Want to grow your own produce but don't have much time or experience? Then a herb garden could be the answer. With very little space or expertise you can cultivate sweet smelling, pretty plants that give your cooking or well being a lift, all year round.
Herb gardens have been popular in the UK since Roman times in private plots, monastery gardens and of course the kitchen gardens of great houses and castles. The plants were grown not only for culinary purposes but also for medicinal, cosmetic and symbolic reasons and to create soothing aromatic areas for relaxation and contemplation.
Its good to start with some perennial, evergreen herbs such as sage, thyme, bay and rosemary. These will not only flavour your roasts and casseroles throughout the year but will give a good visual structure to your layout. You should then decide which herbaceous perennials you'd like. These include chives, fennel and tarragon. They will die down during the winter, leaving empty spaces, but will reappear in the Spring and grow throughout the Summer.
Then there are biennials such as parsley and angelica which have a two year growing period, and lastly the annuals which can be showy but only last a year. Amongst the annuals are basil, rocket, coriander, chervil and borage.
There are all sorts of interesting inspirations for herb garden design. For instance a "pizza garden" concentrates on Italian cooking - with marjoram, basil, bay and rosemary prominent. If you enjoy traditional English cooking you will want parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme. For those who love French cuisine sorrel, tarragon, sage and chives would be the main focus. Or if you can't choose, then divide up the herb garden into global zones - include coriander, thai basil and pak choi for oriental cooking and chilli peppers for a Mexican flavour.
A modern choice is to grow a bed of edible flowers. Celebrity chefs are increasingly encouraging us to add flowers to salads, cakes and desserts - just make sure you check that whatever flowers you plant are in fact edible. Nasturtiums and lavender are well known choices.
Alternatively you may want to highlight herbs used for medicinal purposes or those that children will enjoy growing, such as colourful nasturtiums. Or maybe you want a herb garden to produce your own pot pourri or cosmetics.
Of course whatever design you come up with, you will have to make sure it is a sensible choice for your particular garden. The best site for any herb garden is one in full sun with shelter from wind. This can be provided by a fence, hedge or wall. Also, get an idea of your soil type and how fertile it is. It's worth preparing the soil and improving its general fertility before planting it up. As for location, if you're planting a herb garden for use in the kitchen, you will use it most if it's near your backdoor.
Herbs tend to require quite a bit of looking after especially in the summer when many need regular watering, especially if planted in pots which can dry out very easily. And regular picking will encourage new strong growth and maintain the shapes of your plants. Try and pick evenly from the plants so that there is a balance of use - the plants will benefit. If you are planting herbs with edible leaves then it's important to pick flowering stems and buds as soon as they appear, to encourage the plant to keep producing the leaves that you want. At flowering, and after flowering the essential oil content of the leaves is reduced, making them less palatable.
Growing herbs is rewarding and satisfying and if you're a keen cook it is handy to have herbs readily available. They can be grown in pots or flower beds, so make some space for them and start cultivating.