Just before dinnertime, Bob Westerfield realizes that dinner needs a little something. He opens his back door and grabs a handful of cilantro, basil or oregano from his backyard garden.
True, Westerfield is also a horticulturalist and vegetable specialist with the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, so he knows a little something about growing herbs—among many other kinds of plants. But you can grow your own herbs, too. You don’t have to be an expert.
Herbs are very forgiving as a general rule, says Westerfield. “Herbs are much more tolerant of mistakes or ‘garden abuse,’ if you will, than vegetables,” he says.
You don’t even need a big yard to grow an herb garden, either. While you can certainly grow herbs outside, you can also grow herbs in containers inside your home or on an apartment balcony.
Plus, herbs are a great way to level up your own dishes. “One of the best things about growing your own herbs is that you have access to the freshest possible flavor-enhancers for cooking,” says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDNthe spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So, why not give it a try? Here’s what you need to know about starting your own herb garden.
How to Choose Herbs to Plant
How to pick which herbs to grow? You can try almost anything, really. These factors may influence your choices more than anything else:
- Your personal preferences
- Available space for growing herbs
- The climate in your area
“I’d recommend finding a seedling at a local nursery for a perennial herb plant like oregano, thyme, rosemary or sage,” says Bruning. “For the brown-thumbed among us, these plants are a little harder to kill and can be harvested year-round. They can be brought indoors during the winter in harsher climates. Plus, starting with a seedling can help ensure success, as starting plants from seed can be hit or miss.”
Related: The Best Indoor Herb Garden Kits to Perfect Your Green Thumb at Home
However, if you’re eager to try growing herbs from seeds, opt for one of the easier-to-grow herbs. “If doing seeds, chives, basil and parsley are good to start from seed,” he says Sarah RautioMichigan State University Extension Master Gardener State Leader.
You might cruise by your local nursery and see what’s available. You could also glance over at your neighbor’s gardens to see which herbs they’re growing, since they might be willing to divide and share with you, suggests Rautio.
Something else to consider: the size of your future herb garden. You don’t have to plant a huge garden. In case you’re intimidated by the thought of starting an entire herb garden, it’s perfectly okay to just plant one or two herbs to start with. In fact, starting small may be the way to go for some of you, especially if you have limited space in your yard or need to grow your herbs in containers.
Related: What to Use Instead of Salt: 6 Health-Boosting Herbs
“If you want to start with just one herb, go for it,” says Bruning. “Gardening involves a lot of trial and error, even among experienced gardeners. Think about which herbs you really like, do a little research into the best way to care for it, and then try it out! Plus, starting small usually means putting a lot less money and time in.”
You can also buy a preassembled indoor herb garden kit, to take even more of the guesswork out.
How to Avoid Mistakes
Let’s say that you take a stab at growing an herb or two, just to see what happens. Here’s one possibility: You wind up with a spindly basil plant in a small ceramic pot on a kitchen windowsill. It lists to one side, and many of its remaining leaves are drooping or wrinkled. What’s wrong with this picture?
Now gardening experts will tell you that it’s easy to grow herbs…as long as you avoid making a few key mistakes, that is. Here’s what probably went wrong with that basil plant (or other herbs that you might be trying to grow):
The wrong soil. A rookie mistake is trying to grow herbs in the wrong kind of soil. Before you try to plant any herbs, measure the acidity of the soil you’re planning to use and find out what pH you’re working with. You can buy a soil test kit or contact your local county extension service to ask about submitting a soil sample.
“Almost all herbs like to have a slightly acidic soil,” says Westerfield. “If 7 is neutral, anything under 7 is acidic and anything above is basic. Herbs are going to like anything from 6.2 to 6.8, somewhere in that range.”
However, according to the University of Georgia Extension’s Herbs in Southern Gardens, some herbs actually prefer a more alkaline soil. For example, rosemary and lavender tend to do well in soil with a pH of about 7.5.
Another suggestion from Bruning: you may need to add some fresh potting soil to your container-grown herbs from time to time. “Container herbs only have access to what is in their pot, whereas garden herbs can access lots of nutrients via their root systems,” she says.
Not enough sunlight. Don’t just assume that your herbs are getting enough light. If your herbs are getting spindly and just don’t to be flourishing, they may not be getting enough light, and your plants must get enough light to thrive. “Some herbs do well with only partial sunlight, but at least six hours per day is ideal,” says Bruning.
And that can be a big challenge with an indoor herb garden. “That’s why you usually need some artificial light,” says Rautio. “LEDs are your best option, followed by fluorescent lighting.”
Related: 7 Best DIY Herb Garden Kits
You may also need to rotate your herb plants to make sure that they get enough light on all sides, according to Herbs in Southern Gardens.
No drainage. Take a closer look at the containers you’re using for your herbs. “Containers should have a drainage hole to ensure your herbs don’t have ‘wet feet,'” says Bruning.
Here’s why those drainage holes are so important. If you water your plant and the water doesn’t have any place to go, it will just stand in the bottom of the container, essentially suffocating the roots.
“If it stays too wet in the root zone, the roots will begin to shut down,” says Westerfield. “They won’t be able to absorb in the nutrients that the plant would need.”
Outdoor herb gardens also need to have appropriate drainage. You’ll want to make sure you plant your herbs in well-draining soil, avoiding wet spots in your yard where water tends to collect.
Overwatering. Closely related to the “wet feet” conundrum is this one: overwatering.
Herbs in Southern Gardens cautions against overwatering and advises watering your indoor herbs only when they’re dry. “If the soil feels at all moist one inch below the surface, do not water the plant,” the guide advises. “Over-watering increases the chance of disease and many eventually block necessary oxygen to the roots.”
If at first you don’t succeed…
The important thing to remember here, though, is this: If your first attempt at growing herbs isn’t all that you hoped for, you can try again. And with these lessons learned, you’ll almost certainly be more successful with growing herbs on your next attempt.
“Gardening is a work in progress, and even experienced gardeners have plant problems,” says Rautio.
What’s next: How to Make Your Own Dried Herbs