I have a friend who has many demands on her time and energy, who challenged me to describe the easiest possible backyard herb garden. Her challenge was a “for dummies” approach that “a toddler could do in two hours”.
Not sure that exists, but it made me consider how I might tackle the simplest plan that might be successful over time. Note that as with so much in life, quickest and simplest are not synonymous with cheapest.
Challenges to be overcome with an outdoor herb garden in Houston:
- Heat and dryness: herbs will need to be watered daily to survive the summer heat. They might also need conditions a bit different than the books say – for example, I find some of them do better with a bit of shade rather than full exposure to our punishing summer sun.
- Terrible soil: our heavy black gumbo clay is the opposite of what herbs like.
- Growth control: once you provide irrigation and the right kind of soil, certain of the herbs tend to grow like mad and take over, unless there is something controlling their spread.
- Weed control: likewise without some effort, the weeds will grow out of control and choke out your good stuff.
So the not too cheap but quick solution to these things probably involves automated watering with a sprinkler system, a substantial layer of weed barrier on the ground, a shipment of good quality garden soil, several raised beds separated enough to let different herbs grow lushly without competing with one another. And herbs bought as seedlings from the nursery rather than starting from seed.
The order of action might be
- Planning: List the herbs you want, make a plan for how many different containers you would need and how they might be arranged. Identify a site that gets regular watering from the sprinkler system. In an ideal world you would use drip irrigation but that goes beyond the toddler two hour rule.
- Shop and gather materials
- A large supply of flattened cardboard or newspaper (might be optional. See below)
- Some sort of edging between your garden and the lawn.
- Weed barrier fabric
- Raised containers of some sort. See below.
- Dirt. Needs to be listed as soil for growing, not just topsoil. Get something appropriate for container gardening.
- Some sort of attractive pathway material… mulch or pebbles (I suppose this could be optional?)
- herbs. And maybe a few flowers to intersperse among them to make you smile.
- Install edging around the planned garden area
- Cover the whole area inside the edging with several layers of newspapers or cardboard. Water each layer thoroughly as you go to eliminate air pockets and get solid coverage.
- On top of the paper layer, set out your containers with enough space between them that you’ll be able to navigate among them when they have big bushy overgrown plants. Fill them with soil.
- Cover the ground around and between the containers with weed barrier fabric, then cover with mulch or stone to make nice walkways.
- Then plant your herbs. From here they will just want water, maybe occasional slow-release fertilizer, and weeding (hopefully not too much thanks to the barriers you put up).
There are several easy options for containers, and the ones you use will determine whether you need a layer of cardboard or newspaper under your weed barrier fabric. Basically, the idea behind the paper is that it will be solid enough to kill off weeds and grass for just a short time (maybe a few weeks) but then will break down enough that plant roots can grow down through and past it. So if you choose any sort of raised container that is open to the soil at the bottom, you want a layer of paper or cardboard under it to kill off the grass and weeds. On the other hand, if you go with big pots that have a solid bottom, they can just sit on weed barrier. Theoretically they could sit directly on the lawn, but they’re hard to mow around.
Some ideas for containers
- Garden centers often sell raised beds.
- You can buy big buckets (5 gallon) for just a few bucks and drill holes in the base of them. Get the ones listed as food safe.
- if you buy dirt in plastic bags, you can cut off both ends of the bag, fold it over on itself, and resulting soft tube with soil.
- You can buy big pots or whiskey barrel planters
- You can arrange cinder blocks to form beds. The holes in the blocks can hold smaller herbs or decorative flowers.
When positioning plants in the garden, remember that big bushy plants like basil, fennel, dill will block light and sprinkler spray so put them towards the back (or the center of a middle of the yard garden with multiple sprinklers). Then put a layer of smaller upright plants and finally put trailing plants like oregano or thyme right up front where they can cascade down over the side.
Really invasive herbs like mint need their own pot, unless you’re prepared to continuously manage them.
So, that’d be how I set up an herb garden quickly in a Houston backyard. Of course, I would probably wait until cooler weather to do it, because I am a wimp…