If you are intent on growing herbs, starting a patio herb garden can be a great way to enhance your outside environment. It requires very little space and a minimal investment of time and money.
Establishing a productive herb garden on a sunny patio, deck or balcony is satisfying for the seasoned gardener and an ideal introduction to gardening for beginners. The best time to start the venture is in the spring; your plants will get off to a solid start.
Why Grow Herbs?
An herb is defined as “Any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume.”
Herbs can be split into two main categories:
This category includes the most widely grown varieties of herbs. They are generally attractive, easy to grow and will provide you with a continuous supply of nutritious and flavorsome additives for cooking. You can enjoy fresh herbs during the summer and dried herbs year-round. Some, such as Coriander and Rosemary, are highly aromatic and provide a wonderful fragrance to the air.
Medicinal herbs are less common than their culinary cousins in the patio herb garden, as they are less versatile and space is often limited. Some varieties, such as chamomile and echinacea, can be infused in water to make herbal tea (tisane). In the hands of experienced herbalists, others can be used to make tinctures, ointments and lotions.
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Planning for Growing Herbs in Your Patio Herb Garden
As with any style of gardening, you need to first research the characteristics of the area where you are going to be planting. Does your patio or deck receive full sunlight or is it in partial shade during the day? Is it sheltered from harsh winds?
Once you know these factors you can chose the varieties of herbs to grow and decide on the best location to grow them.
Selecting Which Herbs to Grow
As the garden is being established on a patio or deck, the plants will need to be grown in some sort of container. Most herbs are good candidates for growing this way. In you are going to be growing herbs, the most important thing is to choose the herbs that you are going to use.
For ideas on selecting your favorite easy-to-grow herbs see my article “10 Common Herbs for Cooking”.
Preparing to Plant Your Garden
Once you have selected which herbs to grow, it is time to decide on your containers. Almost anything that is stable and holds soil will function as a plant container. However, as this herb garden will be incorporated into an outdoor living area, I would opt for more decorative varieties.
Choosing the Right Containers
At most garden centers, there is an abundance of relatively cheap plastic pots, in a variety of colors and sizes. Costing a bit more, decorative ceramic pots will add a bit of sophistication to your patio. If you want a more rustic feel wooden planter boxes are a great option.
For the more adventurous why not incorporate permanent raised beds, atop a wall or retaining structure, into the patio area design?
The containers must be deep enough for the roots of the herb plants to grow and those that are 6-10 inches deep are ideal. Whatever you use, it is essential to make sure that the container has sufficient drainage holes.
Preparation of the Containers
Place coffee filters or a sheet of newspaper in the bottom of the container before adding potting soil. This prevents the soil from leaching out when your herb plants are watered.
Fill each container to within 1-inch of the top rim with a planting mix that contains compost. Compost will provide an instant meal to the herb plant and continue feeding it during the growing season. Compost will also prevent soil compaction which happens easily with container-grown plants. Soil compacts slightly each time water is applied; compost helps the soil drain quickly so it can spring back into place before plant roots are smothered.
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Decide Whether to Use Seeds or Plants
You can start your patio herb garden with either seeds or plants. Growing herbs from seeds is less expensive than plants but plants give faster results.
I recommend buying your plants from a garden center or nursery. There, you will find a selection of professionally grown, healthy plants and, if you are stuck, advice is usually available. Herb plants that are available in the produce section of supermarkets are fine for providing fresh herbs but I have found that they often don’t do well when growing them on.
It’s Time for Planting
After all the preparation, we now get to the exciting part; introducing plants into your patio herb garden.
Plants that you buy will usually come in a small pot but no doubt you will want to transplant them into your chosen containers. Dig a hole in the soil of the prepared container, big enough to accommodate the root-ball of your new plant. Gently settle the plant into its new location and fill in any gaps with more potting soil. Make sure not to compact the soil too much as this will hamper drainage.
When starting with seeds, scatter seeds on top of the soil, then cover with 1/4-inch of potting mix.
Water soil thoroughly and place containers in an outdoor location that will receive plenty of sunlight, yet be protected from the wind. Most herbs have a shallow root system and high winds can uproot them.
Ongoing Care of Your Herb Plants
Herbs are generally pretty hardy and don’t require a great deal of ongoing maintenance, other than regular watering. The watering regime will depend upon the individual plants. Some herbs, such as basil, chives, oregano and rosemary, prefer full sun whereas others, such as mint, parsley and lemon balm, will grow well in partial shade.
Those plants exposed to full sun will need more regular watering as the soil will dry out quicker. A good test is to use your finger to gauge the moisture in the soil. If the soil feels dry at a depth of 1-2 inches, the plant needs watering. Alternatively, you could use a soil moisture meter. Water should be applied to the roots and not the foliage, until it runs out of the drainage holes of the container. Continue watering into the fall as plants can survive the cold better if they are kept hydrated. Depending on the rainfall, you may need to water occasionally during the winter to avoid the soil drying out.
I generally err on the side of caution when using fertilizer with herbs. Too much nitrogen can promote a lot of growth but there is a resultant loss of flavor. A slow release fertilizer, such as Dr. Earth Organic Fertilizer, can be applied every 6 to 8 weeks during the growing season.
With the onset of colder weather, annual herbs will die off. The dead plants should be removed and disposed of so that that they do not attract pests and diseases.
In readiness for winter, I generally move the perennial herb containers to a sheltered area of the patio, where they will receive some daily warmth from the sun. The hardier herbs, such as mint and thyme, will overwinter well in more exposed areas. I like to give the plants a good final trim in the fall, so that there is some new growth before the first frost.
Increase Your Stock of Plants Through Propagation
Propagating herbs is extremely rewarding and easy to do. Expanding your stock of plants will ensure you have the freshest, most vigorous growth for each new season.
There are a number of propagation methods:
Woody herbs, such as rosemary or lavender, can be grown from cuttings. Using a sharp knife take a cutting about 6 inches long and with plenty of healthy leaves, from the stem of the plant. Cut it at a large angle as this will allow greater absorption of water. Put the cutting into a jar of fresh water and place it in a sunny location. Make sure that you keep the water fresh and within weeks the cutting will grow roots. Once the root system is strong, the plant can be transplanted into a pot.
Other herbs such as basil, oregano and mint will also root well from cuttings placed in water.
Plants that grow in clumps, such as chives and mint, can be propagated by dividing the root clump. This is best done in the early spring.
Dig up the whole plant and, using a spade or a knife, divide the root-ball into as many parts as you wish. You just need to make sure each part has roots, a stem and leaves. You can then repot each new plant and grow them on.
I always allow some of my annual herbs to go to seed. At the end of the growing season the plant will look withered and dead but at the tip of the stem will be a seed pod. This will contain all the seed you need for growing herbs in the upcoming year.
When the seed pod looks as if it is about to split, place it in a paper bag. Put the bag in a dry place to allow the seeds to ripen. When the seed pod has opened, tip the contents onto a clean surface and separate the seeds from any chaff. Put the seeds into a small envelope, label it, and store it in a cool dry place.
Harvesting and Storing
All herbs taste better if they are picked and used fresh. You can harvest at any time in the growing season. When you need a herb for your cooking, you can go out to the patio and cut a fresh bunch.
Harvest the new leaves, growing at the tip of the stem, as these have more flavor. Avoid the larger leaves and older growth; not only will it be less tasty but there is more chance of damaging the plant. I advise harvesting in the morning before the sun gets too strong and evaporates the essential oils from the leaves.
If you cut too much for immediate use, bunches of herbs can be kept fresh in a jar or glass of water. Avoid putting them in the fridge as they will often wilt.
Regular snipping from your herb plants will encourage more growth. Removing any unwanted flower heads from plants, such as mint or basil, will also concentrate the growth into leaves.
Many herbs can also be dried for later use. You have probably seen photographs, with bunches of herbs hanging to dry. An alternative is to utilize a drying rack. If you use these traditional methods, you do need to be careful of the humidity. High humidity can prevent the herbs from drying properly.
A quicker way to dry herbs is to use a microwave oven but I prefer to use a dehydrator. I think that it is gentler on the plants and more closely emulates the natural drying process. For more information on dehydrating food check out my article “The Complete Guide to Dehydrated Food Storage“.
Planting and growing herbs in a patio herb garden can provide beauty and fragrance to your outdoor space, with the added benefit of having edible produce, close at hand.
With experience comes knowledge. Focus on those herbs that you enjoy and use most and have done well in your location. This will ensure the best chance of success.
May your herb harvest be abundant.
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