How To Build A Permanent Home Herb Garden
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By Jenny Underwood - Herb gardens are one of my very favorite things to have around our homestead. They serve so many purposes, including beauty, pollinator attractors, herbal teas, medicine, and seasonings. Plus my whole family loves to graze on herbs as we walk through our garden or crush a leaf and smell the lovely essential oils released. So, building and maintaining a home herb garden is high on my list of priorities and I think when you see how simple and productive it is, you will want one also!
First, it’s a good idea to plan ahead. Make the garden close enough to your home so that you can step out and snip some fresh herbs for supper at a moment’s notice. I currently have mine in among my raised beds where they attract bees and butterflies to help with pollination. It takes me about 30 seconds to grab some herbs for flavoring my meals.
Our herb gardens face south and do extremely well. My lavender plant and rosemary have over-wintered for four years now with no interference from me. This past winter, our temperature stayed in the single digits for about two weeks and I was amazed that it didn’t harm the plants! If you do live in a very cold climate, you might consider planting against the south side of your home for extra warmth, or potting them where they can be brought inside during the winter.
Next, think about if you want an in-ground bed or try raised bed gardening. We have mostly raised beds at this time and they work excellent. The weeds are minimal and my herbs enjoy the drier conditions the raised beds produce. Even during excessively wet springs, my herb’s roots don’t sulk in standing water because it drains so quickly. Raised beds can be a bit more work at the onset, but are very easy to maintain.
We have both wood and metal (barn metal) raised beds. The barn metal ones are by far the most durable, though I have my herbs in untreated wooden beds that are nine years old and just now need replacement. A few other great options are stone or brick beds. After you decide on your bed structure, you will need to fill it with dirt. While potting soil is wonderful, it’s also very expensive. Topsoil mixed with peat moss or compost is great soil. Just be sure your soil is loose and not hard clay or it can bake or waterlog the plants depending on weather conditions. I mulch my herbs with either chopped leaves or pine needles. Both last well and hold moisture while adding to the soil as they decompose.
An in-ground bed looks lovely with herbs and can be done in multiple ways. I do recommend a permanent bed because they do better. Some beautiful designs can be made with brick or rock or even just mulch around a split rail fence. It’s a good idea to put down cardboard or another barrier so the weeds don’t take over. Be watchful about planting mints and balms as they can become very invasive and take over your whole yard! A better option for these might be a border you don’t mind mowing over or planting in pots. I plant my mints and balms in my fencerow with my berries. They seem to do very well together and are easy to keep in control.
Some herbs will need to be planted each year and others (depending on the climate) will last for years. My herb gardens have multiple lavender, rosemary, and sage plants along with thyme, oregano, summer savory, colonial mint, orange mint, lemon mint, and lemon balm. I also plant basil, cilantro, and chives.
It’s very important to not overwater your herbs, as many of them prefer drier climates. Where I live, we get very wet springs often so the raised beds help eliminate this as a problem for my herbs. My herbs that are planted in-ground are on a slope so the water runs off.
I fertilize my herbs with a fish and seaweed emulsion fertilizer. I also add compost every year. As a result, my beds are loose and rich and full of worms. This helps produce excellent growth and health in my herbs.
Clipping your herbs often will promote growth. If you let your herbs bloom, the foliage will start to deteriorate in quality so, for best results, clip frequently unless you only want the blooms or seeds. I do let a small percentage of mine flower for the pollinators. They especially like the oregano and lavender blossoms.
Preserving herbs is a rather simple process. One of the easiest ways is to clip herbs with a stem to four to six inches long and tie them in a bundle with twine or string by the ends of the stems. Hang upside down and allow to air dry thoroughly. Another option is to place them in paper bags and hang them to dry. This works well for less stemmy plants or ones with flower heads or seeds you wish to preserve. A dehydrator is an excellent way to dry herbs, too. After they are completely dried, you should store them whole for retaining the most potency. Grind just before using in food.
You can also preserve your herb harvest in alcohol for a tincture or vinegar for herbed vinegar. To make a tincture, place either fresh or dried herbs in a glass jar. If fresh, you can pack the jar pretty full. If dried, use between 1/4-1/2 herbs and fill up the jar with vodka, rum, or brandy. Put a lid on and shake well. If you’re using a metal lid, it’s a good idea to place paper or plastic wrap between the alcohol and lid or it will rust. Reusable plastic lids are a good choice.
For vinegar, take good-quality vinegar (raw apple cider vinegar works well) and place dried herbs in a bottle with the vinegar. Cover tightly and shake well. For both options, let your brew sit in a dark, cool place for six weeks. Decant and use or leave the herbs in for appearance.
It’s also very easy to simmer the herbs in coconut or olive oil for use in salves, creams, lotions, or soap. Using the lowest setting on your stove, melt or heat your oil and place enough herbs in it that you can still stir the mixture. Slowly simmer for an hour stirring frequently. Strain off the oil from the herbs and use in your desired recipe.
Herbs are such an enjoyable plant to cultivate. They are extremely versatile and can be used in everything from fresh or dried teas to bug sprays. Once you start your own, I’m sure it will become a favorite part of your garden!
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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