Herb & Spice Garden for Beginners

That sunny patch by the kitchen door needs an herb garden. Not only is it pretty, it provides fresh herbs for the cook in the house. Smaller than a veggie garden -- and less work -- an herb and spice garden shows your good taste and provides an appropriate first project for would-be gardeners.

First Steps 

Ask yourself three simple questions to start an herb garden experience.

  1. What herbs do you use most?
  1. Do you have an hour or two per week to keep your garden neat?
  1. Do you have a sunny window to string a line to dry herbs for winter use?

Many herbs grow as annuals, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum), but some, such as spearmint (Mentha spicata), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9, are biennials that live two years or perennials that come back at least three years -- often more. These herbs need a permanent place in your herb and spice garden.

Garden Layout

An herb garden is useful but should also be laid out with attention to its appearance. Many herbs must be harvested before flowering for best flavor. Some, like lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8, are grown for their flowers and distinctive foliage. When laying out the garden, consider the following:

  • Height of the plant**.** Taller plants should be placed in the back or center of the garden.
  • How often the plant will be harvested or pruned. You'll want to put plants you trim for use frequently, such as basil, where you can reach them easily. 
  • Whether the plant is weedy. Consider segregating sections of the herb garden with rubber edging where aggressive growers, such as mint, spread. Bury the edging at least 4 inches deep.
  • Flowering habit. Intersperse herbs that provide color or flowers with those you cut. Lavender produces a silver gray accent topped at 2 to 3 feet by a spike of purple flowers. Annual borage (Borago officinalis) provides color in flower borders, blooming in clusters of star-shaped blue flowers with pink highlights.

Location and Size

Locate your herb garden where it is accessible -- near the kitchen door or at the near end of a flower border -- anywhere you can conveniently gather fresh herbs for immediate use.

  • Herbs need full sun -- at least eight hours. Part shade during the hottest part of the day won't hurt, especially in USDA zones 7 through 10.
  • Since you'll frequently prune herbs, give each plant room to bush. Three plants, separated 6 to 8 inches, easily occupy a square foot, so figure a square foot for each variety in the garden. Plant as many squares as you need and can keep neat. Although many herbs tolerate some crowding, the best quality herbs come from well-kept, airy gardens.
  • Install paths through the herb garden. Plant sections 24 to 30 inches wide -- the distance you can conveniently reach to keep plants neat. Raised sections make harvesting even easier.

Plan Execution

Herbs are typically not demanding in regard to fertility, and most tolerate drought fairly well. Some, such as lavender, thrive in slightly alkaline soil, but slightly acidic soil keeps most herbs healthy.

  • Cultivate the herb garden at least to a depth of 12 inches because herbs require well-drained soil. 
  • Add 2 or more inches of well-rotted compost or manure and work into poor or clay-heavy soil. This is your best chance to improve the soil for perennial herbs.

If this is your first garden, consider buying plants instead of using seeds -- they're healthy and ready to set out after the last frost.


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