When you’re first beginning a garden, herbs may not be your first priority. And unless you regularly cook with herbs, you may not know how to use them anyway. Herbs are beneficial in the garden, versatile in the kitchen, and are even used medicinally. In all their greatness, though, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Don’t be. You don’t have to know it all to enjoy the benefits of herbs.
I’m a very basic herb gardener. And with some trial and error I’ve learned a few things about how to grow them and use them. Here are my favorites:
If I could grow one herb, it would be basil. Not only do we use basil pesto in our family’s staple dish Chicken with Basil Pesto, but basil can be used in a variety of other dishes as well. I’ve also found basil to be a great companion plant to my tomatoes. Knock on wood, I’ve never had any major pest problems on my tomato plants with basil planted nearby.
To grow basil, either purchase a transplant at the garden center, or buy seed. Plant either outdoors after the danger of frost has passed (frost will kill basil), or start basil seeds indoors in February.
The key to harvesting basil all year is to cut off the flower stalks when they start to form, and harvest the leaves regularly. Once the flower stalks begin to form, the quality of the leaves goes down significantly. I have several basil plants, but I keep at least one trimmed for fresh use, and I let at least one flower out. Bees love basil flowers, and healthy garden has an abundant bee population. Left undisturbed, the flowers will dry out and produce seeds. Either harvest the seeds to save for next year, or let them drop on their own. In areas with long seasons, you may get a second generation plant the same year.
Oregano is my second most-used herb. Not only do I use it in my homemade lasagna, but I use it in my canned homemade spaghetti sauce. I also dry it to supply my spice cabinet with dried oregano for the year.
Oregano grows all year in my zone 7 area, but its best leaves are produced in early summer. I planted my oregano from seed, but it took several weeks to get established. Be sure to plant it in an area you’re okay with it being permanently, and give it plenty of room. Oregano can spread over the years, taking up more garden space than you think.
Rosemary is a favorite of mine in roasted chicken and pork loin. Nothing beats fresh rosemary.
In most areas, rosemary becomes a perennial shrub that you can harvest year-round. Like oregano, the most flavorful sprigs will come in early summer.
My mom bought me a small rosemary plant a couple of years ago, which I planted in its permanent location. Now it is about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Like oregano, plant it where you plan for it to stay.
I use dill in freezer pickles and sweet pickle relish when my cucumbers start coming on. Dried dill is also used in homemade ranch dressing mix, and no store bought spice compares to the freshness of home-grown dill.
There’s a reason dill is often called “dill weed.” Though dill will die in a freeze, it self-seeds like crazy. I’ve only had to plant dill once, and from then on its self-seeding has given me more dill than I’ve ever used.
Dill is very easy to grow from seed, so I recommend planting directly in your garden after the danger of frost has passed. Harvest fresh dill when dill weed is called for. Dill will produce beautiful yellow flowers just before it goes to seed. Then you can harvest dill seed for recipes that call for that.
I use thyme in chicken recipes and soups. It’s easy to dry and use in the winter. I’ve both grown it from seed and bought small plants. It has always survived over the winter as long as it has been planted in the ground. Any that I’ve planted in pots have not survived. It does go through a dormant period over the winter where leaves aren’t harvested, but in the spring the leaves come back.
Chives are a new herb for me. I planted seeds last year in a pot, and in November I transferred the plant to my herb garden. It survived the winter and now has the most beautiful purple flowers. Chives is one of those herbs I use only occasionally, so it will be nice to have available if needed rather than having to fork out several bucks at the store to use in one meal.
Sage is another new herb. I planted seeds in a pot last year, and like the chives, I transferred it into my herb garden. The leaves died over the winter but began growing again in the spring. Last year at Thanksgiving I harvested the sage leaves and dried them for homemade cornbread dressing. I thought the taste was fabulous compared to store-bought sage. Sage is also good with chicken and pork.
Parsley & Cilantro
Parsley and Cilantro are two of my favorite herbs to eat but I’ve found them fussy to grow. Parsley grows well in containers until the heat of the summer, but it does take some time to germinate if growing from seed.
I’ve grown cilantro in both a container and in my garden. It bolts very quickly in hot weather, but its redeeming quality is how it self-seeds. Then those seeds begin germinating in January. I’ve always thought it cruel of nature to give me ample cilantro in January when I really need it in the summer to make fresh salsa. This year I’m trying a slo-bolt cilantro, so hopefully it will last me a little longer.
All herbs you grow are great for your garden. They deter pests and attract beneficial insects. Plus, they just look beautiful and smell amazing. As mentioned, most of my herbs grow in their own raised bed, though I do interplant some (like basil) with other vegetables. I recommend that you grow your herbs close to the kitchen so it’s easy to snip them when you need them.
Because nothing beats cooking with fresh-picked herbs. Except maybe walking out to your garden and picking those herbs before throwing them in the pot.
What herbs do you grow? Do you have any tips to add to mine?