All-purpose plants par excellence, herbs are useful as well as beautiful. Attractively varied in size and shape, their leaves, stems and flowers are valued for their culinary and medicinal uses. Many are scented or flavoured, or both, and most thrive on something between moderate attention and benign neglect in sunny or shady gardens.
Herbs may be annuals (dill, cilantro), perennials (bay, rosemary), herbaceous perennials (chives, tarragon) or biennials (parsley). To further complicate matters, tender herbs such as lemon verbena and pineapple sage are herbaceous perennials in my Victoria garden, but may have to be treated as annuals in yours.
Herbs often grow under even marginal conditions; in ideal conditions, some turn into vigorous, greedy brutes. That's why it's critical to determine the mature height and spread of each herb before you plant it. A compact, unassuming baby can grow into a monster in one season.
Generally, herbs do well in fairly neutral, weed-free soil (6.5 to 7.5 pH) with good drainage and protection from cold or strong winds. But generalizations end there. Plant creeping thyme between stepping stones, mint in the shade of an elderberry bush, towering lovage and bay at the back of the vegetable garden, decorative feverfew and bergamot in the flower border. Try clove pinks and St. John's wort in the rockery. Welcome visitors with a fragrant lavender bush beside the front door. Herbs can be tucked here and there almost impulsively, but if you want to establish a proper herb garden, it's wise to preplan.
First, observe your site. Is it sunny, shady or somewhere in between? Exposed or sheltered? Is the soil light or heavy, wet or dry?
Consider your needs. Do you want herbs for cooking? medicine? crafts? Maybe you want a variety. List the herbs you want to grow, then determine which ones like the conditions you have to offer. If you can't grow what you want, select a substitute.
For example, you want culinary herbs but have a site that gets afternoon shade. Consider ones that like shade or part shade such as lovage, fennel, parsley, chives, lemon balm, chervil and anise hyssop, as well as many varieties of mint. You can also try gambling with a few fence-sitters. Sage and thyme perform better in full sun but may produce reasonable crops if given even a few hours of sun and light, well-drained soil. Or pot up sun lovers such as basil or rosemary and set them in a sunny location.