How to Plant Colorful Herbs in Your Garden
It’s never too early to start planning your garden. Even though the ground may be frozen and covered with snow, there’s no reason why you can’t start preparing for spring now.
Herbs are generally very easy to grow and can be extremely beautiful. There also useful in the home, whether it’s for cooking, medicinal use or as decoration.
If you live in the United States, the first thing you want to do is determine which temperate planting zone you live in. These zones are determined by the USDA as a guide for growers to determine which crops to grow. They’re determined based on the lowest average winter temperature in any given region. Single states can have more than one zone in them, too.
For example, the Twin Cities area of Minnesota is considered zone 4, but if you hit the highway and took a road trip north to Duluth, you’ll then be in zone 3. This is because northern Minnesota is colder on average than central Minnesota.
The next important factor to think about, no matter where you live, is how much sunlight your growing space receives. This is because some plants fair better with direct sunlight, while others like partial sun or shade better.
Herbs are great for container gardening because most of them flourish in pots. They also do well when planted in the ground. Some herbs, like mint, are better suited for containers, because they have a tendency to spread when left unchecked.
Another factor to keep in mind when deciding on the type of technique you want to use is the quality of soil on your property. If it doesn’t drain well or is polluted, you opting for containers would probably be a good idea.
Another advantage of using containers is that you can keep fresh herbs on hand year round, because you can easily bring them inside when the temperature begins to drop.
A third option is raised gardening. This type of gardening usually involves constructing simple walled structures, piling soil in them and growing plants in them. Although it’s a little more challenging to get started, it still offers a unique look and has its own advantages.
Of course, the final deciding factor for many people is the look they have in mind. Both methods have their pros and cons, but there’s no denying that there’s a charm plants growing directly from the earth offers that potted plants can’t.
Now that you have the background figured out about your planting area, it’s time to start the fun part.
Picking herbs out can be a little overwhelming, since there are so many to choose from. I’ve listed the types of herbs I’ve grown in the past as a starting point. They all have different species with variations in leaf and flower coloration.
Almost all of them are edible, too.
I had rescued my lavender plant from my sister’s yard not far from my home, while they were doing some landscaping, and stuck it in the sunniest part of my yard. This plant is native to the Mediterranean, but it’s grown extremely well here in the upper Midwest.
Since I inherited the plant when it was already fully grown, and made sure to get a good sized root ball when it was dug up, I had no trouble getting it adapted to its new spot.
However, if you’re starting it young, add a handful of compost to the hole before you plant it and keep it protected when the temperature drops. It also needs minimal watering.
There are many different varieties, but the all have beautiful flowers which range in color from blue to purple. English lavender grows best in zone 5 or warmer, but other varieties call for zones 8 or warmer. They all prefer well drained soil and full sun.
Sage is another favorite, because it’s such a hearty plant. Like all herbs, it has quite a few different species. I’ve had white sage in my back yard for quite a few years now, and Russian sage out front for the past two or three.
Sage is well known in the spiritual community for its cleansing properties, and often used in cooking to smoke or season meats.
Sage species vary wildly in the shapes of their leaves and their flowers.
Russian sage has small, light green leaves with a shape that reminds me of lace. The flowers are tiny and purple. It has a very light aroma to it.
White sage has long, fuzzy leaves that are grayish green. If it’s not pruned regularly, it has a tendency to get very woody. The flowers are pitcher-shaped, and tend to come in colors like white or purple.
It does well in partial to full sun, well drained soil, and shouldn’t be over watered. Sage is a hearty plant, and does best in zones 4-7.
I personally had limited success with oregano. This may be because I hadn’t put it in a spot that gets enough sun, though.
This herb is another one which loves full sun, but can grow well in partial shade. It’s popular in Italian cooking because it was originally added to food as a way to preserve it and sooth upset stomachs.
This plant likes to spread along the ground, so it’s a good choice to plant towards the front of your garden. The leaves range between light to dark green, and its bursts of tiny flowers are usually either white or purple.
Another native of the Mediterranean, oregano grows best in zones 7-9. It can grow in places with very warm summers, but if you want it to survive the winter, bring it in when the temperature starts dropping in September.
Mint is one of my favorite plants to grow. It has quite a few varieties, and tends to spread like wildfire, so take care when planting it in the ground.
It has some of the prettiest flower spikes, too. They’re usually either white or purple, and the leaves can be green or have a purple tint near the stem, depending on species.
Since it grows so rapidly, it’s best to trim it back several times over the summer. Spearmint and garden mint both have a lovely flavor which works well in deserts, teas and mojitos. Chocolate mint has a unique flavor and darker colored leaves.
It’s an extremely hearty plant, and I’ve seen it grow in pretty much all levels of sunlight. It flourishes in zones 3 to 7, and will last all the way through the autumn. It’s also one of the first plants to come back in springtime.
To give you an idea of how well it spreads, I started out with a tiny spearmint seedling from the farmer’s market one year. By the following year, it had taken over an area about 15 feet long and five feet wide. That was alright with me, since I wasn’t planning on putting anything else there, but it illustrates the need to keep it cut back when put in with other plants.
Echinacea or Cone Flower
Cone flowers, also known as Echinacea, are native to the northern United States. They’re on the taller side, so they’re best planted further back in the garden to help frame the shorter plants.
They have a unique flower with a pointy center and petals that can range between white and light purple. The leaves are deep green. In recent years, it’s grown in popularity with the herbal healing community, due to its immunity boosting abilities. It’s very useful in reducing recovery time in cold and flu season. However, if you want to use the cone flowers in your garden, be prepared to let the plant mature for three to four years before harvesting the root to dry.
These plants prefer full sun and well drained soil. Echinacea is one of those rare plants that grow well in all zones from 3 to 9.
Mine were also rescues from my sister’s yard, and they’ve come back faithfully every year for about four years now.
These brilliantly colored flowers give any garden a flash of fire and sunlight with their vibrant red, orange and yellow hues. The flowers and round, green leaves are also edible. They have a very peppery taste, which goes along with their fiery colors.
Although they’re annuals in most places, meaning you need to plant them every year, they’re very easy to care for, and work well as almost any role in the garden.
They grow best in zones 7-9, but also work beautifully during hot summers in the north.
I had used them a few years as a container plant, but they’re lovely in the ground as well. I’ve seen seedlings available in Farmer’s Markets and garden supply stores.
Catnip is another type of mint. Instead of sending runners out like most other varieties, its white or lavender, pitcher-like flowers form seeds, which then scatter. If you’d like to keep the plant from taking over the yard, trim the flowers before they bloom. This will also encourage more leaf-growth all the way through the growing season.
This herb’s leaves are broad, light green and soft to the touch. It tends to get rather tall and busy, so it’s a good choice as a backdrop for shorter plants. If the leaves aren’t harvested by the time fall comes, they turn stunning shades of bright orange and red.
This herb isn’t picky about how much sun it gets, but it tends to do slightly better in full sun. Like Echinacea, it grows well in all zones from 3 to 9. Water regularly, but don’t over water. The rule for this plant is to let the ground go mostly dry before soaking it.
My catnip plants originated from two I had picked up at the farmer’s market several years ago. I hadn’t realized just how pervasive they were at the time, so now I usually have quite a few catnip plants come spring and summer.
There are many more herbs with which to experiment, but these are all good to starters, since they yield such beautiful results with relatively little effort.
This is one of my favorite books about herbal medicine.