One of the simplest luxuries is also one of the easiest and most affordable. How often does that happen? Why spend a dollar for a bunch of parsley when you can grow your own for pennies?
Fresh herbs cut from plants just outside your kitchen door provide tasty benefits all summer long. Not only that—if you have a sunny window, you can bring pots of chives and parsley inside to enjoy all winter, too.
For our purposes, an herb is any plant that contributes flavor, scent, or visual enhancement to a dish, has a medicinal, decorative, or aromatic value. Herbs can be used in so many ways that definition implies limits and really, the uses for herbs are literally limitless.
Herbs are a wonderful way for a new gardener to get started. If you haven't put a seed in a pot since the second grade, start with small plants the first year. If you have more experience, start your plants from seed. Either way, your herbs require good, well-drained soil, adequate water, and plenty of sunlight.
If you start your plants from seed, our article on seed starting has more information. Don't miss the opportunity to get your kids in on the act too. They can be put in charge of making sure plants get enough (but not too much) water.
If you have friends with whom you can trade, cuttings are also a good way to add to your collection of herb plants.
Because most of us tend to have a few dishes that we like to prepare over and over again, the simplest approach is usually the best. Start with common herbs that are frequently called for: parsley, thyme, bay leaf, basil, and oregano. For a brief description of common herbs and their uses, read Common Herbs.
Your herb garden should be as close to your kitchen as possible. Ideally, you will have a bit of garden space right outside your kitchen door that gets plenty of sun. Because the ideal world and the real world rarely intersect, this might not be possible. If that's the case, create your herb garden as close is as practical, which will make using and caring for it much easier. There are several alternatives.
Often people plant herb gardens in half barrels or other large containers within easy reach of the kitchen door. Container herb gardens (either in a single large container or several different sizes clustered for effect) are practical for a number of reasons. It's easy to contain herbs, especially invasive types like mint, which can take over an entire yard. Each plant in its own pot contributes to an appealing juxtaposition of color, texture, and size. Or plant a couple herbs or an herb and edible flower combination in the same pot. Also, container plants are often easily portable: when the first bit of winter is in the air, just move plants inside or a protected location.
Consider a collection of your favorites in a hanging basket. As long as it gets plenty of water and sun, a hanging basket can supply basil, chives, parsley, and thyme. Add a pretty color spot like a trailing nasturtium or violas, which are very pretty in salads.
Herbs can be planted anywhere in your yard or garden that gives you pleasure or takes advantage of your garden's peculiarities. Lavender, for instance, is a wonderful landscape plant in addition to its other virtues. Some herbs, like mint, can be planted in the ground in areas where you may not be able to give it diligent attention. Take advantage of microclimates: a mediterranean planter in a sunny corner of your patio or deck might contain such plants as bay laurel, rosemary, thyme, and basil.
The following table describes the herbs considered essential by many cooks with brief instructions to get you started.
Soil: Well composted soil with good drainage
Very contained plant about 10-12 inches tall and across.
Easy to start from seed but germinates slowly. In late winter or early spring, plant seeds in fresh seed starter mix.
Usually biennial. When seed stalk grows the second year, replace with new plants.
No herb is more basic than parsley. Use it to season soups, stews, casseroles, salads, and potato dishes. Plant several varieties including curled parsley and the flat Italian type, which is much fuller flavored.
Use parsley as border plants, edgings, or in a window box.
Combine with marjoram and thyme in a single large pot or window box. Add a spikey grass in the center and a trailing nasturium for color. Or intersperse with calendulas.
If getting a late start, buy seedlings. Make sure they are not root bound with roots coming out the bottom of the pots.
Grow parsley with tomatoes, roses, and asparagus.
Soil: Average soil with good drainage
Hardy perennial with limited lifespan of only four or five years. Propogate by cuttings or layering. In autumn, pin lower branches to ground to develop roots. When rooted sever from parent and transplant.
Mediterranean in origin, sage has a venerable history as a culinary and medicinal herb. Especially popular with poultry, it's also good in bread and makes an attractive garnish. 'Berggarten' is a common variety that is popular for its flavor.
Sage is a beautiful plant that comes in different colors including varigated and tri-color varieties. Plant with orange daylilies for an attractive contrast. Sage benefits the cabbage family, but cucumbers dislike it.
Sage tea is good for a sore throat.
Soil: Average soil on the limey side with good drainage
Perennial; easy to propogate by cuttings or layering. (See sage.)
Attracts bees but discourages many other insects.
Hardy, durable plant doesn't require lots of attention to thrive in mild to moderate climates. Overwinter indoors if climate is very cold with long, hard freezes.
Available in spreading or upright habit. Does well in containers.
Aromatic, resinous herb with an astringent, clean scent is delicious in Mediterranean cooking of all types. Clip plant year round for cooking.
Long appreciated for its medicinal qualities. A small sprig of leaves (about 1 tsp) steeped in a large cup of boiled water, may be used for tension, headache, or PMS. (Always use just a tiny bit to start. Each person has different tolerances to herbal remedies. So use common sense!)
Use stripped branches in fire for grilling meats, poultry, and fish.
Makes a pretty wreath for decorating. Hang in closet to deter moths.
Grow with lemon balm, oregano, bronze fennel, coriander, and parsleys. Also grows well with members of the cabbage family including broccoli and cauliflower.
Soil: Tolerant of average to poor soil, but needs
Very durable forgiving perennial that will put up with a fair amount of abuse. Divide in early spring or by cuttings.
Bees and other beneficials like it.
Good in window boxes or planters. Combine with marjoram and parsley. Add a spikey grass in the center and a trailing nasturium for color. Or intersperse with calendulas. Just make sure it has good air circulation and doesn't get too overcrowded.
Thyme is very attractive planted near lavender and does well since they have similar requirements.
Many varieties of thyme are available. The best culinary thyme is the common thyme for cooking. Lemon thyme makes a delicious tea.
Thyme repels cabbage worms, but plays well everywhere.
Soil: Rich, but limey soil, but needs good drainage
Another Mediterranean perennial, dies back in the fall and reemerges in the spring. Greek oregano is most hardy and can be invasive in some climates.
Propagate by seed, cuttings, or division in spring or fall.
Flowers attract bees and butterflies.
There are many types of oregano. Consider growing several to see which suit your taste and uses best. Greek (O. heracleoticum), Italian (O. majoricum), and sweet marjoram (O. majorana) are common choices. 'Kaliteri' is often considered to be the best of the varieties.
Avoid O. vulgare. It's very disappointing with little flavor.
Rinse hair with oregano tea or add to bath.
Oreganos and marjorams enhance nearby plants.
Soil: Tolerant of either loamy or sandy soil with
Annual. Easily started from seed indoors. Don't transplant until all danger of frost is past and the ground is relatively warm (usually about the time you put out tomatoes).
Keep basil flowers pinched back to avoid its becoming bitter.
Succulant basil is one of the highlights of a summer garden. Genovese is the type most often used for pesto. Thai basils are common to many Asian dishes.
Good container plant. Plant a 'Basil Red Rubin' for its beautiful burgundy foliage along with a lemon thyme.
Grow basil near tomatoes to deter bugs and enhance vigor. However, don't put basil and rue together.
Plan now to overwinter your tender perennials and get your spring garden started early. Find a licensed contractor at NextStep Remodeling to add a sunroom or solarium to your home.