Choosing what herbs to put in your garden can be just too tempting. There are so many, not to mention the vast numbers of cultivars. So many types of thyme have been bred, for example, that you could create an entire garden of them alone. So, the first point to remember is not to overstock. They all need room to grow and breathe.
A few years ago The Herb Society of America named their Top Ten most useful herbs for cooking, and, yes, I’d agree with some: basil, garlic, oregano, marjoram, sage, dill, chives, parsley, bay and rosemary—all of them, as they said, "friendly to the beginning herb gardener". It just underlines how opinions differ. I’d dispatch garlic to the vegetable beds. And bay? Pretty, sculptural, but surely not one that outweighs thyme in usefulness?
Those mentioned below are all easy for beginners but, rather than give a definitive list of herbs, I’ve divided them the groupings to think about. After all, there’s no point in being told to grow sage if you can’t stand the taste.
Group 1: The 'Garrigue' Herb Bed
Calling it this is a useful reminder of the native terrain of rosemary, sage and thyme: well-drained, light soil, on the dry side. In the right conditions, they thrive on neglect and, especially in steamier climes, would all enjoy a mulch of light-coloured gravel, aiding drainage, increasing reflected light, and cutting down on humidity. This bed would also suit oregano and lavender which, placed next to each other, could share the occasional sprinkle of wood ash as they both like it alkaline.
Lavender isn’t everyone’s choice for the culinary herb garden, although it’s becoming more popular in recipes. If it’s tempting you purely as a traditional edging, I’d put the brakes on. If your beds are a metre (yard) square, there’s just not room for a decent lavender edging (even using the smaller cultivars like Munstead) as well as space for a mature sage or rosemary. Letting them jostle against each other decreases air circulation which can bring in disease.
Group 2: Herbs That Need Attention
Other favourites—parsley, basil, dill, chives—combine well as they all enjoy a richer environment, where the soil will remain moist and the roots cooler. Being too hot and dry encourages dill and basil, as well as coriander, which could also share this bed, to run to seed. However, basil is one herb that will enjoy the warmer, more sheltered spots of many gardens and its leaves will be softer if grown under glass.
These herbs need compost and watering, so grouping them together will save time during the year. Chives would make a lovely edging, as would the curly leaved parsley, which tends to have a neater habit than the flat-leaved variety.
Group 3: Herbs with Shady Characters
Not all of us are lucky enough to have beds that are, as herb-growing instructions generally advise, in full sun. Don’t let this discourage you. It’s not a problem, especially if the soil is right, and sometimes not even then. I have an aged rosemary in clay soil which spends much of the year in shade. OK, it’s never as energetic as the cutting (from the same bush) that I put in well amended soil in full sun, but it produces plenty for the kitchen.
Chives will tolerate some shade, as will parsley and sage. The common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is another which I’ve found will cope. Chervil prefers shade or it will run to seed quickly and Jekka McVicar, doyenne of herb growing in the UK, recommends partial shade for dill, also usually listed for full sun.
Try variegated or golden-leaved cultivars, such as Sage "Kew Gold" or Oregano "Aureum", as they generally prefer cooler conditions, and otherwise go for "common or garden" varieties, (usually with vulgaris or officinalis in the Latin name), as these tend to be more robust, coping better with less-than-perfect conditions. If you have to juggle shady areas, it’s better that plants that enjoy partial shade receive the sun earlier in the day, and those which prefer full sun feel it in the afternoon.
Group 4: Herbs for The Isolation Ward
Mint is horribly invasive. It spreads by runners and you may feel you’d rather constrict it to a planter, but not only does this need more attention on the watering front, but you probably won’t get nearly enough for the daily pot of mint tea in summer (if you haven’t tried this, you’re missing a treat). I’d suggest giving the Moroccan cultivar (definitely the best for tea) a bed to itself, on the shadier side of the garden. If you want more than one type of mint, keeping them in the same bed isn’t, unfortunately, recommended, as they tend to hybridise.
Lemon balm, of the same family, and producing an equally delicious tea, also spreads widely though this time by self-seeding. It forms quite dense clumps and squares up well to mint, so planting them in the same bed corrals two troublesome delights in one.
Companion Planting with Herbs
I said there’s no point in growing herbs you don’t like, but is there? This is a good moment to mention herbs’ other use: companion planting. It’s a contentious issue. Does chamomile really improve the flavour of cabbage when grown nearby? Or dill? Here at GrowVeg, we think that soil type and climate usually influence taste and growth more than subtle interactions with herb-root secretions.
Strong scents are another matter. Many pests track down their preferred plant by smell, and filling the air with perfume surely confuses the little varmints. So, even if you can’t stand sage, or are repelled by rosemary, having them next to the veg beds, or laying bruised cuttings along the rows when you’re, say, thinning carrots, will help protect your precious crop. Cabbages certainly need all the help they can get against pests, and recommended companion plants, such as sage, dill and rosemary, are strongly aromatic. However, if this the reason you’re growing these herbs, then you might want to place them closer to the veg beds than your herb garden allows.
NB The heat and humidity of the southern states of America can prove particularly difficult for herb growing. Exploring the website of the Herb Society of America will unearth suggestions for cultivars that suit the climate.
Part 1 of this article series can be read here.
By Helen Gazeley. All photos except the Basil, Chives and Variegated Lemon Balm courtesy of The National Herb Centre