Planting your own herb garden comes with a host of benefits, from elevating your at-home cooking to stepping up your aromatherapy game. For those determined to successfully plant an herb garden this spring or summer, we have all the tips you need, thanks to Emily Alford, the expert green thumb behind one of our favorite gardens: the Safe Place for Youth (SPY) Garden in Venice, California. The SPY Garden is working to create a sustainable food system for homeless youth to advance food equality. The wares of this extraordinary sustainable urban farm, nestled just off Abbott Kinney Boulevard in Venice Beach, are sold at the garden's farmers market. Their wild flower arrangements and dried herb bundles are stunning, and the proceeds are reinvested back into the SPY Garden.
Alford, the community garden manager for SPY, has been working on organic farms since 2014. She shared some of her best herb garden ideas and tips for first-time planters with us.
Choose Your Favorite Spring and Summer Herbs
Alford’s favorite herbs for spring and summer are chives, chamomile, lemon balm, mint, and basil. These herbs are not only fragrant, they’re herbs you’ll get a lot of mileage out of in your home cooking. There are few things better than homemade margarita pizza with home-grown basil, or a pot of tea brewed with fresh mint and chamomile.
Order All the Essentials From Your Local Nursery
Alford lays out the necessities for a simple herb garden operation: “You need a sunny spot (outside or near a bright window), pots, soil, a dash of compost, plants, and water (rain or otherwise).”
That means you can grow your herb garden in an expansive backyard or a 600-square-foot city apartment. Alford says the best thing to do is visit your local nursery for all your potting and soil needs—they should also have the seeds you’re after.
“Bagged potting soil from the nursery or hardware store is not always full of the nutrients and microorganisms that plants need to thrive for the long term,” cautions Alford. “So adding a dash of compost will increase soil health and therefore plant health. Compost can often be purchased at nurseries, or I suggest investigating your local community's resources—maybe a neighbor or nearby school has compost to share.”
Don’t Worry About the Quantity You’re Producing
Alford reminds neophyte gardeners that they needn’t get bogged down on the amount of herbs their garden produces. “One of the wonderful things about herbs is that a little goes a long way,” she says.
Ultimately, you don’t want to routinely grow an excess of herbs that you’re not sure what to do with. And you should think about the amount you’re planting in accordance with how much you’ll actually use each herb. For example, if you have more uses for mint around your house (think: fresh mint tea, muddled mint for mojitos, or homemade mint chutney for your lamb roast) and fewer opportunities to use lemon balm, plant accordingly. “Growing just about any herbs, from rosemary to thyme to lemongrass, will be worth your while, even in a small space, because you often only need a sprig to capture the flavor,” says Alford.
Before Planting, Think About Your Use for Each Herb
“Herbs offer a diverse array of uses—they can be culinary, medicinal, or provide important emotional support through aromatherapy,” says Alford.
One of her favorite things about having an herb garden is you can plant herbs that meet every one of those needs. For aromatherapy, “chamomile and lemon balm are incredibly fragrant and are both deeply calming for the central nervous system,” says Alford.
She is also a fan of using mint and basil constantly, and even has a freezing system for when she grows an excess of basil.
“Mint is a staple that is too easy to grow to not have around! It's vigorous and will take over anything it grows next to, so I always keep it in its own pot. Basil is one of the plants I most look forward to in the summer. Many don't realize that this is a very seasonal plant that only thrives in the warm months, so I grow as much as possible while I can. If I end up with more than I can get through, I make large batches of pesto to freeze for the rest of the year.”
Focus on Perennial Herbs
First, let’s lay out the difference between perennial and annual herb garden plants. “Most herbs are perennial, meaning they only need to be planted once and will continue to grow year after year,” qualifies Alford.
If you’re a first-time herb gardener, starting with perennial herbs may be easier, because you’ll see the effort you put in yield fragrant and delicious herbs for many seasons to come. That being said, if the herb you have your heart set on is annual, don’t be discouraged. As long as you know its growing season in advance, and know what to do once the season is over, annual herbs are very doable.
The one annual must-have herb on Alford’s list is basil. For the basil-lovers, she recommends planting in late spring for an early summer bloom, and then repotting with a new herb when fall arrives. “Once its growing season wraps up in the fall, it can be removed from the pot, composted, and replaced with something for the next season, like parsley or dill,” says Alford.