Though it requires a consistent effort and some attention to detail, cultivating and maintaining an herb and vegetable garden can be one of the most rewarding daily chores. Ensuring the garden is situated in an area that receives abundant sunlight, is well-drained and has reasonably rich soils virtually guarantees a bounty at harvest time. With a few extra tools and planning, the gardener can also extend the vegetable season beyond the typical May-to-September growing season.
The most popular vegetables for home gardens, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash, are tender annual plants that grow rapidly throughout the warm months, but are easily killed back by even the mildest frosts. Cool-weather crops, such as lettuce, beets, radish, kale, broccoli and chard, grow best during the "bookend" seasons of spring and fall, as they will either bolt and go to seed or become bitter and pithy during hot weather. While the most popular vegetables are available as transplants from garden centers, adventurous gardeners can grow hard-to-find crops---think parsnips, Asian greens and ornamental squash---by starting plants from seed.
With the exception of tender herbs like basil and cilantro, many herbs are deciduous perennial plants, which die back during the winter but return year after year. Some herbs, such as parsley and a few types of chives, are biennial plants, growing only for two years before setting seed and dying. Culinary herbs include oregano, thyme, rosemary and sage, and are frequently used in cooking. Aromatic herbs like peppermint, chamomile, anise and lavender are useful for making teas, potpourri and sachets.
Sunlight and Soil
The vast majority of vegetables and herbs require at least six hours of direct sunlight daily---much less than this, and plants have a greatly reduced yield. Plants grown in poor sunlight also tend to be spindly and weak, as well as succumb more easily to diseases like powdery mildew and attacks by insects. Many plants benefit from light shade in the hottest afternoon hours, though morning sun helps dry out dew and prevent foliar diseases.
Vegetables and herbs generally grow best in rich, well-drained soils. Native dirt amended with generous portions of compost and a soil conditioner made from shredded hardwood bark makes soil more friable, or loose and workable. Many plants benefit from soil that is slightly acidic, as well. Some vegetables, such as fennel, grow in unusually poor soils, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
In general, herbs require less water than vegetables, as they are valued for their leaves. Many herbs are native to Mediterranean and northern African regions, and can tolerate reasonably hot, dry conditions. Vegetables, however, are mostly water-greedy sorts, requiring at least an inch of water per square foot every week for healthy growth and heavy yield. Tomatoes especially need a consistent supply of water, as the fruits are made up mostly of water.
Plants develop stronger root systems when they are watered deeply but less frequently; roots will burrow deeper into the ground in search of water, which also helps cool the root system. Gardens that are only sprinkled with water on a frequent basis encourages plants to spread out shallow, surface-based roots, which are easily stressed by hot upper soils.
Just because temperatures hover around freezing is not necessarily a reason to stop gardening. Insulating a plot of ground with a simple, plastic-covered cold frame will raise the temperature inside just enough to allow lettuce, spinach, chard and other cruciferous vegetables to thrive. Starting seeds indoors using a seedling heat mat and a strip of fluorescent lighting can also give the home gardener a jump-start on the growing season, since seedlings will be ready to put into the ground as soon as temperatures are warm enough. Fall crops can also be started indoors during the summer months and transplanted once the summer heat begins to wane.