If you grow nothing else, grow herbs.
Herbs require minimal care and they repay your efforts in spades. Not only do they add flavor to food, but many herbs can be used to make excellent teas, fragrant sachets, insect repellants, and home decor.
Like other plants, herbs can be annual or perennial. Perennial plants keep coming back. while annuals tend to die off each year and must be replaced. Most herbs require a lot of sunlight. If you are growing indoors in containers, you may need to supplement light. Herbs are well-suited to container gardening, or they can be put in the ground. Below, you will find basic information for several popular herbs.
At my house, we can simply never have too much pesto, so basil gets its own raised bed. Basil is a bit more delicate that many other herbs, so don’t plant it outside until well after the last frost date. It grows nicely indoors, as long as it gets enough light. As your basil grows, you can pinch it off just above where two leaves are emerging to stimulate two new stems to grow and produce more leaves. Basil is delicious, but is also has some surprising health benefits. One-half cup of fresh basil provides 98% of your Vitamin K daily requirement and the oils in basil have been shown to inhibit several species of bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.
Snip, snip, snip and your baked potato is transformed! Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow. They make an excellent kitchen window plant or they can be grown outdoors. As a perennial, it will come back, year after year. The onion-scented flowers are edible and they add a nice color to salads. Chives should be planted 12-18” apart and you can expect them to slowly spread on their own. Water regularly and make sure the soil provides good drainage.
It wouldn’t be salsa without cilantro, and your body will thank you for adding this pungent herb to your collection. Cilantro has been shown to suppress lead accumulation and, if it goes to seed, you have coriander! Cilantro grows easily from seed and can reach a height of 18-24”. Plants should be spaced at least 10” apart and they make excellent companion plants to spinach, beans and peas. It repels (or distracts) aphids, spider mites, potato beetles and whiteflies. Cilantro prefers soil that drains easily and LOTS of sunlight, but the roots do not like being disturbed. This tends to cause them to bolt and go to seed.
Lemon balm is a lovely, easy to grow, flavorful perennial herb that can grow pretty much anywhere. Traditionally, lemon balm tea has been used to reduce digestive upset and restlessness. Run your hand over the leaves and you’ll see why. The aroma is calming and that’s because the oils on the leaves have sedative properties! Like other members of the mint family, lemon balm can spread. Mature plants can be 2-3’ tall, but some varieties grow more like a ground cover. Lemon balm can be grown in full sun or partial shade and it does best when it is cut back (harvested) regularly. Unlike many other herbs that increase and improve their flavor when dried, lemon balm is best used fresh.
Spearmint, peppermint, and chocolate mint love to grow in shady, moist spots in areas facing drought or extreme heat. Otherwise they can grow well in full sun. These plants will spread like crazy, so containers are a good idea. Also, mint tends to get leggy, so regular pruning will help keep it attractive. Mint has long been a popular culinary and medicinal herb. You may be surprised to learn that thyme, oregano, lemon balm, lambs’ ears, salvia, lavender, rosemary, sage, summer savory, anise hyssop and basil are all members of the Mint family (Lamiacaea)! You can start mint from seeds, tender new growth, or rooted stems that have touched the ground.
Another member of the mint family, oregano pairs perfectly with tomatoes. Oregano has been used for centuries to treat respiratory and digestive problems. Oregon can grow in some pretty awful soil, as long as the drainage is good and it’s not too dense. Generally, oregano prefers to be dry. Oregano grows easily form seed. Mature plants may reach a height of 12-18”, but many varieties stay close to the ground. Oregano makes a lovely hanging plant, as well. New oregano plants don’t have much flavor. It takes time and hardship for an oregano plant to reach their full potential. Leaves should be harvested only after flowers appear.
Parsley is a kitchen mainstay and an excellent source of Vitamins A, B12, C, and K. Parsley is a biennial, which means it takes 2 years to go to seed. Parsley seeds should be soaked in warm water overnight before planting. Since parsley has a taproot, it prefers a rather deep pot. Once established, you can snip off bits as you need them - or snag a quick vitamin boost or breath freshener, as you garden. You can grow parsley in full sun or partial shade. They make great kitchen window plants, for easy harvesting!
This plant is a workhorse, indoors or out. Run your hand over its branches and the heady aroma expands around you and it stays on your hand for a good while. Rosemary is excellent on pork, beef, in soups, and chutney. According to WebMD, rosemary is also used to aid digestion, ease gout, eczema, and joint pain, repel insects, and it can help wounds heal more quickly! It’s supposed to reduce age-related memory problems, but I don’t remember how… To grow rosemary, get the smallest plant you can find, or take cuttings from tender new growth, put them in rich soil, and water lightly and frequently, at first, to help them get established. You can also get new plants from branches of existing shrubs, where they have touched the ground and put down new roots. Be forewarned, a mature rosemary plant can easy become 3’ tall and 5’ wide, with the right growing conditions. Honey bees and other beneficial insects love rosemary, but it seems to repel undesirables. (If you live near me and would like a cutting, just let me know.)
Turkey dressing, sausage, and some cheeses just wouldn’t be the same without sage. If taste weren’t reason enough, research has shown that consuming sage can lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels and improve your thinking process! Sage plants prefer rich clay loam and they can get pretty big. A healthy, mature sage plant can reach 3’ in diameter and in height, so plan accordingly! Sage needs plenty of nitrogen, so regular feeding with blood meal is a good idea. Be sure to harvest leaves before the plant flowers for the best flavor.
Tarragon has a shallow root system, so it makes a lovely container plant. It is a good source of potassium and it is said to be able to treat digestive problems and to fight certain bacteria. Tarragon is excellent on fish, vegetable dishes, egg dishes, in soup and white sauce. Once you get a tarragon plant established, you will have more of this herb than you will know what to do with. While it is growing, you won’t smell the distinctive aroma. It’s not until the leaves are harvested and oils become concentrated that the scent will become obvious. Tarragon can reach 2-3’ in height and it prefers moderate sun or a little shade during the hottest part of the day. Propagation is easiest through root division.
There are several types of thyme and they all smell delicious! There are upright and trailing varieties . This woody plant adds flavor to Italian dishes, marinades, eggs, and stews. Thyme oil is used to relieve stomach upset, sore throat, and as a germ killer in mouthwash. Thyme does not grow well from seed. You are better off starting with a young plant. Thyme prefers slightly alkaline soil, so it does well in the Bay area. Thyme is one of those plants that really does best if you leave it alone. It’s oily, woody stem, like rosemary, has evolved to hold moisture in and to repel pests. Interfering with its natural processes isn’t necessary. Thyme makes a lovely container plant. Mature plants can reach 12-18” in height and should be placed 18-24” away from other plants, to give it the room it needs to grow. Once a thyme plant is established, you can snip or break off branches as you need them, without harming the plant (within reason, of course). Since thyme grows slowly, weed control is important early in its life. You can mulch with straw to slow its competitors.
If there are any other herbs that you would like to grow, let me know in the comments section.
I hope this information inspires you to grow more of your own food. You can ask your garden questions on my Home page.