Notes prepared by Kat Lavers, August 2023
Want to start growing food at home but not sure where to start? This is an overview of the basics to help you start quickly and with confidence.
Torn basil in a pasta bowl, chopped coriander on a curry, chives and parsley over eggs; fresh herbs make a meal special. But herbs can do so much more for you: hot or iced herbal teas, herbal salads, oils, balms and even gifts. Herbs are one of the most nutritious additions to your diet, but also the most expensive and often-wasted! Luckily most are simple to grow at home.
Where should I grow my herbs?
Any herbs that you intend to use for regular cooking or teas should be as close to the kitchen as possible. Let’s be real here, picking a few sprigs to finish off your meal on a cold, wet night in the middle of winter just won’t happen if the herbs are tucked down the back of the garden!
You also need to make sure that each herb has the right microclimate. It’s a good idea to plant your herbs in patches or pots that prefer the same conditions. For example you might have pots that are shaded and moist, sunny and dry, part sun and moist etc. For many years most of my herbs grew right next to my back door on a mound of soil that has dry and sunny spots at the top, and moist and shaded spots at the base. It was only 2m2 but I picked nearly 10kg herbs from it one year! These days I tuck herbs in along the path edge near the back door to save bed space for vegies in my small garden. I pay attention to the conditions of each spot and pick a herb to match.
Herbs that won’t be needed regularly or are needed in larger quantities can be scattered throughout your garden, where they can be groundcovers and living mulches that will attract beneficial insects, suppress weeds, protect soil, as well as giving off lovely scents when walked on. Some herbs that are excellent groundcovers are oregano, marjoram, thyme, prostrate rosemary (a low growing, spreading variety) or lemon balm for dry, sunny areas, or Lebanese landcress and mints for wet areas with more shade.
I find it easiest to grow herbs with similar patterns and requirements together, so I have a perennial herb patch, self-seeding herb areas, and grow my annual herbs (eg. basil and coriander) in the annual vegie patch.
What conditions do my herbs need?
In this table, part shade refers to at least 3 hours of sun and/or lots of open sky in winter. Some herbs appear in more than one box. They’ll be more productive in a sunny, moist spot, but if space is limited they can tolerate other conditions. The area under garden taps and outdoor sinks can be an easy place to grow moisture loving herbs like mint and landcress.
|Sun||Sunny and dry|
rosemary, sage, thyme, oregano, marjoram, winter savory, lemon verbena, lavender, chives, garlic chives, bay, rivermint (native mint), parsley
|Sunny and mosit
mints, Vietnamese mint, lovage, stevia, lemon balm, lemongrass, garlic chives, chives, basil, coriander, parsley, dill
|Shade||Part shade and dry|
garlic chives, parsley
|Part shade and moist
mints, Vietnamese mint, coriander, Lebanese landcress, parsley
Tips for specific herbs
Bay leaves are produced on a very large tree, but you can keep a bay tree pruned small in a pot. There are now dwarf varieties available that grow <2m.
Basil is a summer annual that needs to be planted into warm soil. Basil likes very sunny, hot conditions and is best started in punnets where it can get a head start while the soil in your garden is warming up. In Naarm/Melbourne, plant seeds in Sept/October and seedlings in October/November. Pinch out all flower buds and you’ll have a larger bush that will last until the first real cold night hits in May.
Coriander and Dill are short lived annuals that tends to go to seed fastest in hot, dry weather, or when their roots are disturbs. They are best planted in autumn for an early winter crop, or early spring for a summer crop before hot weather arrives. Grow from seed directly sown in your beds or pot to avoid root disturbance during transplanting.
Parsley is a biennial that grows lots of leaves one year, then next year sets seed and dies. It self-seeds very easily but for a consistent harvest you’ll need to start some two years in a row.
You can expect to pay at least $4 per herb from a nursery, but many herbs are easy to propagate for free!
Herbs from division
Herbs with a clumping or spreading growth pattern are usually propagated by division, which is simply digging up the clump and slicing it into sections, each with a bit of root system. Make sure you prune back lots of the leaves to balance the smaller roots. Some herbs that can be divided include chives, oregano, marjoram, lemon balm, mints and landcress.
Herbs from cuttings
Many woody herbs are propagated from cuttings. This is most easily done by pruning small sections of the herb in winter or spring. Cut each piece to about 5-10cm, strip all leaves except a few at the top, and insert into moist soil/potting mix. Some herbs that can be grown from cuttings include bay, rosemary, lavender, thyme, lemon verbena.
Herbs from layering
Layering is an easier technique than cuttings. Simply bend a stem down to the soil and secure it with a small rock, making sure that at least one node (bump in stem, where leaves grow) is touching the ground. In a few months roots will form and you can cut the new rooted stem from the mother and replant.
Herbs from seed
Herbs that are annual or biennial (growing for only one or two years) are usually started from seeds. Plant seeds twice as deep as their width, keep moist and protect from pests. Give the seedlings very good sunlight as soon as they emerge or they will lean over and become weak.
Preparing and maintaining your herb patch
Most herbs, especially perennials, are much tougher than vegetables and are very forgiving, but soil preparation will ensure they establish quickly. Spread a 3-5cm layer of compost across the surface of your soil. Then with a garden fork or trowel, gently aerate the soil to break up any compaction and mix the compost into the top 10-15cm. Water to bring the soil moisture up to a damp sponge – this will initially help herbs that can tolerate dry soil too. Mulch with autumn leaves, straw, shredded cardboard or paper, then make little pockets in the mulch and plant. Keep mulch off any areas you are direct seeding until the plants have grown large enough to avoid being covered.
Once established your perennial herbs will do best with a light dressing of compost (say 3cm) and a feed of organic fertiliser (1/2 handful per m2 of poultry manure, blood and bone etc) every 2-3 years. Top up mulch for summer and ‘chop and drop’ any prunings by leaving them under the herbs. Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage prefer drier soil, but may still need some extra water during heatwaves. To keep many herbs compact, you can harvest the growing tip, which will force the herb to branch, creating two new shoots and a bushier shape.
Storing your herbs
By growing herbs you can ‘store’ them in your garden, but here are some other ways to preserve a surplus or enjoy summer herbs in winter etc
- Dry herbs by hanging small bunches in a shaded but airy spot until they are crispy. Strip into a food processor and blast a few times before storing in jars for even consistency if desired. Store in tightly sealed jars out of direct sunlight. Dried herbs lose most of their aroma after a year.
- Freeze chopped herbs in ice cube trays covered with oil, or as pesto
- Make herbed butter by mashing chopped herbs (eg. basil, chives, parsley) into butter, forming into a roll and storing in the fridge or freezer.
- Infuse herbs in vinegar for lovely salad dressings or in oil as a base for herbal balms and lip balm. Unless using immediately it’s important to dry herbs first before placing under oil. Place the mix in a warm place and shake occasionally. When the oil or vinegar changes colour and smells like the herb it is ready to strain and use.
DIY herbal lip balm recipe
22 grams sunflower/almond oil or another neutral edible oil infused with your own dried herbs, such as mint
10 grams beeswax
10 grams cocoa butter (buy small amounts from a bulk food store)
6 grams rosehip or jojoba oil (optional)
8 drops essential oil (optional, adjust quantity to your preference)
About 9 empty lip balm containers or small jars
Put a plate in the freezer to chill. Melt beeswax, cocoa butter, sunflower oil and rosehip/jojoba oils together over gentle heat in a double boiler (careful as this mix is extremely flammable!). Test consistency by putting a drop on the very cold plate. Adjust by adding a little more beeswax if too soft, or a little more oil if too hard. Remember lip balm will naturally soften in warmer weather. When happy with the consistency, remove from heat and stir in the essential oil, if using. Pour into containers and leave to set. Makes about 9 small lip balm pots.
More ideas for your herb patch
- Make your own herbal teas: peppermint, lemon verbena, lavender, chamomile. You’ll get a stronger flavour if the herbs are dried first. Don’t forget to make herbal iced teas in summer! Lovely combined with some fruit eg. cucumber and mint, berries and lavender, rosemary and mandarin peel
- Herbal salads. A mix of herbs balance out to make a surprisingly delicious salad. Combine with lettuce or rocket if you find the taste a bit strong.
- Make your own scented bath salts: mix dried herbs like lavender and calendula with Epsom salts for a lovely relaxing bath
- Take bunches of herbs to a food swap and exchange them for fruits, vegies, eggs, honey, seeds and seedlings etc
- Ask your local bakery or café if they’ll swap herbs for bread or coffee
- Herbs make great gifts too! Save a small fortune by giving handmade herbal teas, bath salts, pesto or lip balm, or even an established herb garden in a pot