Herbs are riding a crest of popularity. With all the emphasis on going green, more and more people are turning to growing their own produce and that includes herbs. They’re useful, beautiful and, most of all, fun to grow.
Most herbs grow best in full sun, with relief from the afternoon shade. They need good drainage. That means herbs are suited to the same conditions you grow flowers or vegetables.
Add them with your scrambled eggs or create a gourmet meal with these herbs. If you are following a favorite recipe, spice it up or add fragrance to the dish. And herbs can generate creative gifts for your family and friends.
Some herbs are tall, suited primarily for the vegetable garden. Others are short or spreading, perfect for a low border or in patio pots and hanging baskets. Because of their diverse habits, colors and textures, use them in garden designs, formal plantings or scale them down to landscape proportions.
Just what are herbs? Botanically, they are seed-producing annuals, biennials and perennials that do not develop persistent woody tissue and may die at the end of the season. If you are still not sure, it is a plant valued for qualities such as medicinal properties, flavor, scent or the like.
Establishing an herb garden requires a bit of forethought, because some herbs can become very aggressive. Herbs are almost insect and disease-free and have a way of re-establishing themselves, once planted. However, you’ll appreciate them more, if you take time to plan ahead.
Never be fooled by the size you buy. You are buying a baby with surprising potential. Give your plant room to spread out and self-sow, but plant near your kitchen door for easy access. Listed below are some of the most popular types:
• Basil or sweet basil is a short, bushy annual grown for its leaves and tender growing shoots. Pinch back the plant shoots to encourage full growth. Dry the herb for use in soups, stews, salads and sauces. It’s a winner when used in patio pots and easy to start from seed or transplants. Consider the purple-leafed varieties to spice up your landscape.
• Bay laurel is an attractive shrub or tree. You’ll harvest the shiny, dark green, leathery leaves any time, but you’ll find the younger leaves tastier. Use when preparing stews, spaghetti or pot roasts. Or add them to marinades and sauces in small amounts.
• Chives are the smallest of the onion family, producing thin, hollow, grassy-type, dark green leaves that get about a foot tall. Late in the spring, small, round, pinkish to purple flowers appear. Occasionally, let the plant reseed itself. To keep chives in a youthful growing condition, clip clumps back when they get above 6 inches tall. Wash the foliage and chop it into small pieces. Store some in containers and use as a flavorful topping for vegetables, meats, salads, omelets and soups.
• Coriander or Chinese parsley, can be used in everything from pastries to sausage. It is easy to grow from seed, but becomes very difficult to transplant because of its taproot. It likes some relief from the afternoon sun. Harvest this herb when leaves reach ankle height, removing the top 3 inches of growth to keep plants bushy.
• Mints do best in a moist, rich soil with relief from the afternoon sun. But beware, because they also are invasive. They often strangle other herbs in the same bed. Corral them by planting in separate beds or containers. Harvest mint often to regenerate new growth and keep it under control. Dry in bunches hung upside down and use in candy, drinks and jellies. Fresh leaves are usually more flavorful than dried, and you can freeze them. They are easy to grow from transplants or take runners from established plants.
• Oregano will reach your waist at maturity. To keep it vigorously growing, pick leaves before flowers appear because that is the peak of flavor. Then dry or freeze leaves for seasoning soups, roasts, stews and salad dressings. Place a pot of oregano near the kitchen door for added beauty and to get at when cooking. It makes a wonderful accent plant when cascading over raised beds, rock gardens or containers.
• Parsley is a good low-growing border and container herb that also is decorative. Once growing, pluck outer leaves as you need them. Be careful to preserve the inner growing shoots to keep new growth coming.
• Rosemary is a durable perennial with attractive gray-green foliage and a low-spreading growth habit that will stay below your waist. It is breathtaking against rocks, fences and in containers. And the herb becomes very intriguing in tubs, hanging baskets, atop low walls or anywhere the plant can flow downward. Use the leaves for seasoning pickles, jams, sauces and soups.
• Sage is a low-growing gray-green shrub that contrasts nicely with other herbs or plants. Mix it in flower or vegetable beds, pots and along walkways. Sages are very versatile. Use the leaves fresh, dried or frozen to season meat, dressings, cheese and tea. Start from transplants, seed, cuttings or divisions. However, be careful, as overwatering is the leading killer of this herb.
• Thyme is available in many different forms. Most are attractive, low-spreading perennial plants, but the more upright types that grow a foot tall are best for cooking. All do well in morning sun, although they can tolerate full sun as well. They need ample moisture, but well-drained soils. They’re great small plants for herb patio pots and baskets. Use fresh, preserve in oil or dry on paper towels and store.
• Fennel is a perennial that looks much like dill with its yellow flowers and feathery leaves, and gets about shoulder height so it makes a good background plant in landscapes. All plant parts are edible, with spice coming from the dried seeds. Leaves and seeds have a pleasant licorice flavor and are a good seasoning for fish, cheese, vegetables and pastries. Start nipping leaves when they get ankle high. To get the highest quality, take off top growth to stimulate the plant.