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How to Grow Your Own Herbs, Indoors or Out

Add some taste and texture to recipes and save money

spinner image a basket containing various herbs in pots
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​If you enjoy eating what you grow, consider planting an herb garden. ​

Even if you don’t have a green thumb, herbs are some of the least intimidating plants to grow. They’ll thrive in pots, window boxes or backyard gardens. They rarely get diseases and don’t require pesticides. And whatever your soil conditions, as long as you have sun, there’s an herb that will work. ​

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“They’re usually less fussy than vegetables,” says Kim Roman, a Maryland-based author who has a forthcoming book on growing culinary herbs. “You don’t have to fertilize them. You give them really bad haircuts and they don’t mind.”

Growing your own herbs saves money, too. A bunch of fresh herbs may cost $3 to $5 at the grocery store, while a packet of seeds is usually $1.99. Even if you invest in a starter plant for $4 or $5, you’ll continue to harvest that one plant over and over, which will save money. ​

“There’s nothing fresher than picking straight from your own garden and just leaning out the window or door to snip off a plug,” says Kathy Jentz, editor of Washington Gardener and host of the GardenDC podcast. “What you grow yourself always tastes better.”​

How to start an herb garden

Some herbs are short-lived annuals, such as basil and cilantro, while others are woody perennials, such as oregano and thyme. You can grow many herbs from seeds or cuttings or buy young plants to transplant into pots or the ground. ​

Herbs that are great to grow from seed include basil, which germinates quickly and is easy to care for, as well as dill and fennel, Jentz says. ​

Rosemary, chamomile and lavender, among others, require a little more work to grow from seed because they need a four-to-six-week cooling period known as seed stratification, which mimics the winter. For these herbs and others, like parsley, which takes a long time to grow from seed, it may be best to purchase a young plant to transplant and simplify the process. ​

“I recommend starting from transplants and not seed,” because that strategy provides quicker rewards, says Noelle Johnson, aka the AZ Plant Lady, a desert landscape consultant in Phoenix. ​

Initially, you may want to start small, with three to six plants. “Grow those well and then you can broaden your herbal horizon,” says Bill Varney, a board member of the Herb Society of America who owns Urban Herbals, a gift and plant shop in San Antonio. ​

Top tips:

  • When planting any herbs from seed, Roman recommends using a designated seed starter mix because potting soil may be too rich for some seeds to germinate well.
  • Replant any purchased plants immediately into larger pots to give compacted roots room to spread.
  • When possible, divide a purchased herb plant into two pots to double your output.​

Growing herbs outdoors

Most herbs prefer an outdoor location that has full, direct sun, usually four to six hours per day, whether planted in the ground or in containers. Before choosing an herb to plant, take a day or so to observe how much sun your planting area gets. ​

Also, note the time of year. Some herbs, like dill and chamomile, prefer the cooler temperatures of spring and fall, while others, like sage, will thrive in the hot sun.​

Many popular outdoor herbs — such as rosemary and lavender — have Mediterranean origins, which means you want to try to mimic those conditions in their soil. ​

For fleshy herbs like basil, dill and fennel, Jentz suggests adding compost to enrich existing soil or using an appropriate potting soil in a container. Mediterranean herbs prefer a sandier, loamier soil — a mix of sand, clay and humus. ​

For growing Mediterranean herbs outdoors, Jentz prefers using terra-cotta or unglazed containers to help wick excess water away. And remember that any herbs planted in a container will likely require more regular watering than those in the ground. Watering once a week and deeply is a good rule of thumb, and watering in the morning will help roots better absorb the moisture.​

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One cautionary note: Anything in the mint family — including anise hyssop, lemon verbena and mugwort — can be aggressive outdoors and crowd out other plants. For those herbs, “you want to hem them in somehow, like between the sidewalk and the driveway, or grow them in containers,” Jentz says. ​

Top tips:

  • If planting different kinds of herbs together, be sure they have the same soil and watering needs. For example, don’t plant basil and lavender together because basil prefers richer, wetter soil than lavender does. ​
  • If using containers, choose ones that will drain easily to prevent excessive moisture or fungus and give your plants plenty of root room to grow.
  • For outdoor abundance, Jentz recommends planting basil in succession. By sowing a new row every month, you can let the older plants flower and go to seed to lure and support pollinators. Then collect those resulting seeds to plant next year while you’re also harvesting the newer, fresher leaves.
  • In general, outdoor-grown herbs will be more robust and yield more harvests. ​

Growing herbs indoors

For indoor herb growing, sunlight is key. Most herbs will thrive indoors on a sunny, south- or southwest-facing windowsill with a minimum of six hours of sun. If you don’t have enough light, you can use LED grow lights as a supplement.​

As with those plants grown outdoors, group together herbs that prefer the same soil and watering conditions. For newbie growers, Roman recommends basil paired with chives. Jentz also likes growing cilantro indoors, particularly with a grow light. When planted outdoors, that herb is often chewed on by insects and other creatures. ​

Top tips:

  • More indoor plants die from overwatering than from underwatering, so check the soil with your finger before watering. Watering once a week is a good rule, although some plants will wilt to let you know they want more.
  • Be sure that herbs have the appropriate soil and that the container is large enough for root expansion. ​
  • Choose indoor plant containers with good drainage to ensure the plant doesn’t get waterlogged. When watering, many savvy growers place their herb containers in the sink so they can water them fully and allow easy drainage that isn’t messy. ​ ​

How to harvest ​ ​

​As your herbs grow and produce abundant leaves to harvest, remove the flowers and seed heads to encourage more leaf growth. ​ ​

“The trick on growing herbs is keeping them trimmed,” Varney says. “That way you get new growth, and the best flavor is from the new growth.” ​

Tall, straggly herbs don’t do as well, so trim rapid growers, like basil, regularly. Once a plant is 3 to 4 inches high, you can harvest the leaves lightly. ​

With your fingers or using a tool called an herb snip, pinch off a basil leaf at its base. If you want a larger harvest, cut a stem back to where a fresh set of leaves is emerging, called a node, to stimulate new leaf growth.​

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Top tips:

  • Harvest herbs when they’re at their peak in terms of their growth and oils, rather than waiting for the end of the season when they’re depleted. Harvesting before the heat of the day also helps keep oils more flavorful. ​
  • If harvesting edible flowers or those you might use for tea, like chamomile, cut them just as the flowers open. For woody herbs, like sage or rosemary, use a sharp tool or scissors to avoid pulling out the roots.
  • When harvesting, experts recommend cutting no more than one-quarter to one-third of a plant at a time.​
Video: How to Grow Herbs at Home
Video: How to Grow Herbs at Home

Storage for future use

To ensure a year-round supply, hang herbs in a garage or shed to dry for seven to 14 days, depending on their leaf size and how dry your weather is. Then crumble the leaves for later use, Johnson says. Before hanging, strip off the bottom several inches of leaves and use a rubber band around the stems to keep the bunch together. Labeling can be helpful. ​

Top tips:

  • Place fresh cuttings in ice cube trays, pour water or olive oil over them, and freeze the mixture. When they’re frozen, pop them out of the tray and store in freezer bags for use anytime.​
  • Alternatively, spread fresh herbs on a cookie sheet to freeze for later use. Freezing fresh herbs retains their essential oils and flavors better than drying them.​

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