5 Perennial Herbs for the Beginner’s Kitchen Garden
Herbs you can plant once and forget it (pretty much) are ones I love to have in my garden. Not only are they low-maintenance, but in many areas, you can harvest from them all season long. Picking rosemary in the snow isn’t all that uncommon, and who couldn’t use a whiff of summer in the middle of winter?
How can you get started growing these herbs, and which ones should you begin with? Rosemary, Oregano, Sage, Thyme, and Chives are where I started, and they are a great place for any beginner to start. Learn tips on how to grow these perennial herbs and what I’d do differently if I had to plant them over again.
First, let’s establish what a “perennial herb” is. Any perennial plant, in its natural life cycle in an ideal environment, will survive year-round. It may “die back” or not thrive in cold winters or hot summers, but it will come back when the weather returns to its ideal condition.
Some perennial plants will die in winters that get too cold. To know whether a particular perennial herb will survive in your garden, you need to know your garden zone.
All of the plants I list below survive my zone 7 garden, though many will live in areas much colder, as specified.
Rosemary is one of the easiest herbs you can grow and is an ideal plant it and forget it, type of herb.
Rosemary can overwinter in zones 7 and above, but if you live in a cooler climate, you can take some extra steps to possibly help it survive. Plant your rosemary on the southwest side of your house, which tends to get more sunlight, or plant it closer to your home where it’s typically warmer. Another suggestion is to plant it in the ground which has a more stable temperature, typically, than planter pots.
My favorite thing about rosemary is that I can harvest it year-round, at least in my zone 7 climate. This makes cooking even more joyful when I can pick fresh herbs in the middle of winter.
Rosemary tolerates dry conditions, but it does need supplemental water during periods of long dry spells. As long as it has proper drainage, it can also tolerate heavy rains.
Best transplanted in your garden (and not started from seed), purchase a small rosemary transplant from a reputable garden center.
Oregano is a very prolific herb once it’s established. My advice is to buy a transplant instead of planting from seed when you’re starting off. Once you purchase one plant, you will have oregano for years, as it overwinters in zones 5 and above, though cooler climates may see their oregano survive the winter as well.
Once oregano is established, it will spread, so be sure to plant it somewhere that you’re ok with it spreading out. It is a great container plant or it’s great in a raised bed earmarked for herbs, but be cautious of putting it in a raised bed with other vegetables.
Oregano is best to harvest in the early spring before the flowers emerge. When oregano forms flowers, as part of their growth cycle, this indicates that your oregano is on the downward decline for peak harvesting (but pollinators love them!). During the heat of the summer, after flowering, oregano may start to wither a bit. If this happens, you’ll also notice new shoots emerging from the bottom. These are new stems that you can harvest from. I usually cut back the previous woody stems to make room for the new growth.
Just like the other perennial herbs, it’s best to start thyme as a transplant versus planting from seed. Once thyme becomes an established plant, it is a strong, prolific plant to be enjoyed for many seasons.
Thyme is fairly tolerant of most soil conditions. It doesn’t need a lot of water, but with a properly draining pot, it will tolerate heavy rainfall as well.
Harvest thyme anytime after it has become established in your garden. It will eventually begin to flower in the summer, during which time it isn’t the best quality to harvest. Plan to harvest before it flowers.
If, after a few years, your plant begins growing woody, prune the woody stems so it will grow new softer stems.
Sage is another perennial herb in zones 5-8. In warmer and colder zones, it will grow as an annual. If you live where it grows perenially, once established it will provide for you for years. I started my sage plant out from seed and had to transplant and then replant and though it survived all of that, it took me three seasons to finally have more than I could use. Because it does take longer to establish to a harvestable size, speed up the process by purchasing a transplant.
Like other perennial herbs, sage requires little care, though it does prefer more water than thyme and rosemary.
Chives can be difficult to start from seed. To save yourself a giant headache, learn from my mistakes, and start out with a transplant. Chives are also more of a cool-weather crop so make sure you pay attention to the time of year you transplant. Early spring or fall are the best times.
Once established, chives require little care. They adapt to varying water conditions; just make sure to offer supplemental water in dry periods, and make sure they grow in a well-draining area.
Chives may flower, or they may not. Either way, the chives themselves are harvestable at most stages. To harvest, cut from the outside at soil-level. The plant will grow more from the bottom. Every couple of years, chives benefit from being “divided,” where you take a part of the plant and transplant it to a new location.
Tips for Transplanting
If I had my perennial herb kitchen garden to do over again, I would have bought all transplants. This is contradictory to how I plant my vegetable garden and most of my annual herbs, where I’m a huge advocate of planting from seed. But especially with perennial herbs, it’s worth the money upfront to start your plants off on the right foot. You’ll also get a harvest sooner in most cases
The second suggestion I would make is to make sure you are close to the herbs. I initially planted all of my herbs in a raised bed further from my home but later decided I wanted to move them to be closer to my kitchen. Once I switched them over to large, deep planters closer to the kitchen, I enjoyed and used them much more.
If you are transplanting for the first time or starting from day one, make sure your large planters have holes in the bottom. Herbs don’t like wet roots and they need adequate drainage. I would also suggest starting your plants in the large planters versus transplanting later on. This cuts down on watering time and saves yourself from having to keep “potting up” these herbs that grow from season to season.
For more resources on herbs and perennials, take a listen to Herb Basics Part 1: Basil, Dill, Cilantro, and Parsley or read about My Favorite Herbs to Grow and Use.
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I have really loved listening to your podcasts so far! I’ve tried growing herb transplants the last two summers in containers but I’ve noticed that I have a hard time knowing how much I can harvest from each plant. I have definitely over harvested a few of them before and the plant has either died or seemed to stop growing new shoots. I was wondering if you had any suggestions or guidelines for harvesting herbs in a more sustainable way.
That’s a great question. I’ve heard the general guideline of never harvest more than 1/3 of the herb at one time so as not to shock the plant. By using that rule of thumb, I’ve had good success with getting a good harvest and enabling the plant to rebound and even grow larger after harvest. Much of this does depend on the herb, but I have successfully utilized this for rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, and chives, as well as annual herbs like basil, cilantro, and parsley. After I harvest, I generally wait a couple of weeks before harvesting again.
I think that all herbs that you mentioned in your post are very beneficial. What’s more, they’re very easy to grow so even a beginner can maintain them. I grow herbs since I remember, so it’s a very long time. I always order seeds online as the choice is much bigger. The site I trust is https://gardenseedsmarket.com/herbs-en/ from which I always order basil. They grow really big and they leaves are intensive in colour.