Tag Archives: herb garden

The King of Herbs: Growing Basil

Once you start growing your own fresh basil, there’s no going back. While tomatoes may get most of the attention in America’s summertime gardens, basil is the king of herbs. The basil you can grow at home is also more impressive than in the store. It’s much cheaper too! Thankfully, it’s also quite easy to grow, and you still have plenty of time to grow basil in your garden this summer.

Direct Sowing Basil

This time of year, the simplest way to grow basil is to direct sow it. Basil is native to tropical and subtropical regions of Asia, including Thailand, Iran, Pakistan, and other countries. Due to its tropical upbringing, basil thrives in full sun and needs a mimic of 6 to 8 hours of sunlight to produce. It also grows best in rich, well-drained soil and germinates best when the soil temperatures are around 70-75°F.

To direct sow basil, plant 3 to 4 seeds every 12 inches. Lightly cover the seeds, no more than two times the depth of the seed. Basil takes about 5 to 14 days to germinate. When the plants have four leaves, thin them to 1 plant every 12 inches for fuller, bushier plants. You can transplant extra plants to another bed.

Transplanting Basil

Basil can also be started in flats or containers indoors. To get an early start next spring, start your basil indoors about four weeks before your last frost. In flats, space seeds ½” apart. Thin to two inches apart and transplant in 3-4 weeks.

Growing Basil From Cuttings

Interestingly, basil is also easy to grow from cuttings. Take a cutting from your own or a friend’s basil plant that has at least four sets of leaves. Remove the bottom set of leaves and place the cutting in a clean, filtered glass of water in a sunny spot indoors. Change or refill the water as necessary until the cutting has clearly visible roots. Then transplant the cutting to the garden bed with loose, rich soil or a container.

Basil plant growing in a potGrowing Basil in Containers

Basil is also a suitable herb for container gardens. Start your basil just as you would for the garden. Select a container with drainage holes (or make them) and use potting mix and some good-quality compost. Keep the container somewhere sunny and water consistently. Basil doesn’t like to be soggy but thrives with consistent moisture, and containers tend to dry out more quickly than the garden. 

Can you Grow Basil Indoors?

You can grow basil indoors, but it’s much trickier. As basil enjoys full sun, providing adequate light in a home year-round is hard. Here in the northern hemisphere, you may be able to grow basil in a sunny, south-facing window. Your basil plant may need more light if it seems weak or spindly. A grow light bulb placed close to the plant may allow it to thrive. Read the bulb’s instructions for the exact placement. Many bulbs must be surprisingly close to a plant, just a few inches from its top leaves.

Ideas for Using Homegrown Basil

If you ask anyone (or Google) what to do with basil, they’ll tell you to make pesto. Don’t get me wrong, I love pesto, but there’s so much more to basil than just pesto! If you haven’t worked with fresh basil often, here are a few of our favorite ideas for using it.

  • Chop it up and toss it onto homemade or delivery pizza.
  • Make a classic Caprese salad with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, salt, and olive.
  • Use it for refreshing cocktails or cocktails like bloody marys, watermelon coolers, or limeades. 
  • Top your morning toast or bagel with slices of fresh tomato, basil leaves, salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.
  • Take your grilled cheese up a notch by adding basil leaves in with the cheese.
  • Basil pairs well with lemon and strawberry. Try adding a new twist to lemon cake or strawberry shortcake recipes by topping them with finely chopped basil.
  • Add basil, garlic, and other herbs to your favorite bread recipe if you love baking.
  • Basil, cheese, white beans, salt, and pepper, make for a tasty, easy-to-throw-together pasta dish. 

Basil as a Medicinal Herb

Basil also has a long history of use in traditional medicine. Basil has been used as a carminative (to relieve gas), to help ease stomach aches, and to improve digestion and appetite. Research indicates that it may inhibit gastric acid secretion. As it’s also a culinary herb, experimenting with basil as an herbal remedy is fairly safe. You can try basil in food, teas, and tinctures

*None of this is intended as medical advice. Always consult your doctor. 

Basil’s fresh, gently spicy flavor makes it a must-have for the kitchen and the garden. It’s not too late to add basil to your garden this year! Start basil from seed, transplants, or cuttings in the garden or patio containers.

Herb Garden: Spring Maintenance

Spring is an exciting time! It’s easy to get caught up in the rush of starting annuals, building new gardens, and adding new plants to our spaces. It’s also important to remember to care for our existing gardens. Spring is an excellent time to look at and refresh our kitchen herb or medicinal herb gardens. 

Tidy Beds

While it was once common practice to tidy herb garden beds in the fall, many of us now hold off on this chore. Various pollinators and beneficial insects use our gardens’ dead leaves and plant materials as winter habitats. Insects like solitary bees, butterflies, and predatory beetles depend on these materials to overwinter or as a place for their eggs or pupae. 

It’s best to wait until temperatures are consistently above 50°F to do your cleanup to help support these garden helpers. Then you can remove any dead material and trim perennials like lemon balm.

It’s also an excellent time to go through and pull any early weeds before they get a chance to take hold. A stirrup hoe can be a handy and quick way to remove small weeds. 

Add Compost to Your Herb Garden

Compost improves your soil by adding nutrients and structure. Adding compost can help heavy soils drain better and help sandy soil to hold more moisture. For most gardens, adding 2 to 3 inches of finished compost is a good idea once you have everything tidied up. This will allow you to get new annuals off to a good start and give perennials essential nutrients to put on good spring growth. 

It’s important to know your plants. Some herbs, especially those from the Mediterranean, like lavender and rosemary, don’t generally need or enjoy rich soil. Around these types of plants, you may only need to add compost every couple of years. 

Compost should be spread on top and gently raked in. Be sure not to disturb the roots of perennials or cover their crowns with compost. 

Mint PlantDivide Perennial Herbs

Early spring is an ideal time to divide many perennials. Spreading herbs like hyssop are good candidates for this. Take a sharp shovel and cut a clump in half or smaller sections. Try to damage the roots of each section as little as possible. Fill in around any section you leave with compost or good soil.

Dividing is easy but is a lot like transplanting annuals. There are a few essential steps to make sure your plants thrive. The first step is to stress your plants as little as possible. Avoid sunny days and transplant on cool, overcast days if possible. Transplant them into loose soil and add compost if needed. After transplanting, water your plants thoroughly and keep them moist while they get established.

You may also need to move plants to rearrange your garden or those that have self-seeded in less-than-ideal spots. Moving plants is very similar to dividing. You want to use a sharp shovel or trowel and try to get all the roots and disturb them as little as possible. 

Your divided or moved plants may wilt initially but will quickly recover if you’ve followed these steps. 

Mulch Your Herb Garden

We use mulch in all of our gardens, and it has many benefits. Mulch can help suppress weeds, keep the soil moist, and add organic matter as it breaks down. You can use whatever type of mulch you wish, but it’s best to avoid using dyed ones, especially around edible plants. 

Generally, you want your mulch to be about 2 inches thick, but some find 3 inches works better with coarser material. Don’t use too much mulch, as it can block air from the soil. Avoid putting mulch directly over the crowns of plants, as this can prevent new growth and cause crown rot in some species. 

Carefully Plan Any Changes and Additions

While completing your spring chores, taking stock and making a plan is a good idea. Did all of your perennials make it through the winter? What annuals did you enjoy most last year, and which did the best? What herbs did you run out of this winter?

Careful consideration can help you maximize your gardening efforts this season. When adding new beds, drawing them out on paper is a great idea. You can also use stakes and string to mark out their location.


Spring is fun, but we must remember essential maintenance. Completing these five tasks can help ensure you have a beautiful herb garden this summer. 

5 Unusual Medicinal Herbs

Herbalism is a wonderful way to explore cultural traditions and history. It can also help you support a healthy lifestyle and improve your knowledge of plants. Maybe this year you started your first herb garden, planting some easy-to-grow herbs, or perhaps you’ve been practicing herbalist for years crafting teas, tinctures, and other natural products to promote wellness. Wherever you are on your journey, adding a few unusual medicinal herbs to your herb garden can be fun. While most of these plants have been used in herbal medicine for a long time, they tend to be less common in modern gardens.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus)

Also known as Chinese Milk Vetch or Huang Qi, Astragalus is a traditional Chinese herb that herbalists have used since ancient times to increase and tonify qi. Herbalists believe the plant to be an adaptogen and deep immune system activator. 

Astragalus is a perennial legume with a spreading, reclining growth habit. It does best in a sunny location with well-drained, fairly dry soil. The foliage dies back each fall and regrows in the spring. For best results, soak your Astragalus seeds overnight before planting.

Typically herbalists harvest a portion of the roots when the plant is well established and at least four or five years old. Wash, cut up, and dry your roots for use in teas, tinctures, and other preparations. Dried roots may also be powdered. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SpilanthesSpilanthes (Acmella oleracea)

This unique, vibrant flower is widely used and known by many names. You may have heard it called eyeball plant, buzz buttons, or toothache plant. When eaten raw, edible leaves and flowers cause a tingling sensation in the mouth. Practitioners of Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and western folk medicine have used Spilanthes for various ailments, including upper respiratory illnesses, minor pain, and various mouth and dental issues. 

Spilanthes is a beautiful, low-growing, spreading plant. The cone or hive-shaped flowers are composed of hundreds of tiny yellow, red, and orange-hued flowers. These cones are often compared to eyeballs giving the plant one of its common names. Here in Virginia and farther north, it is grown as an annual but is a tender perennial in warm climates. It prefers areas with full sun, and the seeds require light to germinate.

This exciting plant adds a unique flavor to soups, sauces, sorbets, cocktails, and salads. You may use it fresh or dried in teas and external applications.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs Echinacea pallida
Photo by H. Zell

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea Pallida)

Echinacea or coneflower, is one of the more commonly known medicinal plants today. You can probably even find it in immune-boosting teas and supplements at your local grocery store. However, most of these are one species, Echinacea purpurea. While I love Echinacea purpurea, it is just one of the ten species of Echinacea, all of which are medicinally important. 

All species of Echinacea are frequently used to boost the immune system. Several pharmacological studies have demonstrated immuno-stimulant, bacteriostatic, and anti-viral activity.

Native to open woods and rocky prairies from northeastern Texas to central Illinois, Echinacea pallida flowers typically feature rosy purple long, dropping petals and a purple-brown flower disc. Occasionally, flowers may be pink, purple, or white. This drought-tolerant plant has long, narrow leaves and grows 18 to 36 inches tall. 

Echinacea pallida can be a bit more tricky to start from seed than its more common counterpart, Echinacea purpurea. You need to stratify the seed for 60 days at 40°F. Then you can start it indoors and transplant or direct seed it in an area that receives full sun. It’s perennial in zones 3 through 9.

All parts of the echinacea plant can be used in herbal preparations. Wait until the plant is well-established before harvesting leaves. Wait until the plant is at least three years old to harvest roots. 

Unusual Medicinal Herbs SoapwortSoapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort is a non-native herb brought from Europe and is naturalized in much of the United States. It’s a valuable herb because the plant contains natural saponins and produces a lather when soaked or heated in water. It’s terrific for making a non-irritating skin cleanser, shampoo, or soap for delicate fabrics. 

More tolerant than some herbs, soapwort will thrive in full sun to partial shade with moist to slightly dry soil. The seeds require light to germinate and can be transplanted or direct seeded. Soapwort is perennial in zones 3 through 10 and may spread.

Wait to harvest soapwort until it’s at least a year old and you have an established patch. For the highest saponin content, harvest the leaves and blooms when the plants are in full flower. They may regrow and bloom again that season. Harvest roots in the fall.

Unusual Medicinal Herbs LovageLovage (Levisticum officinale)

While not widely used today in the US, lovage would’ve been common in many medicinal and kitchen gardens of medieval Europe. The ancient Greeks were probably the first herbalists to employ lovage, chewing the leaves to relieve gas and aid digestion. Throughout time it became more popular for its medicinal and culinary uses. In the kitchen, it’s used as a salad green or in the same fashion as celery. In modern herbalism, tea is often made from lovage for its carminative or diuretic effects.

Lovage doesn’t always germinate well, so be sure to sow extra. Start your lovage indoors. The seeds require darkness to germinate. It will tolerate full sun to partial shade and is perennial in zones 3 through 10. 

The leaves, stems, roots, and seeds of lovage are all useful. Once lovage is established, you can pinch off the leaves and stems and use them as needed. Harvest seeds in the fall when they mature, and harvest some of the roots in the fall from plants that are two to three years old. 

An herb garden should be as unique as the gardener. When you’re planning your garden this winter, consider your goals and your needs, and always consider trying something new. Hopefully, one of these unusual medicinal herbs will find a place in your garden and bring you wellness and joy in the coming season!