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Gardening: Growing Herbs

Spice up your life with a low-maintenance patch of homegrown flavor

By Jason Miller
Published: May 1, 2006
Photo by Steve Lovegrove/Agency:
If the idea of fresh chives on your baked potato, fresh basil in your spaghetti sauce, or mint garnishes in your julep appeals to you, you’ll be glad to know that growing your own herb garden at your getaway is easier than you think. No matter where your place is located in the United States or Canada, some manner of herb will thrive there during the summer months. Of course, the more temperate your climate zone, the more numerous your options for giving your meals a little extra kick.
Virtually any cabin can benefit from a small, low-maintenance herb garden, providing fresh flavor that dried herbs can’t beat, not to mention a fun and tasty distraction for adults and children. Imagine roasting red potatoes and freshly caught trout on the grill – after sprinkling them with rosemary from your herb garden. Or adding garlic and fresh parsley to your favorite potato soup recipe.
Is your mouth watering yet? Then follow these steps in the spring and you’ll be feasting by late summer and fall.
Photo by Anna Patiuk
Step 1: Pick a spot
Where do you want your garden to grow? The ideal site will be a short distance from the kitchen, facing south, sloping gently and getting at least four hours of direct sunlight each day. Clear the area of all vegetation so you have a nice, clear space in which to plant.

Step 2: Test your soil
A soil test is a smart way to determine what nutrients your soil may be lacking for your desired crops. You can buy soil-testing kits at your local nursery or through mail-order catalogs (I’ve had reasonably good luck with these), but the most foolproof approach is to submit a soil sample to your local university extension service for testing. Find your local extension service by Googling “extension service” followed by the county in which you live. There will be a fee, but it should be nominal.
Based on the instructions you include with your sample, you’ll receive a report that lists the pH (acidity) level of  your soil, plus the levels of potassium, phosphorous and nitrogen (some services won’t give you a nitrogen reading because nitrogen is highly “mobile,” meaning its levels fluctuate constantly).
Amend your soil accordingly. Low nitrogen? Work grass clippings into the soil. Highly alkaline? Add sulfur. Compost is nature’s perfect amendment: It improves drainage in clay soils, aids water retention in sandy soils, and adds valuable organic matter and micronutrients that most plants need to thrive. Ask your extension representative for additional advice on soil amendments, then loosen the soil deeply to fully incorporate the amendments.

Step 3: Build your garden
Nothing’s stopping you from just carving out a small square of dirt for your garden. But why not add a little eye appeal while you’re at it? Some gardeners like to build  floorless “boxes” out of 2x lumber and sink them into the ground. This provides nice separation for the different plants. I used this approach with a 2x6-foot box divided into four equal sections and had good results.
For herbs, another popular garden configuration looks like a spoked wheel when viewed from above. Use stones or bricks to form a large circle with a small circle center in the middle, from which “spokes” made of the same material radiate outward and meet the larger circle. In the smaller, center circle, place a prized plant or a feature, such as a sundial or gazing ball. The pie-shaped wedges between the spokes are reserved for your herbs.
No matter what shape your herb garden takes, its size should reflect the plants you’re growing and the amount of time you have to tend them. Basil, for example, occupies roughly a square foot of ground when mature; dill fans out even more. Chives are relatively petite, and garlic isn’t much of a space hog. Mint is deceiving: That small seedling you plant can spread to cover your entire garden in a matter of a few short years, so it’s best to grow it in a container.

Step 4: Plant your herbs
First, call your local university extension service or master gardener hotline to determine which herbs will grow as perennials in your climate zone, and which should be treated as annuals. Of course, you can always ask at your local nursery or farmers’ market, when you show up to buy your seedlings. If you live in a warmer climate, you can probably get away with starting some of your herbs from seed.
Plant your seedlings as early in the morning as you can. This will keep the tender starts from having to deal with harsh daytime heat and will also give the leaves time to dry off after you give the plants their first drink. Plant the seedlings fairly densely, but no deeper than they were in their pots. Gently firm down the soil around them, and give them a good soaking.

Step 5: Care and feeding
Many – if not most – of the more common herbs require a minimum of care. Some grow in poor soil. Some can even tolerate mild drought conditions, with the exception of basil, which will wrinkle and turn bitter.
Once you’ve established your herb garden, add compost each spring, but go easy on the fertilizer. A soil test every three or four years should keep you apprised of what your soil needs, if anything.
Depending on which herbs you choose, watering may be necessary only on weekends when you’re already at the cabin. Automatic watering products can bear the load if you’ve chosen to grow basil or other thirsty herbs – or if your visits are less frequent. Spread a layer of mulch over the garden to help retain moisture.
Protect your garden from marauders by enclosing it with wire fencing. Burying the fencing a foot deep should keep the rabbits at bay; for deer, you can try encircling the garden with geraniums or closing off the top of it with additional fencing material.

Step 6: Harvest
Ah, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Since many herbs can be harvested anytime during the growing season, a small pair of floral snips hanging by the door is all you need. Cut your chives in spring when they’re young and peppery; they’ll grow back throughout the summer. Pull your garlic (it will be ready during its second year) and start peeling. Cut your parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme as they ripen during the summer, then turn up the Simon & Garfunkel music while you prepare dinner – it only seems fitting. Mustard? Dill? They’re all ripe for the harvest by late summer or early fall, depending on your climate.
At the end of the season, transfer the less-hardy herbs, such as lavender and rosemary, to pots and take them home to winter over.
Depending on your time constraints, you might consider drying a portion of your crop for later use. If you haven’t used all of your herbs by summer’s end, cut or pull up the unused plants and hang them upside down in a corner before you winterize the cabin. Come early spring, when it’s still too cold to plant, you’ll have ready-to-use herbs waiting for you when you arrive. Drying intensifies the flavor of herbs, so use smaller amounts and get ready for a zesty punch in the palate.
And fire up the grill. We’re waiting for dinner.

Master Gardener Jason Miller tends his fledgling gardens – and gets very, very wet – in the foothills of Washington’s North Cascade mountain range.

Photo by Scantynebula/Agency:
plant picks

    If you’re new to herb gardening, get familiar with your soil and local climate conditions. Then set yourself up for success by starting with common herbs first, choosing varieties that grow well in your area and don’t require a great deal of babysitting. After that, you can branch out and try new varieties. Here are a few of my favorites for first-timers:

Basil (try Genovese Sweet, a classic variety for pesto)
Chives (especially garlic chives)
Garlic (plant garlic bulblets in fall)
Lemon balm
Lemon grass
Lemon thyme
Lemon verbena
Mint (invasive grower; keep it in a container)
Parsley (for variety, try flat-leaf)
Thyme (several varieties)

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