Now is the time to plan this year's herb garden. Information covered in Between the Rows vegetable garden posts on the general planning and design steps for starting a vegetable garden—e.g., testing your garden's soil and drainage, starting plants from seed indoors, evaluating past failures and successes in your garden, etc.—are similar to those for planning an herb garden. (See previous vegetable garden posts here.)
Regarding herbs, it is important to remember that most common herbs are adapted to areas with ample sun, well-drained rocky soils, and dry summers. Growing herbs in Northern Virginia, therefore, can be challenging given our area's clay soils, high humidity often followed heavy Summer rains, wide daily temperature fluctuations, and sometimes harsh Winters. Keep these general grow constraints in mind as you design and plan this year's herb garden. Here are useful articles with some planning and design tips. Here are some useful growing guides and charts.
This Powerpoint presentation provides useful information on growing herbs in Virginia. Other Extension publications on growing herbs in areas with generally heavy soils and more humid conditions are available here and here. For other general information, see this VCE publication on herb cultivation and use and also this VCE publication on herbs and spices. VCE also has covered the culinary and nutritional aspects of herbs in some of its blog postings.
There are many design options to choose from when planning an herb garden including fragrance gardens, potpourri gardens, Shakespeare gardens, and herb gardens for salads, teas, or plant dyes. (Books by Phyllis Shaudys describes these and many other types of herb gardens.) A current favorite is the so-called herb spiral (pictured above), referring to a vertical garden design that allows plants to be stacked to maximize space and provides a high point for sun-loving plants (e.g., rosemary, sage, and thyme) while plants that are more tolerant to shade and moister soil conditions can be planted within the garden's wider base. Here are more detailed instructions on building an herb spiral, with a discussion of some of its general benefits and plant placement. Growing guides on various types of herbs can be found here and here. See also the Herb Society of America's "Beginner's Herb Garden Guide" or consult with members of the local Potomac Unit society chapter.
Prepare to start new annual and perennial herb plants from seed indoors, with the help of heating mats and lights or a warm sunny spot in your home. Herbs that can be started indoors in February-March include bergamot, catnip, chervil, chives, dill, fennel, lavender, lemon balm, lovage, marjoram, mint, oregano, parsley, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. The next quarterly post will provide more information on herb propagation (meanwhile see this VCE publication). Now is also the time to sprout ginger, turmeric, and horseradish indoors, which can be grown from roots purchased from the supermarket (check available online resources for more information).
If you brought some of your less hardy perennial herbs indoors to overwinter or if you are growing herbs in containers during the Winter, make sure your plants are getting enough sunlight and not too much water. Place plants near a warm, sunny location. Water plants less frequently, but thoroughly, and avoid letting the soil get too soggy which could contribute to rot. Herbs that can be brought inside and grown in containers include sage, parsley, chives and some basil, oregano, savory, and thyme varieties.
Some herbs that can be grown from seed indoors during the Winter include chives, mint, fennel, lemon balm, lovage, parsley, rosemary, savory, and thyme. Sow seeds in pots with rich, well drained, and sterilized potting mix. Cover the pots with plastic bags or clear wrap until germination occurs. Place the pots in a warm room, in a sunny location (e.g., South- or East-facing window) and keep the soil moist. Installing supplementary lighting and providing periodic fertilizer, as well as monitoring seedlings for pests and/or any signs of "dampening off," may be necessary. Information on growing herbs indoors is available here.
To learn more about growing and using herbs, see the Herb Society of America's website. For more local educational activities, contact members or attend events hosted by the Potomac Unit society chapter.