What Are Herbs?

All herbaceous plants can typically be referred to as herbs. Herbaceous plants are a category of vascular plants. They do not have persistent woody growth above ground. This includes many perennials, and almost all annual and perennial plants.

But in common parlance, the word herbs is used to refer to plants that are of use to us in some way. Herbs are a range of aromatic, herbaceous plants that we commonly use for culinary uses, herbal medicine, or other household applications. Perhaps even for spiritual use.

The most common herbs are those which are used as pot herbs and for seasoning in a range of recipes. Though herbs are also useful to us in a huge range of other ways, both in the garden, and when harvested for use.

Confusion arises because some of the common plants considered culinary herbs have woody stems and are therefore not herbs in a botanical sense. Sage, lavender and rosemary are three examples.

In this article, we will be discussing herbs that are grown in the garden for culinary or other uses, whether or not they are herbs in a botanical sense.

Remember, herbs can be annual, biennial or perennial. And understanding the lifecycle of the herbs you are growing will be important in order to be able to grow them effectively. Annual herbs will be sown anew each year, while perennials will remain for a number of years.

Popular Herbs Grown In The UK

Though of course this is only a partial list, here are some of the most popular herbs grown in the UK:

How To Grow Herbs Indoors

One of the wonderful things about growing herbs is that this is something you can do whether you have a large garden, or just a sunny windowsill and no outside space at all. Many common herbs can be grown indoors in containers.

When deciding which herbs to grow, it is important to remember that not all herbs have the same needs and requirements. Some herbs like plenty of sun, warmth and a free-draining growing medium, while others prefer a wetter, more shaded environment. One of the most common mistakes made by novice gardeners is trying to grow very different herbs in the same containers or areas, when they require very different conditions to thrive. Whether growing herbs indoors or outside in your garden, this is something that it is very important to consider.

Where To Grow Herbs Indoors

One of the first things to think about if you want to grow herbs indoors is where you will grow them. Generally speaking, most culinary herbs will prefer a light and bright spot on a sunny windowsill. It should be a spot that does not go through temperature changes that are too extreme, with reasonably good ventilation.

But growing herbs on a sunny windowsill alone will not typically give you a lot of space. So it can be interesting to consider other small-space growing solutions. A sunny wall can also provide more growing space, when you consider vertical gardening solutions. You can grow herbs in a vertical garden with planting pockets, on pots in shelves or on brackets, or in hanging baskets or other hanging containers, for example. You can also stack containers to make planting towers that can be very useful for growing herbs indoors.

If you plan on using your herbs in cooking, then keeping them in or close to your kitchen can be a good idea, as this means you will be able to easily reach for and harvest them little by little as and when they are required.

Choosing Containers for Herbs

When growing herbs indoors, the containers you choose can be important. Remember to think about the size of container that will be required for each of the different herbs that you choose (thinking about the depth of their root system as well as its breadth). Something like rosemary, for example, will need a deeper container than more shallow-rooted annual herbs.

You also need to consider the materials from which containers are made, and even their colour. These things can also have an impact on environmental conditions. Some containers will dry out far more quickly than others, which can be beneficial for some and detrimental to others, for example. And dark coloured containers will absorb and retain more heat than lighter coloured ones.

Choosing a Growing Medium

Another very important thing to think about when growing herbs indoors is the potting mix/ growing medium that you choose. You need to take the needs and preferences of the particular herbs you are growing into account.

Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano, for example, need a free draining medium. While herbs like mint, parsley and basil typically require a more moisture-retentive mix.

There is a lot more to learn about growing specific herbs indoors. But these are the basic things to consider when getting started.

various herbs in pots

How To Grow Herbs Outdoors

Growing herbs outside will not only provide you with useful yields. It can also be extremely beneficial to your garden as a whole, and can help you with growing other crops.

One of the key considerations early on when growing herbs outdoors will be where exactly you want to grow them. Consider whether you will:

  • Grow herbs alongside annual fruit and vegetable crops,
  • Create perennial polycultures and include herbs in a forest garden or a bed or border alongside other trees, shrubs or other perennial plants,
  • Or create a distinct and separate herb garden.

Of course, you might take more than one of the above approaches, or even all three.

Incorporating herbs into your kitchen garden is a great idea. Herbs make great companion plant for a range of common fruits and vegetables. They can help in attracting beneficial insects such as pollinators, and ladybirds, lacewings and other insects which eat common sap-sucking pest species like aphids. Some herbs are also said to repel or confuse certain pest species, and may help in protecting your crops in an organic garden.

If you want to incorporate herbs in an area for annual/biennial production, then annual/biennial herbs are usually easier to use. Since they can fit in with a crop rotation scheme in your garden beds. You might also place perennial herbs around the edges of kitchen garden beds, however, or in containers close by.

Herbs can also fulfil these useful functions in a forest garden, fruit tree guild, or other perennial planting scheme. Remember, a garden growing area does not need to produce food or be ornamental. It can be both. You could grow herbs and other edible crops amongst many beautiful flowering ornamental plants.

If you wish to create a growing area specifically for herbs, this can also be a beautiful and abundant addition to your garden. But in order to grow herbs successfully, you need to think about the specific needs of different herbs and how best to provide the conditions they need.

There are a number of interesting solutions. One notable way to provide different conditions for different herbs all in one area is to make a herb spiral. This is a different sort of raised bed, which accommodates a multitude of different environments in a relatively small amount of space.

A herb spiral is, as the name suggests, a planting area in a spiral shape. The spiral should work clockwise from the centre, with the lowest part in the northern section of the structure (in the northern hemisphere). Herbs are them placed in different positions on this spiral according to their different environmental needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Herbs Need Full Sun?

Certain herbs need full sun, while others can cope with partial shade. Some will even do better in partial or dappled shade, where their water and moisture needs will be more easily met.

Many of the common culinary herbs hale from the Mediterranean region. They like plenty of sun. But amongst the broad range of herbs that can be grown in the UK, there are also plenty that like a lightly shaded or woodland environment.

Herbs for full sun include:

  • Rosemary
  • Lavender
  • Marjoram
  • Oregano
  • Basil

Herbs that like or can cope with partial shade include:

  • Mint
  • Lemon balm
  • Parsley
  • Angelica
  • Chives

What Herbs Grow Well Together?

When choosing which herbs to grow alongside which others, it is important to group them according to their environmental needs.

For example, many Mediterranean herbs are found in similar or the same conditions in their native range and will grow well together. Rosemary, lavender, marjoram, oregano and thyme, for example.

Herbs that can cope with partial shade and like somewhat moister conditions will also grow well together.

One thing to bear in mind, however, is that certain herbs can be so vigorous that they easily out-compete their neighbours and can become garden ‘thugs’. Mint is one example of this. Mint can be a wonderful choice for a forest garden, or perennial scheme –  for creating ground cover under shrubs and trees and other plants that can cope with the competition. But in a dedicated herb garden, it can be best to grow mint in a sunken container, so it does not take over entirely. Or to keep it in a pot.

Another thing to note is that fennel is not a great companion for other herbs. While it is great for attracting wildlife in mixed planting schemes, it can have an allelopathic effect on many other herbs and other plants. In other words, it can affect the growth and vigour of other plants grown nearby.

Remember, herbs can be great companions not only for each other, but for a range of other common garden crops and other garden plants. They can play an important role in maintaining balance in an ecosystem, and in organic pest control. Planting anise near other aromatic herbs can increase essential oil production and therefore increase their efficacy in this regard.

When Should You Plant Herbs In The UK?

Seeds of annual herbs are commonly sown in spring. They can direct sown after the last frost date in your area, once the soil has warmed. Or they can be sown earlier indoors or under cover.

Some annual herbs (such as coriander and dill, for example) run rapidly to seed, so to ensure a continued supply, it is best to sow successionally every couple of weeks through spring and summer.

Perennial herbs, and sometimes annuals too, are often purchased as pot grown herbs. These can be kept indoors, or planted out in the garden as soon as the weather has warmed sufficiently in spring. And also sometimes throughout the summer or early autumn months, though those planted in spring will usually be easiest to establish.

Some perennial herbs are also propagated from cuttings, which are taken from late summer to early autumn. These cuttings are usually overwintered indoors or under cover before, perhaps, being planted out in spring. Hardy herbs can also be divided in spring or after flowering in late summer to make new plants, which can be transplanted right away to new growing positions.

Are Herbs Vegetables?

The semantic distinction between herbs and vegetables is not always clean cut. The term vegetable can loosely be used to refer to any edible part of a plant. Since we eat the leaves (and sometimes the flowers, stems or seeds) of many common culinary herbs, this means that herbs can be vegetables too.

But most people will think of herbs rather differently to common vegetable crops. And that largely comes down to their characteristics, and how they are used. Herbs are typically strong tasting, and strongly aromatic. While vegetables are used for their calorific and nutrient content, and often make up the bulk or a large proportion of a meal, herbs tend to be used more sparingly, to add flavour to a dish rather than forming its main component.

The lines are blurred, but culinary herbs could be considered as vegetables, especially when they are used in greater quantities in a dish. But remember, herbs are not just used for culinary purposes, they can be used for other uses too – for medicine, to yield essential oils for a range of purposes, etc…

So while some herbs are vegetables (and some vegetables, such as celery for example, can be herbs) not all herbs are vegetables. And vegetables are only herbs if you are using the term ‘herb’ in a broader botanical sense, in referring to herbaceous plants.

Can You Plant Supermarket Herbs?

Purchasing living herb plants rather than cut fresh herbs from a supermarket can be a great idea. These living plants can be potted up and grown on at home, and will continue to provide you with herbs to harvest over a much longer period.

But you might be surprised to learn that even fresh supermarket herbs that are cut can potentially be planted and brought ‘back to life’. And you can regrow several types of supermarket herb from scraps.

Stems of fresh herbs like basil, for example, can be placed into a glass of water. If you are lucky, new root systems will begin to develop at the base of the stems, and when you see the roots, you can pot up the stems and they will grow into new plants.

How Long Do Herbs Take To Grow?

How long herbs take to grow will of course depend on which varieties you are looking at. Remember, annual herbs have a lifecycle that takes place over a single year. Biennials will begin growing one year, then flower and set seed the next. Perennial herbs will continue to grow and remain living over a number of years.

Typically, you can start harvesting from annual herbs within a couple of months of sowing them. Other herb plants may require a couple of years of growth to become established before you start to harvest.

Can You Grow Herbs Inside Year-Round?

You can grow herbs inside year-round, as long as you provide the right conditions, containers and growing medium for the herbs you wish to grow. Again, remember that annual herbs will last only a single year, while perennials can be grown indoors for a number of years as long as you pot them up to larger containers as and when required.

Some perennials that might make good herbs to grow indoors all year round include:

  • Chives
  • Mint
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme

How Can You Keep Bugs Away From Your Herbs?

When growing herbs outdoors, your goal should not be to keep bugs away from your herbs, but rather to use your herbs, other plants and other strategies to maintain balance in the ecosystem.

Some herbs will naturally repel a range of common pests, while others may attract certain ones too. But even attracting bad bugs can be beneficial in an organic garden. For example, plants that attract aphids will also attract ladybirds, lacewings and other predatory insects that prey on them. So this can be beneficial in the garden over all. Over time, as long as you create a rich and biodiverse ecosystem, no particular bugs should get out of control.

If you are growing herbs indoors, keeping bugs away from your herbs can be a challenge, since you will not be able to rely on natural predation to keep pest numbers down. But making sure that plants are healthy, and you provide the ideal environmental conditions will make it less likely that pest problems will take hold.

Companion planting indoors, in containers, as well as in the garden, can deter common bugs. And you can trap gnats and flies and other bugs indoors if they annoy you or become a problem. If an infestation takes hold in containers containing herbs, you can replace and renew the growing medium. You can also use biological controls or organic pesticides as a last resort – but these should only ever be used as a last resort and should be viewed as the nuclear option.

What Herbs Attract Bees?

Many herbs are excellent for attracting bees and other pollinators to your garden. There are many great options to consider, including:

  • Borage
  • Lavender
  • Hyssop
  • Marjoram
  • Mint
  • Fennel
  • Chives
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Lemon balm
  • Thyme

Though these are just some of the many herbs that will help in bringing bees and other pollinators to your garden and providing them with the nectar they need.

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