8 Common Herb Gardening Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Growing herbs is easy, if you avoid these basic blunders. Get advice for growing culinary herbs like basil, rosemary, cilantro, dill and more from herb gardening experts.
Growing your own herbs is an ideal first step into edible gardening for anyone who loves to cook. Just imagine: Fresh herbs at your fingertips nearly year-round. Herbs can add flavor and fragrance to nearly any dish, whether cooked into a recipe or used fresh for brightness on top. In some cases, herbs bake health benefits right into your food.
You truly can save money by growing your own herbs, too, and it’s fairly easy. But as with anything that seems easy, there are pitfalls to consider. Here are some common mistakes made when growing herbs, and ways to avoid them, with advice from Maria Noel Groves, author of Grow Your Own Herbal Remedies, an herbal educator and a self-proclaimed “pretty lazy gardener.”
Treating All Herbs the Same
We say “herbs” as though they’re all one group of plants, but in reality, plants we call herbs — whether culinary or medicinal or both — come from a variety of plant families with various origins and needs. For example, rosemary, lavender and oregano are all Mediterranean plants that like drier conditions typical of that region. The differences in plant needs come into play when you consider things like watering and fertilizing. “Get to know each plant’s individual needs and try to plant like-minded herbs together in a garden or container ecosystem that suits it,” Groves says. “Some like it dry while others prefer more moisture or somewhere in between.”
Growing During the Wrong Season
While groceries carry herbs year-round, just like with vegetables and fruits, there are actually seasons when these herbs grow best. For example, cilantro prefers cool weather, so spring or fall, rather than summer; when weather heats up, cilantro flowers and goes to seed (coriander), meaning no more tender leaves for harvest. Basil grows best in warm weather and will be killed by cold temperatures. Parsley, on the other hand, is very cold-hardy and can grow through the winter in most places. Growing your herbs in the right season is a key to success.
Starting from Seed
While it may seem natural and cheaper to start herbs from seeds, many herbs don’t grow that easily from seed, making transplants — young starter plants available at grocery stores, nurseries or farmers’ markets — a much better option. “Growing any plant from seed requires careful attention to watering, soil and light needs, but herbs are even more persnickety than vegetables to germinate and thrive,” Groves explains. “And, in most cases, you only need one or two plants of a particular herb, not a whole flat sown by seed.”
A couple of exceptions are cilantro and dill, both easily grown from seed.
Don’t stop reading now — it’s not that you can’t grow herbs indoors, it’s that a lot of Pinterest pics and beautiful kitchen photos in magazines make it look far easier than it actually is. Like most plants, Groves says, “herbs are happiest outdoors in the soil with regular watering and sun.” A few herbs will grow fairly well indoors, so start with those, growing in good potting soil; Groves recommends parsley and lemon balm for beginners. Additionally, some tropical herbs like lemongrass can be grown outside during summer and then brought indoors during cooler months.
If the only space you have is inside, try anyway, just be sure to grow herbs in the most natural light possible, and heed the other warnings mentioned here about container type and size.
Not Picking Often
You may be afraid to harvest from your herb plants, but don’t be — the more you harvest, the more they produce. When you clip from your plant to use in recipes, you’re essentially pruning it, which encourages healthy, bushy growth. There are best practices for snipping, though.
Groves says that for plants with stems and leaves that branch out, such as basil, it’s best to trim above a leaf node, which is where a leaf attaches to a stem; so, trim some stem, too. “With these plants, if you simply pluck off individual leaves, it won’t encourage as much future growth,” she explains. “For plants like lemongrass and parsley in which each leaf grows directly from the ground, cut it at its base but try not to harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time.”
Choosing the Wrong Pot
Remember how different herbs like different growing conditions? This is especially vital when growing in containers — the wrong one can mean root rot for plants that like dry conditions (those Mediterranean herbs), or constant thirst for plants that need water. “Using terra cotta pots works nicely for herbs that prefer drier conditions while plastic or glazed ceramic hold moisture better for plants that don’t want to be dry,” says Groves.
Additionally, “Make sure your pots have drainage holes, and put a waterproof glass, plastic or ceramic dish under indoor pots so any water exiting won’t ruin or mold on your tables, counters and floors. Outdoors, you do not need to put containers in dishes.”
Planting too closely is a common mistake for any type of gardening, whether you’re growing in the ground or in a container, though it’s especially harmful in containers. “Plants grown in containers run out of water and nutrition more quickly than those seated in the ground in quality soil, so you need to be more attentive to their needs and also be sure not to crowd out plants,” Groves explains. “Opt for larger pots and be mindful of the soil, ensuring it’s not overly dry nor waterlogged.”
Furthermore, if you do plant more than one type of plant together in the same pot, be sure they need similar growing conditions like watering. For example, rosemary is perennial (meaning it comes back year after year), can grow quite large and needs drier soil, so it’s best not to pot with basil, which is an annual (only grown for one season) and needs a good amount of water and fertilizer. To simplify things for a culinary herb garden, giving each herb its own pot is a good bet.
Letting Them Flower
Most culinary herbs are grown for their leaves (or in some cases, like ginger or turmeric, their roots) rather than for their flowers, so you want to encourage leaf growth, and one way to do this is to discourage flowering. When a plant starts flowering, it puts all its energy into creating seed for the next generation, taking energy away from other parts of the plant like leaves and roots. When you see blooms on the tips of herbs like basil, oregano, dill and cilantro, pinch them off to keep energy from going to the leaves.
Eventually, the plant’s desire to flower will win out and you’ll just have to just let it go to seed, but you can bide additional leaf harvest time by pinching. In the case of cilantro and dill, if you let them fully flower until the blooms dry on the plant, you can then harvest coriander (the seed of cilantro) and dill seed for your spice rack.