How to Grow Your Own Bay Area Herb Garden

Many of us have spent the long months of quarantine learning how to bake bread, cook heart-warming stews, and cultivate Victory Gardens. And there is one thing that can enhance all three of these activities: fresh herbs.

Regardless of the size – a few pots in a sunny kitchen window, a corner of your vegetable patch, or a large freestanding swath – creating an herb garden can be incredibly satisfying. All you need is a little advice and a little imagination.

A recent Webinar Newsroom @ Home gardening – the first of five we planned – featured Rose Loveall, co-owner and founder of Vacaville’s Morningsun Herb Farm, and Florence Nishida, Los Angeles County Master Gardener and Founder of LA Green Grounds, sharing their top tips for growing herbs in the garden. But if you missed it, don’t worry. Here is the truth.

So many herbs, so little time

There is work to be done before you plant, of course, but let’s start with the fun things – thinking of all the beautiful herbs that will soon be growing in our gardens, patios and kitchen windows.

There are thousands of herbs to choose from, and the variety can be overwhelming. Obviously, you’ll want to grow things that you like and use, but Loveall and Nishida suggest that you experiment as well.

Basil, thyme, sage, lavender, and rosemary are staple ingredients in the herb garden, but there are varietals of each with different flavors and uses. Thai basil, Genoese basil and purple basil are just the tip of the herbaceous iceberg. You can plant multiple varieties or taste them first to see if you like the taste.

Planting hard-to-find herbs means you’ll never have to resort to frantic supermarket searches again. Buy this herb once at the market, says Nishida, place a few stems in the water for them to grow roots, and then transplant them to your garden.

Think about how you use herbs – for culinary, therapeutic, or decorative purposes, for example – matters too. If you like mixology, Loveall says, you’ll need mint for your mojitos. Do not grow mint in the ground or even near it. It spreads quickly and can quickly take over your garden or yard. Mint must be grown in a container and placed on a deck, patio, or similar location where it cannot send raids.

Most of the herbs are planted in the spring, but there are many that can be grown in the fall and winter, that is, right now. Loveall recommends sage, rosemary, oregano, lavender, lemongrass, and cilantro. Nishida adds green onions and onions to this list.

The Cilantro Enigma

If your cilantro dreams perished this summer, there’s a reason for it. Cilantro does not grow in the warmer months, so it is necessary to plant in the fall, winter or early spring.

The herb, so popular in Mexican and Thai cuisine, is easy to grow in full sun, but germinating the seeds can be a bit tricky. Loveall recommends soaking the seeds before sowing them; Nishida says you can carefully crush the seed’s outer shell to improve the chances of germination.

Cilantro should be planted in the fall, winter, or early spring. The plant does not do well in the heat of summer. (Getty Images)

Once established, cilantro will happily reseed, but don’t expect fresh cilantro in July and August. The factory will not cooperate, Loveall says. Instead, consider adding Vietnamese cilantro to your garden. It grows well in summer and has a taste similar to cilantro, which is a type of cilantro.

Herbal gardens inside

You can certainly grow herbs indoors, as long as you are aware of a few potential pitfalls.

You will need a sunny window or a grow light, and you will need to be careful with watering. In winter, when indoor herb gardens are the most attractive, the heat in the house can dry out the herbs, which often causes us to overcompensate by giving them too much water.

However, you can have a nice herb garden if you pay special attention to it and its needs.

To start

While some herbs can grow in shade, the majority require at least six hours a day of full sun. Loveall and Nishida recommend looking for the sunniest spots available for a buried or container garden.

Next, prepare your beds and containers. Most of the soils in the Bay Area are heavy clay. Incorporate compost into the soil to help lighten the clay, Loveall says, and improve drainage. Herbs don’t like to stay in water. Don’t skimp on the compost – use 4-6 inches.

When planting herbs, choose a location that receives six hours of full sun each day – or opt for a grow light if your herb garden is indoors. (Getty Images) Getty Images

If you are planting in the ground, do so in mounds that will help water drain and away from the plant to avoid soggy conditions. In pots, choose a well-drained soil. Then cover the beds with mulch to help moderate soil temperatures.

You will need to be very careful with your watering. Most perennial herbs – think oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavender – are Mediterranean and can tolerate drier conditions. Annuals, like chervil, may need more water, say Nishida and Loveall. When herb gardens fail, it’s because you’ve overwatered. (Or cilantro planted in July.)

Whatever their water needs, all herbs should be watered deeply and rarely. By watering deeply, you force the roots to sink deep, making it a healthier, more drought tolerant plant.

Most herbs require very little fertilizer. For perennials, fertilization once a year with a slow-release organic fertilizer is sufficient. For annuals, fertilizing every two weeks during the season will keep them healthy. Don’t over-fertilize. This makes the plant grow quickly, Nishida says, resulting in long-legged plants that are difficult to manage and require frequent pruning.

Harvest these herbs

Harvest your herbs regularly. Cut basil for this Margherita pizza or mint for a mojito – dry your herbs for later use.

Nothing makes you feel better than a cup of lemon verbena tea in the winter, Loveall says, but at that point the grass isn’t growing. By drying and storing verbena, you can still treat yourself.

Most herbs are easy to dry. Nishida simply sets her harvest on a tray in her dining room, but you can also group the herbs and hang them in a ventilated area. There are expensive devices that let air circulate under the weeds, but, Loveall notes, a window screen, placed in the shade, will do the same.

Harvest fresh oregano to add flavor to marinara sauce and other Italian dishes. Or pat the leaves dry for later use, crumbled over a Greek salad. (Getty Images)

Few herbs freeze well, but basil in pesto form freezes wonderfully. Loveall freezes his pesto, along with cheese, in ice cube trays for easy access.

Almost all herbs either bloom or they would “fail as plants,” says Nishida. Once a plant is in full bloom and begins to produce seeds – this is called bolting – the taste and quality of the weed changes. In annuals, it indicates the end of the plant’s life. Pinching the flowers with some of the taller leaves will extend the life and productivity of the plant, but eventually nature will catch up with the pinch.

Learn about the cultivation and use of herbs

This year’s “it” grass and other must-haves for your garden

Books and videos to help you learn more about herb gardening

Answers to some common questions

Herbal recipes

Upcoming Gardening Webinars

The Bay Area News Group Newroom @ Home webinar series includes five gardening episodes. Watch a video of the first, Growing Herbs, and sign up for more as dates approach at Gardening 101 is scheduled for January 14, followed by Small Space Gardening on March 11, Gardening with Wildlife on May 6, and What Went Wrong? the 15th of July.

Terri S. Tomasini