Garden Update | Planting an Herb Garden in Clay Soil

By Kiersten | Last Updated: May 9, 2012

Herb Garden Collage
After returning home from HerbFest with a flat full of herbs, I needed to figure out what to do with them. (I guess most people would figure out what to do with the herbs before buying them, huh?) I had been wanting to build a patio off of our screened porch, but all those herbs gave me an even better idea–I’d put in a kitchen herb garden instead. A kitchen herb garden would get much more use than a patio–we barely even use our porch.

Of course, there’s a reason I have my veggies growing in raised beds–our soil is awful. It’s heavy red clay, so compact that it’s hard to even get a shovel in it. I spent a lot of time trying to research planting an herb garden in clay soil, but I could only find bits and pieces of information in many different places (and a lot of it was conflicting information too).

Although herbs do best in poor quality soil, that soil needs to be poor quality and well-draining. Our red clay is definitely not well-draining, so we needed to do something to amend it. First, we pulled up the sod. My husband attempted to break up the soil underneath the sod with a spade, but it was so hard that he ended up using a pick axe. Once he had finished tilling, he added a 50/50 mix of coarse sand and peat to improve drainage and mixed it with the original red clay soil. Many guides to putting in a garden instruct you to remove 18 inches of soil and replace it with topsoil, but since herb gardens thrive in poor conditions, we simply mixed coarse sand and peat with the first 6 inches of soil (which was broken up to make mixing easier). We’ll see if we regret this shortcut in the coming months!

Oregano - May 8
We put in a stepping stone path and I planted my herbs after the soil was ready to go. Remember, herbs do well in poor conditions, so they shouldn’t be fertilized–don’t add any fertilizer or compost to your herb garden! When it comes to mulch, I read a lot of different recommendations–some sites say to mulch herbs, others say not to. Because mulch ultimately breaks down and provides a garden nutrients, I didn’t want to go that route. At the same time, I didn’t want a big red clay eyesore right outside our kitchen window either (you can see what the garden looked like pre-gravel in the first photo). After reading this article on Dave’s Garden, I decided that instead of mulch, I’d use pebbles. Since the majority of herbs I’m growing are Mediterranean herbs, using gravel in the garden will replicate their native environment.

Do you have a separate herb garden or do you grow your herbs with everything else? Do you have any tips for growing herbs in clay soil?

About Kiersten

Kiersten is the founder and editor of Oh My Veggies.

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You did such a great job with your collage. Good luck on that herb garden! I’m thinking about starting one as well. Sounds like I’ve got the perfect soil too. The soil here in Missouri is horrendous, nothing but rocks.

Thank you! And thanks for the collage template. In the rare case that I make a collage, I usually do it myself and it takes me so long to size everything perfectly, so your template is awesome to have. 🙂 Your herbs will love that rocky soil–I am jealous!

I love raised beds! I do all of my vegetables in them and it works so well. I was worried about putting herbs in them because I thought they might spread, so you’ll have to let me know how yours do. I’m thinking if my herbs don’t work out in the ground, I’ll do them in a raised bed next year and replace the herb garden with native plants that do well in our horrible soil!

I love your spoon herb markers! I kill everything I plant. For a girl who grew up on a farm you think I’d be able to grow something! I ended up planting herbs in a stainless tub and that seems to be working pretty well.

The herb markers are from this shop on Etsy: . As soon as I decided to put in an herb garden, I knew I had to get them. 🙂 If this garden doesn’t work out, I may have to use a tub too!

Ah, herb gardening. I’m one of those people that gets gung-ho at first but so much of the herbs I grow have gone to waste in the past and I just didn’t keep up with weeding (last couple mid-west summers have sucked pretty bad so I’m not taking full blame for that!) but this year I am GOING to use them all up. I have so many ideas and can’t wait to try them all out.

The soil around my house is FULL of clay, but despite my lazy “just plant them” method tall herbs I’ve planted have done well. I had a rosemary plant in a pot a few years ago that went through 2 winters in the house and died on the third so I figured i’d be fine this year… the new rosemary died after I didn’t water it for a few days. (What an ass!) I heard cilantro grows great indoors so I bought a plant to evnetually move to the garden and it died almost immediately! I do grow cilantro outdoors but the plants get willowy so quickly it seems. I pick off the buds to help but can’t seem to get the plant so be edible for ore than maybe 3 weeks.

My mom grew rosemary in Mt. Prospect and it totally took over the garden. It was insane! I figure, even if you don’t use every leaf off of every herb plant, most of them are perennials and for the $2.50 (or whatever) you pay for them, you are saving so much over getting it at the grocery store every time you need it for a recipe, you know? And the basil & parsley are pretty easy to use because you can just throw them into a pesto at the end of the summer!

Try planting the cilantro in the shade! I heard that that helps keep it from going to seed. I’ve never had luck with cilantro in the past, so I’m hoping this time it does better since it’s not in the sun. Also, I bought a variety at HerbFest that’s supposed to be more heat tolerant. You might want to look for that…

We always have a TON of basil and I nearly cry the first time I have to actually buy some at the store in the fall. Good thing I’ve practically OD’d on it come August each year. 🙂

I’ve never heard of rosemary spreading. My lavender didn’t, but they all came back. I want to grow a lot of it in one area… sort of like a bed of it. Canyou imagine a REAL bed of lavender? Heaaaaaven!

My mint came back looking like oregano this year. What’s up with that?? It’s going to get taken out soon. Speaking of mint plants… my yard is INFESTED with catnip. I pull those suckers up all the time and still, they return. Everywhere. (Lucky for Mr. Bo Jangles!)

My parsely has been growing strong since MARCH! I really hope the weather doesn’t poorly affect my herbs….

My cilantro will definitely get less sun this year. I’ll let you know how it does!

Catnip is part of the mint family! You’re not supposed to plant anything in the mint family in the ground. I have my mint and catnip in containers, although I did plant cat mint in the perennial garden before I found this out. ;( I did plant some Corsican mint in hopes that it will grow between the stepping stones, but apparently that’s not as invasive as regular mint.

I think you are going to love having the herbs just steps away to use in the kitchen, and all the money you will save not needing fresh herbs at the store. Because of my homeowner’s association, I have nice-looking herbs mixed in with my flower bed in front– can’t make it look like I’m doing anything practical! I also have a pot of herbs on the deck and some in back. Pulled out my rosemary– it does get rangy after about 5 years– and am really missing it, will have to put in more this year.

That is exactly why I put the garden in! Those little packages of herbs that you buy at the store are so expensive and most recipes only call for a tablespoon or so. My husband wasn’t convinced until we went to the grocery store and I pointed out that the cost of one little herb package was equal to the price of an herb plant!

We have a strict HOA too. They don’t allow in-ground vegetable gardens (raised beds are okay), but we can do flower beds without approval. I’m hoping the herbs fall into flower bed territory. They do flower, right? 😉

The stepping stone path is cute! Wish I had an herb garden. I used to plant basil, parsley, and chives with everything else, even at the base of potted tomato plants, and they flourished easily. Rosemary we kept separate because it doesn’t want as much water. I had no idea that herbs do well in poor soil, though. I’ve yet to get a real start on gardening, but there’s this kind of 2-foot-tall wall raised-bed structure in the back of our house, and I think they’ll do okay there. It’s partial sun/shade, but that shouldn’t matter so much as days get longer.

They say that just about all herbs do well in poor soil! But I do think there’s a difference between the woody, perennial herbs like rosemary and the annuals like basil–I think the annuals need slightly more TLC. One of my raised beds is in partial sun, and some things did better in it than others. Greens did super well, and even cucumbers and beans did okay, but the zucchini definitely didn’t like it!

I guess you’re right! But with your rocky soil, you should do pretty well with herbs. 🙂 Apparently you can grow them in rocks with NO soil at all!

I started a kitchen herb garden last year in our heavy clay soil. I did add topsoil where I planted the herbs, but there is clay all around. I didn’t even break up the clay around the area I planted. From your research, sounds like mine should be thriving. LOL. They are thriving! A coworker friend gave me some cuttings from her garden and this year, I already have two big bushes of Marjoram and Oregano. I haven’t really done anything to them either and hardly water them, so I am confident that your garden is going to also thrive.

That Dave’s Garden article is amazing–that herb farm isn’t using rocks as much, they’re actually growing the herbs in them! Very fascinating. 🙂

Yay, that is encouraging to hear! For some reason, I thought oregano (and a lot of the other herbs I bought) crawled on the ground and then only later I found out that they grow into bushes–wish I had accounted for that when I did my planting!

Well, we’re supposed to get a few days of rain this week, so that will be the test of whether we amended the soil enough! Because if the soil doesn’t drain, the herbs will probably die–they hate wet roots.

Ha! Last year I thought my gardening book over-estimated the amount of space squash would need, so I gave it a little less. Big mistake! It totally took over everything.

I’m a little late to the game here, but hopefully you’ll still see this! How did the garden do? We’re in the Piedmont and also have heavy clay soil. When we first bought our home last year, all naive-like, I just stuck a rosemary plant in the dirt around a koi pond that we resurrected. The spot had been full of invasive ivy, so safe to say that dirt was pretty DEAD. I threw down some $2 bag of top soil and I couldn’t even dig down deep enough to get the rosemary root ball totally underground- ahaha! I was heavily pregnant at the time, so that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it! 😉

I went back this spring and added more garden soil to cover the bottom of the plant but, I’ll tell you what, that rosemary is THRIVING! Anyway, other side of the pond – I just ripped-out these hideously ugly bushes (that I see a lot in landscaping around here- bleh). Clay as expected. I’ve planted some rainbow ascot (euphorbia) because that also took off and looks awesome (right next to the neglected but happy rosemary). I also got several silver anouk lavender plants and one more rosemary plant to put there. I came across this wonderful article on growing lavender in clay NC soil! -care/

I’m kind of wondering if I should prepare the soil for this new rosemary plant the same way I do for the lavender…

Anyway- also got river pebbles for “mulching” (and a little to mix in the soil under the lavender for improved drainage). They look like the same pebbles you’ve got, so it’s nice to see them “in action” in your garden!

Fingers crossed! Thanks for sharing this! Would love to see how the garden looks now a few years later! 🙂

Unfortunately, we moved out of state a few years ago so I don’t have photos. But in the 2 or 3 years we had that herb garden, it really thrived. I’m not sure if it was the pebbles or the (minimal) amending we did to the soil or both, but we always had more herbs than we knew what to do with. 🙂 We’re now in Wisconsin and I’d like to plant another herb garden with pebbles like that because I loved the way it looked!

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