Growing your own herbs
There are a number of benefits to growing a herb garden at home. For a start, tending to plants does wonders for physical and psychological wellbeing. It’s a great stress reliever, and there’s nothing more satisfying than nurturing a plant and watching it thrive. Get more basics in this overview on gardening.
But there are several other reasons why growing herbs at home can be beneficial:
- They are incredibly healthy to eat. It's easy to add them to almost any dish, from stews and roast dinners, to soups and desserts.
- They look pretty and make great alternatives to more traditional decorative houseplants. You can grow them indoors on a sunny windowsill and outdoors on a balcony or in a small garden.
- They are highly aromatic. Throw out your air freshener and go au natural! Rosemary, basil, lemon balm and thyme are all very fragrant.
- They can have healing properties. For example, lavender has been used for hundreds of years as a sleep aid and relaxant, while mint is said to be very good for digestion. There is even evidence that rosemary and sage (often nicknamed the wise old herbs) may enhance brain function and could ward off memory loss conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
- They can save you money. Freshly cut herbs are expensive, especially if purchased regularly, so having the option to cut a few sprigs from your own supply whenever you need them can be a great way to economise.
Before you start rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, you’ll need to decide on the commitment you want to make. If you’ve never grown herbs before, it might make sense to try planting a couple of smaller pots and keeping them on a sunny windowsill or another bright spot inside your home.
But if you feel ambitious, there's always the option to set your sights on a larger plot outside. It’s a more challenging option, but it can be wonderfully rewarding if you have the time, space and energy to maintain it.
Whatever you choose, here is a beginner’s guide with tips to help you get started. If you decide to seek advice ahead of time, you can usually get professional guidance from your local garden centre. You can also check books, videos, magazines or resources online (like those listed below) for further information. Alternatively, why not register for the Jewish Care Interact Forum and start a new discussion on herb gardens in the hobbies section? That's where you can share your thoughts with our online community and even post questions to others who might be interested in the same subject.
For indoor planting, this is what you’ll need:
- Soil/compost. You’ll want a good rich potting soil. Speak to an adviser at your local garden centre for help on specific suitable products.
- Plant food/fertiliser. Again, ask your local garden centre for advice on a good product. It is debatable whether plant food is essential to growing herbs successfully, but if you have the extra cash to spend, it is probably a worthwhile addition. Make sure you use something organic though, as these nutrients will be absorbed by the plants, which means you'll be eating it too—eventually.
- Containers. Plastic tubs, terracotta pots or even old tin cans are all great options to plant your herbs. Just make sure there’s enough space for the plant to spread its roots. (All plants thrive better if they have a little room to grow.) The most important feature of your containers is the drainage holes underneath—something you might not even bother to check. These holes will ensure that water can easily escape and drain away so your plants' roots don’t get waterlogged. You can place the container on a small dish, which will prevent a big mess by helping to help collect extra water. TIP: Terracotta is porous, which means moisture can seep out and make surfaces damp. If you are placing a terracotta pot on a windowsill, make sure you put a place mat underneath to avoid any water damage.
- A good sunny spot. Most herbs enjoy sunlight, so make sure you place them somewhere that they’ll be able to enjoy sun for most of the day. TIP: If you don’t have a spot that gets much sun throughout the day, be cautious about which herbs you choose to grow. Some require more sunlight than others, but if you choose wisely, you’ll still be able to grow a successful herb garden.
- Water. Only water your herbs when the soil feels dry to the touch. It is important to keep soil hydrated, but be careful not to overwater your plants.
- Herbs. Pick these up at your local garden centre (or even some supermarkets). You can sow seeds if you want to try growing your herbs from scratch, but it may be easier to start with a young plant. Basil, chives, coriander, parsley, dill, thyme and rosemary are some of the best herbs to grow indoors.
- Clippers or a good sharp kitchen knife. You’ll need to regularly clip and prune your plants so that they keep producing fresh healthy leaves.
For more help on techniques on how to plant your herbs properly (and inspiration on good containers to use for an indoor herb garden), try watching some online videos.
If you decide to go with an outdoor herb garden, make sure you are aware of the conditions of your outdoor area. For example, check what type of soil you have, and monitor the amount of sunlight it gets during the day. It’s important to know these things, because they will have an impact on the type of herbs that you will be able to grow successfully.
What you’ll need:
- Nutrient-rich soil. Ideally, your soil should be a little lumpy with stones to stop the soil from getting too densely compacted. The stones will also support good drainage (all herbs need good drainage).
- Containers. If the soil in your garden isn’t of good quality, it may make more sense to plant your herbs in suitable containers. You can buy large plastic or metal planting tubs, terracotta pots and wooden trough-style planters at your local garden centre. TIP: If you decide to use containers for your herb garden, try lining the bottom of the containers with stones to help with drainage (and don’t forget to make holes in the bottom of the container to keep the soil from getting waterlogged).
- Fertiliser. Head to your local garden centre for advice on a good product, and then simply follow the instructions on the pack to ensure you are using it correctly. It’s a good idea to choose an organic option if you are planning on adding your herbs to food.
- Water. You’ll still need to water your plants—especially during the summer months—even if they are growing outdoors. Be careful not to overwater them though. It’s best to touch the soil first to see if it feels dry.
- Herbs. Pick these up at your local garden centre. You can try sowing seeds, but this can be tricky for a beginner. It may just be easier to start with a selection of young plants. Rosemary, mint, basil, bay, sage, thyme and lavender are good choices for an outdoor herb garden.
- Good quality tools (such as a trowel). These tools will help you dig and loosen the soil for planting. Ask for advice at your local garden centre before buying, and make sure you only purchase what you need.
For more information on what herbs might be best for your garden (as well as advice on planting techniques and maintenance tips), seek advice from an expert—either at your local garden centre, or from books and reputable websites. The Royal Horticultural Society has a great deal of information on how to grow herbs. You can also find online videos with step-by-step guides.
Whether you choose to plant your herbs indoors or outdoors, make sure you have the appropriate safety gear:
- Always use gloves when handling plants to protect your hands from injury or infection.
- If spending lots of time outside, make sure to wear a hat, comfortable clothing and sun cream to protect your skin from the sun. And in winter months, use waterproof clothing to avoid getting wet and cold.
- For pruning plants at a low level, a cushion for kneeling can be useful for extra comfort. But make sure you take regular breaks to stand up, stretch out and relax.
Using fresh herbs for cooking
Once your herb garden reaches maturity, you'll be ready to start incorporating these fresh flavours into your cooking. If you don't know which herbs bring out the best in certain dishes, here are some suggestions:
Parsley. Chop finely and add to things like hummus or other dips such as baba ganoush or tzatziki. Sprinkle over soups (like mushroom barley), stews, pot roasts (especially chicken pot roast!), fresh pasta sauces or salads (as in this chickpea and grilled aubergine salad) for an instant lift. You can even add a handful of parsley to a batch of scrambled eggs.
Mint. Steep mint leaves in freshly boiled water (or tea!) for a fresh and fragrant beverage to enjoy after a meal. Or add to a salad like this tabbouleh for a fresh additional flavour.
Sage. Gently simmer in a pan with a generous knob of butter to make a delicious pasta sauce.
Rosemary. Steep in olive oil and drizzle over salads, roasted potatoes or crusty chunks of fresh bread. Alternatively, place sprigs of rosemary into meat (such as lamb or beef) before roasting in the oven.
Dill. A small handful added to fish before oven roasting is wonderfully fragrant. Alternatively, add some chopped sprigs to soups (like this pea soup recipe), or sprinkle over smoked salmon to add a fresh twist to an open sandwich.
Basil. Roughly chop or tear the leaves and stir through soups and pasta dishes, or try making your own fresh pesto!
Coriander. Either pick off whole leaves, or chop it finely and add to almost any stir-fry or curry.
Thyme. Remove leaves from stems and sprinkle over chicken before roasting, or place whole sprigs inside the chicken (along with some lemon wedges) for a Mediterranean twist to your Friday night roast.
Chives. Snip or chop finely and add to a salad or soup for a more subtle onion flavour.
Finding out more
There is plenty of advice out there—from books and magazines to numerous online blogs and videos.
Here are some helpful links to get you started.
- Allotment Garden. Started by John Harrison back in 2004, this site was built on his passion and has grown as interest from his audiences increased. The website is now full of great articles on all kinds of grow-your-own advice, from growing chives, to planting bay leaf trees! Harrison has published several books on the subject as well.
- Fantastic Gardeners. This blog is a very informative resource for advice on herb planting. There are tips and checklists, making the information really clear to understand, and they even offer a detailed chart with advice on several different types of herbs as well as guidance on the best time to plant them and the conditions they need in order to thrive.
- Gardener’s World. The team at Gardeners' World magazine has online videos to get you on your way to planting a herb garden at home. You’ll find advice on a range of crop varieties, as well as tips on how to ensure your beds have adequate drainage for your plants to thrive.
- Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). With a section of the site dedicated to growing herbs, the RHS covers advice on how to grow your own herbs along with everything else to do with gardening. They even have a video of celebrity food enthusiast Nigel Slater, who shows viewers how to plant a Mediterranean herb container garden—and how to use what you grow.
Other celebrity chefs and gardening experts have offered their advice too:
- Jamie Oliver: The Ultimate Guide to Growing Herbs has good descriptions of the different types of herbs.
- Alan Titchmarsh's Tips on Growing Herbs includes practical suggestions and videos.
Even the big supermarkets are involved, offering various articles on herb-planting tips:
There are many inspirational step-by-step videos on how to plant herbs both indoors and outdoors. Some gardening enthusiasts use sites like these to share their knowledge and experience with others, so it’s definitely worth logging on and having a root around!
Finally, if you’re enthusiastic about meeting other people with an interest in growing herbs, why not see if you can find a local group? The Herb Society: Find a Local Group provides a list of established groups throughout the country as well as information on how to start your own local group.
Sharing your experiences
Do get in touch to let us know how you’re getting on. Why not start a discussion on the Jewish Care Interact Forum? If you haven’t registered already, now would be a great time. We'd really appreciate it if you could share your experiences with our online community.
Good luck, and happy planting!