A friend asked me this week how to decide what herbs to buy, where to buy them and how to look after them. I realised that the wisdom I soaked up as a child, surrounded by parents who grew everything under the sun, wasn’t common knowledge. In truth, whenever I buy herbs, or any other plant, I typically ring my Mum to check in – is this a good time of year to buy lavender, what size pot should I get, are the tiny ones worth bothering with, which herbs can I plant into the same pot?
It struck me today that I probably need to start writing down her answers. When I call her, crying that something has died, or is almost dead, upset that my efforts to nourish it failed, asking how to rescue it, her usual response is ‘Throw it out Ruth, start again, for goodness sake, it’s not the end of the world.” I feel that no plants should ever die on my watch, but they do sometimes. It’s ok if they die for you too, it happens to the best of them.
As I have learned more, I am changing my perspective on outdoor spaces. I was reared to think gardens should be tidy, manicured, designed for my pleasure. These days, I want my garden to be a space I can enjoy, while also supporting wildlife & respecting the natural world. This means that in some parts of my garden, you will find long grass, ‘weeds’ like plantain, thistle, dock, nettle, all of which are loved by birds and other wildlife. They aren’t yanked out, sprayed or strimmed within an inch of their lives. My garden is a safe haven for me and for anyone or anything who needs a quiet moment.
Sometimes I struggle with that, I am pulled into mowing the wild grasses, I desperately want to tidy things up and get things ship shape. You’ll probably see some of this conflict in what I write. I’m always learning and I am far from an expert.
I’ve laid out some tips below to start growing your own herbs. It’s not an exhaustive list, I don’t know everything about herbs and I’ve realised that the knowledge I do have has built up in layers over decades. So go easy on yourself, ask for help and keep trying.
Tip 1 – Start by looking at whatever outdoor space you have. Where is it sunny? Where is it windy? Is anything growing already and doing well? Decide where you think herbs might be happy and figure out how much space you have.
Tip 2 – Go to your nearest proper garden centre. Not a supermarket or a hardware store. Typically, nobody there gives a crap about plants and they’re probably not great quality or well looked after. I think of them like a bunch of flowers bought from a petrol station. Don’t do it. Find an independent garden centre run by people who love plants. If you have no idea what herbs might be happiest in your garden or on your balcony, bring photos, take note of when it’s sunny and for how long and ask for advice.
Tip 3 – Buy the biggest plants you can afford (bigger = stronger and pricier) and if you don’t really fancy planting them up yourself, or you’re worried you’ll mess it up, ask the staff there if they can plant them into more substantial pots for you. Ask about what kind of conditions each herb prefers, pay attention to the mix of compost they’re using. Watch them do it, ask them questions, learn.
Tip 4 – The herbs need to be planted into bigger pots or they will dry out fast and die. Pick out frost proof terracotta pots you like or good quality plastic ones. I like Ehlo (Dutch brand) but there are Irish made pots you can choose from too. Pots aren’t cheap, but you can keep them for years and reuse them for all kinds of things.
Tip 5 – We’re coming to the end of August here in Ireland, so I wouldn’t bother with coriander or basil at this stage, it’s getting colder and they won’t thrive, unless you have a sunny windowsill for them to bake in. Rosemary & Thyme are my faves as I use them in cooking. I also use lemon verbena in tea and salads and it’s fairly resilient so worth a try. Lemon Verbena also smells divine, so simply rubbing the leaves with your fingers will bring pleasure. I came across a postcard a few years ago that claimed a healthy rosemary plant growing by the kitchen door showed that a strong woman lived in the house. It became my mission to successfully grow rosemary. It’s a work in progress.
Tip 6 – In the past I’ve planted chives, parsley, tarragon and never used them, forgotten about them and felt guilty when they died. So, think about what you use in your cooking or what might be lovely in tea (mint, lemon verbena, lemon balm, parsley) and plant those. Or plant herbs that you think look beautiful and bees and other pollinators will love.
Tip 7 – Some herbs are thugs. They take over a bed given half a chance. Mint is a thug, it grows well, sometimes too well, so think about where you want it before planting with other herbs. My Mum gave me several borage plants last time I saw her. I adore borage, the blue flowers are gorgeous in salad and bees are mad for them. They spread like wildfire though, so bear that in mind before you plant them.
Tip 8 – If you don’t know what will grow in your garden, ASK. Most people who love plants and enjoy growing them also love sharing their knowledge.
Tip 9 – Think about where the herbs you want are happiest. Rosemary, thyme, basil all love sun baked hillsides and terraces. So they like to be in sunny spots and don’t like wet feet. Parsley likes it a bit cooler and wetter, so don’t put sun lovers in the same pot as parsley as they don’t love the same conditions and you’ll struggle to keep both happy.
Tip 10 – Keep an eye on herbs planted into pots. They will dry out faster than if they’re planted in the ground, but give you greater flexibility if you want to change what you’re growing. Pots can also sit outside your kitchen door, so you’re more likely to use the herbs. If the pot feels really light, or when you stick your fingers into the soil it’s dusty & dry, water them.
Tip 11 – Trim your herbs regulary, use them in cooking or just trim with a scissors and inhale their gorgeous oils. This will keep them from getting woody and leggy. If your herbs die, don’t give up. Ask someone more knowledgeable what might have gone wrong and start again. Keep your pot and give it another go.
Tip 12 – Be gentle with yourself. I don’t always do all the things I’ve advised above, sometimes I forget. Sometimes life gets busy and I realise my lemon verbena is dead. Sometimes I don’t trim my herbs and they end up like wild hairy loons. Most of the time, they want to survive and they will forgive you for forgetting about them. I’ve just had a patio laid in my back garden and the place feels like a mess. All of my herbs have been shoved to one side for a month and look a bit dishevelled and unloved. They’ll get over it. You’ll see thyme in the photo below badly in need of a hair cut. All the flowers have dried up and the plant will get really leggy if I just leave it. So that’s my job for the weekend, tidy up old flower heads on my herbs
Tip 13- Share your experiences on social media and tag me (@ruthmckennaphoto on Instagram) Happy planting!