits and yields in addition to these two categories.
For Culinary Use
Let us initially take a look at using herbs in our kitchen. A number of common herbs often grown in gardens are used as pot herbs, to add flavor to our recipes, and/or as garnishes on our plates.
Most of us are likely to be familiar with herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, basil, cilantro/coriander and chives... to name but a few.
But exploring different cuisines from around the world, and understanding the edible uses of more of our own native plants, can often open up our minds and expand our palettes. And we can learn about many more herbs with interesting culinary uses.
Once you learn more about herbs and grow herbs in your garden, you can also learn more about how to use, preserve and store the different herbs you grow – learning traditional skills of cooking and food preservation.
You can also learn that common culinary herbs can often also meet our other needs. Culinary herbs also have a wide range of other uses around your home and garden.
For Medicinal Use
Some culinary herbs, and numerous other herbs too, have a long history of use in herbal medicine. A fascinating field where there is a lot to learn, herbal remedies often arise through the practice and experimentation of cultural traditions over long periods of time. Some traditional remedies are more efficacious than others.
But in some areas, we know that modern science has confirmed certain plant properties in herbs, and shown that many do indeed have very powerful impacts on our health. In some cases, certain extractions from herbs are used to create scientific medicines, while in others, we can, when we learn how to do so, safely use some herbs ourselves in home remedies for a range of ailments, and to promote good general health.
For Wildlife Attraction
Herbs are not only beneficial to us in our homes as food or medicine (sometimes both). They can also be extremely beneficial in our gardens.
In our gardens, a wide range of aromatic and flowering herbs can help us maintain balance in the ecosystems around us. These plants are often extremely useful in drawing in beneficial wildlife, including, of course, a range of native pollinators, and predatory insects that help keep certain pest numbers down.
For Organic Pest Control
Drawing in beneficial predatory insects is just one way in which a number of herbs can help us in an organic garden.
Certain aromatic herbs are also extremely helpful as trap crops, to draw insect pests away from primary crops in our gardens, for example.
Some have strong scents that help to confuse, distract or even repel pest species in a garden helping to mask the aroma of other plants nearby, or sometimes even encouraging certain creatures to steer clear.
In a garden, herbs can also sometimes be handy to provide ground cover in a range of settings. Herbs, often those which also have other uses, can help to create vegetative cover over the soil, protecting the precious soil ecosystem and acting as a kind of living mulch around other plants.
Groundcover herbs can spread well to cover a certain area of ground, and will keep soil cooler, reduce evaporation from the soil, suppress weed growth etc...
For Household Cleaning
In your home, herbs can also often have other uses beyond the purely culinary and medicinal. Some herbs, for example, can be useful in creating natural cleaning products for your home.
Several well known herbs have antibacterial/ antifungal properties and they can therefore be useful in keeping surfaces free from pathogens and nice and clean.
Learning about how to use herbs you can grow in this way can help you keep your home free from harmful chemicals, and reduce consumption. You can avoid buying any cleaning products in plastic bottles when you find the right DIY natural cleaning recipes to use.
For Personal Cleaning & Cosmetics
As well as using herbs to naturally clean our homes, we can also often use herbs in our own cleaning and cosmetic routines.
The scent and the natural properties of different herbs can be useful in soap making, balms and lotions, hair rinses, and in numerous other recipes to keep us fresh, fragrant and looking good.
For Aroma in the Garden & Home
Herbs are often used in aromatherapy, though there is little reliable evidence that this is beneficial for our health and there is a lack of studies that employ rigorous scientific methodology.In fact, there are serious health concerns over certain practices relating to the use of herbs' essential oils.
However, while care is required, especially with extremely strong essential oils, it is clear that people often do report feeling better after smelling herbs in gardens and homes, and the 'feel good' factor of smelling aromatic oils from many plants would seem to be beneficial for our well-being.
When we grow herbs in our gardens, we can choose to grow them near a seating area or by our back doors, where we can smell their delightful scent as we pass by. We can also potentially pick herbs and bring them indoors to enjoy their fragrance in our homes.
For Visual Appeal
Finally, growing herbs in our gardens can also allow us to enjoy the visual beauty of many of these plants.
Many herbs, when left to flower, can create displays that will delight us, as well as being a boon for bees and other wildlife that share our space. These can often be ornamental, as well as useful plants.
Where to Grow Herbs
As you can see from the above, there are many reasons why we may wish to grow herbs in our gardens, and many uses to which herbs can be put.
Another important thing to think about is where we will grow our herbs. Depending on where we live and which herbs we choose to grow, we might grow herbs in a plethora of different planting schemes within our gardens.
We might grow our herbs:
- In Dedicated Herb Gardens
- As Companion Plants in A Vegetable Garden
- In a Forest Garden or Other Perennial Planting Scheme
- In 'Edimental' Beds and Borders
- In Pathways or Lawns
Let's take a quick look at each of the options above.
In Dedicated Herb Gardens
Growing herbs in dedicated growing areas has the benefit that we have easy access to those herbs all in one location, and can quickly harvest what we require through the growing season.
A dedicated herb garden can come in a range of different sizes, shapes and forms. It might be a:
- Simple container garden on a sunny windowsill indoors, or outside on a patio.
- A vertical garden with pockets or planting areas for certain herbs.
- A planter or raised bed with herbs that like similar growing conditions grouped together.
- A hydroponic or aquaponic system in which certain herbs can be grown.
- A herb spiral – in which herbs that require different growing conditions can be placed in closer proximity, in a relatively small area.
However, it can also be interesting to look beyond the concept of a dedicated herb garden to consider how we might be able to integrate herbs into specific areas and planting schemes in our spaces.
As Companion Plants in A Vegetable Garden
One common way in which herbs can often be used is as companion plants in a vegetable garden. As mentioned above, herbs can often be useful because they attract beneficial insects for pollination and pest control, and can also repel, confuse or distract certain pest species to keep our fruit and vegetable crops safe.
When herbs are grown as companion plants they might be:
- Added as intercropped rows between key crop species.
- Broadcast to pop up here and there between primary crops.
- Used to ring a bed or edge a border in a vegetable garden.
Of course, precisely how and where you will grow herbs as companion plants will depend on which crops and which herbs you are growing.
In a Forest Garden or Other Perennial Planting Scheme
The same strategies that we can use to companion plant and create polycultures in an annual vegetable garden, we can also use in our perennial planting schemes.
In a forest garden, or even around a single tree in a small garden, we can create guilds of beneficial plants – and these guilds often include herbs. Some may belong in the taller herbaceous plant or even the shrub layer, while other herbs are useful as groundcover within the system.
In designing and planning a forest garden, we can often learn more not only about sun-loving herbs commonly used elsewhere, but also more shade-tolerant and woodland species. This can open our eyes to new herbs that we may not have considered before.
In 'Edimental' Beds and Borders
Another way to integrate herbs into your garden is to grow them alongside other edible and ornamental species.
There are numerous species that are just as beautiful as they are useful to us. By choosing the right herbs, other flowering plants, interesting foliage plants etc. we can have gardens that are extremely attractive as well as productive spaces.
In Pathways or Lawns
Another integration idea to consider is growing herbs as ground cover in other areas – such as a pathway or a lawn.
In a pathway, certain herbs can be walked upon as long as there is not too much traffic. And you might also consider placing herbs between the gaps in paving stones, bricks or other paving surfaces. Lower growing herbs can add visual appeal and interest to a pathway while still ensuring that it remains a practical access route.
Certain herbs can also be used in place of a boring and harmful mono-crop grass lawn. Herb lawns can be more water-wise choices for your garden and bring benefits for wildlife too.
Tips For Choosing Herbs To Grow
When choosing herbs for your plans, there are always certain things that you should consider. Here are a few simple tips to help you make sure that you have fully considered your decisions:
Look at the Different Types of Herbs Available
When choosing herbs to grow, the range of options on offer may sometimes seem overwhelming. It can sometimes help to narrow down your choices somewhat by thinking about the different types in three broad categories.
Once you start learning about herbs you will find that there are three main types:
- Annual Herbs
- Biennial Herbs
- & Perennial Herbs
Annual herbs are herbs that have a lifecycle of just a single year. You may also find that there are some herbs treated as annuals in the area where you live, because they won't typically make it through a winter there unscathed. (Basil is one common example.) Typically, annual herbs are grown from seed sown in spring in temperate climates.
Biennial herbs are herbs that have a lifecycle that spans two years. These herbs may overwinter in your garden before flowering, setting seed and dying in their second year. Parsley, for example is one biennial herb. But it reliably self-seeds in some areas, including where I live, and so can often behave more like a perennial because it can remain to grow in your garden over a number of years.
Perennial herbs are herbs that will live for several years. Though different herbs will differ in their lifespans, these herbs will, once planted, not need to be sown again each year. Some sub-shrub herbs (rosemary, for example) will remain in your garden year-round, while herbaceous perennial herbs (like mint) will die back for winter before new growth emerges in the spring.
Match the Needs of Plants to Environmental Conditions
Of course, first and foremost, when choosing any plants to grow you need to match the needs of specific plants to the environmental conditions you can provide.
Be sure to think about your climate and microclimate, and the other factors that will determine how well certain herbs will do, such as the soil or growing medium you can provide.
And research the specific needs of different plants when it comes to temperatures, sunshine and shade, shelter, soil type, drainage and pH... Look at the water needs and fertility needs of the different options you are considering.
Choosing the right plants for the right places really is one of the most important steps on the road to success in any garden.
Looking at native herbs for your specific area can often be a great place to begin. We should always begin by looking at herbs suited to where we live.
But if there are other more exotic herbs, perhaps, that we would really like to grow, we can also then consider how we might grow indoors or undercover. Or how we can tailor the environmental conditions in a space to meet the needs of other species we would like to grow where we live.
Research the Properties and Uses of Different Herbs
As well as learning what certain herbs require to grow well, it is also a good idea to look at the properties of different herbs and what those herbs specifically can provide for us, in our gardens and, once harvested, in our homes.
Learning more about the different properties and uses of herbs can be extremely interesting, and finding the right plants to meet your own needs can be just as important as finding the right herbs for place.
Consider Your Needs and Choose Herbs to Meet Them
Of course, understanding what herbs can provide is still only part of the puzzle. To find the right herbs for you, you also need to spend a little time thinking about what you actually need. It is only once you have a clear idea of your specific requirements and goals that you can begin to find herbs that can meet them.