RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Fresh herbs will change the way you eat.
These plants have short shelf lives fresh, so what’s offered in a grocery store is often not only expensive but also has lost a lot of its flavor. Many culinary herbs are perennial and pay back their initial investment after only one or two harvests. Plus, if you grow them yourself, you can have a larger range of fresh herbs on hand.
To really integrate herbs into your life, the ones you cook with every day should be easily accessible. It makes all the difference to be able to simply step outside your door and pick what you need rather than having to walk halfway across the garden.
If you can’t create a “kitchen-door” herb garden, you’ll want to choose a planting bed as close to the house as possible and designate it as your permanent herb garden. If you don’t have a planting bed that is easily accessible from your kitchen, create one by using a clay container or building a raised wooden planter.
Rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage are culinary classics, but a kitchen-door herb garden is our opportunity to have the specialty herbs we’ve seen in cookbooks and wished we had in our garden. Marjoram is a good example, as well as basil, dill, chives, chervil, celery and parsley. Planting different varieties of these herbs allows us to learn which our family prefers in favorite dishes.
Herb garden design
We keep basic design principles in mind as we plan a dedicated herb garden.
It is advantageous to plant herbs close together to deter weeds and to create a full look. We attempt to repeat and contrast textures and flowers for splashes of color and to tie in with the key colors or foliage textures of our larger landscape. But you can also group like colors and textures for a more monochromatic and modern look.
Ideally, we try to grow all the herbs that like hot, dry soil in a bed to the south side of our kitchen doorway, while we grow the rest in cool, moist soil under the filtered shade of a nearby cottonwood or where our house gives them afternoon shade.
Many of the Mediterranean herbs will do well in our arid climate — just make use of walls to provide some shade for plants like chives or lemon balm as a protection from full sun.
The edible and medicinal flowers agastache, Echinacea, and lavender have smaller and larger varieties — look for smaller plants that grow in the 12- to 18-inch range for an herb garden bed.
We place herbs like rosemary, lemongrass and lovage in the back of the bed or the middle of a planter that is accessible from all sides. Once we plant medium-height herbs like parsley, basil, sage and epazote (Mexican tea), we fill in our bed with low-growing and ground-cover herbs like thyme, chamomile and oregano.
When you plan your herb garden, it helps to put perennials in a prominent position where they will stay, and fill in the gaps with annuals, which you will plant each spring. Many perennial herbs are evergreen, such as myrtle, bay, rosemary and thyme.
In addition to planting herbs in a dedicated bed or planter, we plant herbs throughout the garden and let them go to flower, an easy way to attract pollinators.
Care of herbs
Most herbs are quite happy if left relatively alone, as they are plants that originally came from the wild. However, when you plant them for specific reasons, you will want to ensure they have the best possible conditions.
There are three key ways to care for your herb garden: 1) extra watering in very hot conditions — with average rainfall, they will thrive; 2) applying compost and a nitrogen-rich natural fertilizer made from comfrey leaves; and, 3) mulching to keep weeds at bay, maintain a moderate soil temperature when the weather gets cool and slow evaporation during hot weather.
When we first started herb gardening, we were often surprised by the large quantities that a single plant would produce. As we gained experience with the individual herbs, we learned how much of each to grow.
For example, one rosemary plant is all you need for cooking. (If you use the leaves in potpourris, you might want several plants.)
One mature tarragon plant is enough for our family, even producing enough for a few quarts of infused tarragon vinegar.