Herb gardens provide a plentiful supply of fresh flavorings for pennies to the dollar compared to grocery-store herbs.
You could keep paying $3 or more for a packet or pot of fresh herbs at the grocery store or you could start growing your own herbs for pennies — even fresher and almost at arm’s reach whenever you need a sprig for dinner. Culinary herbs are some of the easiest plants to grow. Their scents and strong flavors make them less attractive to foraging deer and rabbits — the bane of many vegetable gardeners.
The recent rebirth of edible gardening, combined with the cooking show-fueled trend toward fresh flavorings has made it chic to grow herbs in the garden again. The National Garden Bureau has named 2012 as the “Year of the Herb”. To mark the occasion, members of the Herb Society of America came up with a list of their 10 favorite cooking herbs. Here’s the list, along with growing basics on each and good uses for them in the kitchen:
A tender, leafy annual that’s usually grown in its green-leaf form but also comes in an attractive purple-leaf form. There are lots of different varieties, some with unusual flavors. Flowers are white and can be used as garnish.
Growing it: Sow seed directly into the garden or transplant young seedlings after all danger of frost is past. Sub-freezing nights will kill basil. Pinch the tips out of young plants to encourage bushiness and snip leaves throughout the season as needed. Plants will continue growing new leaves until frost kills them in fall. Grow in full sun to very light shade and do not allow the soil to dry out.
Using it: The perfect complement to tomatoes, basil leaves are often used in pesto but also work well in tuna, potato and egg salads, in marinades or in herbal butter. Can be used fresh; dried leaves lose their aromatic oils quickly and soon taste like straw.
A low, creeping, small-leafed woody perennial herb that comes in green, gold-green, and white-green variegated forms. Small flowers are pinkish purple.
Growing it: Start directly from seed in the garden, or more often it is bought as a young transplant in early spring. Harvest the tiny leaves continuously throughout the season as needed. Fall frost causes the leaves to brown but the plants survive most U.S. winters. Just clip off dead foliage at winter’s end and watch for new growth. Grow in full sun or light shade. Do not keep too wet.
Using it: Add leaves to stuffing, meat marinades, soup and sauce seasonings, and in herbal oils and butters. Can be used fresh or dried.
In warmer climates (zones 8-10), bay laurel or sweet bay grows as a broad-leafed evergreen tree. In colder parts of the United States, it needs to go inside for the winter.
Growing it: Plant in spring and harvest leaves as needed throughout the season. In USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 8 and up, plants usually survive winter and are pruned back at winter’s end to keep at the desired size. In colder zones, the plant must be dug, potted, and moved inside under lights to keep alive until planting out the following spring. It’s often easier just to grow bay in a pot and move in and out as necessary. Grow in full sun or light shade. Good drainage is essential.
Using it: Bay leaves are common ingredients used to flavor soups and stews. They’re usually added at the beginning of cooking and removed prior to serving. Best used fresh but also can be used dry.
Purple sage is one of the best-looking herbs in the garden.
One of the most attractive herbs, sage comes in purple-leafed and purple-cream-green variegated forms in addition to the common gray-green type. Lovely edible lavender blue flowers in early summer.
Growing it: Transplant plants in spring. Most are winter-hardy in all but the coldest parts of the United States (Zone 4 and up). Harvest leaves as needed throughout the growing season. Frost may cause browning and dropping of the leaves in fall. Trim back the plants at winter’s end to about ankle-high to keep them compact. Best in full sun.
Using it: Uses include seasoning sausage, poultry, stuffing, pork, lamb, seafood, and vegetables. Sage also makes a tasty rub for pork chops or pork tenderloin. Can be used fresh or dried. Also makes an attractive filler for winter bouquets indoors.
A mat-growing perennial herb that gets tiny pinkish flowers in summer.
Growing it: Similar to thyme, oregano is winter-hardy in most of the United States (Zone 4 and warmer). Can be direct-seeded into the garden but is usually transplanted as a young plant in spring. Harvest leaves as needed throughout the season. Frost will often brown the leaves in fall. Trim back to a few inches at winter’s end, and new growth will push out when the weather warms. Grow in full sun to light shade.
Using it: In the kitchen, the leaves are ideal to flavor just about any Italian dish especially pizza, as well as soups, casseroles, sauces, stews, stuffings, chili, and eggs. Can be used fresh or dried.
An onion-family perennial that has round, pointed, upright green leaves and pin-cushion-like pink flower clusters in spring.
Growing it: Transplant plants in spring. Cut off flowers right after they fade. Clip leaves right to the base as you need them throughout summer. Flavor is best in spring and can become stronger in hot weather. Foliage will brown after several cold freezes. Cut back the plants then or at end of winter, to make way for new growth in early spring. Best in full sun.
Using it: Adds a mild onion flavor to vinegars, soft cheeses, salads, butters, and oils. Best used fresh but also can be dried. Both edible flowers and leaves are useful as a garnish.
An annual herb with ferny, wispy foliage and small yellow flowers followed by clusters of small edible seeds in summer.
Growing it: Grows best from seeds planted directly in the garden after threat of frost. Can be transplanted, but handle gently. Fresh leaves – “dill weed” – can be snipped as needed throughout the season. But if you’re also interested in harvesting seeds, stop snipping to allow flowers and seeds to form. When seeds brown and start to dry, clip the clusters and let them finish drying in a paper bag inside. Best grown in full sun. Reseeds generously if not harvested in time.
Using it: The flavorful seeds go well with onions, cabbage, and potatoes and can be added to casseroles, lamb, fish, vegetable dishes, and sauces. Dill weed can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, meat dishes, pasta, eggs, and assorted sauces, butters, dips, and cheeses. Essential for making gravlax. Foliage is best used fresh. Seeds are best used dried.
An upright, green leafy herb with ribbed stems reminiscent of celery. The most popular types are curly-leaved and flat-leaved Italian.
Growing it: Parsley is an annual in cooler climates that can be started from seed (inside or directly in the garden) or grown from early spring-planted transplants. It can survive winter in Zones 7. In colder climates, it may survive a few mild fall frosts but eventually dies. Best harvested in spring to early summer because it often turns bitter and goes to seed in summer especially if allowed to dry out. Can be grown in full sun to light shade.
Using it: Ideal as a garnish, seasoning, or breath freshener when used fresh, or it can be dried and used in soups, stews, gravies, salads, and meat or potato dishes. It is best by far to use fresh but it can be dried.
Rosemary leaves have a pine scent.
One of the stronger-tasting herbs, this upright, bushy, fine-leafed plant has a pine scent and makes a good-looking diminutive “evergreen tree” in the garden.
Growing it: Rosemary is usually winter-hardy in Zones 7 and warmer, but a few cold-tolerant types can survive a Zone 6 winter. Sprigs can be snipped as needed throughout the season. For barbeque skewers, cut long sturdy branches and thread food on them. In cooler climates, plants should be dug, potted, and taken inside under lights or kept in a sunny window for the winter. It adapts well to containers that can be brought in and out as necessary; best grown in full sun; must have excellent drainage.
Using it: Often used in combination with sage and thyme (or garlic and thyme), rosemary is a good addition to lamb, poultry, soups, stews, fish, tomato sauces, steamed or roasted red potatoes, and marinades. Can be used fresh or dried.
A rounded, bushy, and mini-shrub-like herb with narrow, aromatic grayish-green leaves. Spikes of purple flowers bloom in summer. It is often grown more for its ornamental value than edible or medicinal uses.
Growing it: Plant young plants in spring. Survives winters in Zones 5 and warmer with good drainage. Best time to harvest is when the plant is in full bloom (if you’re using the flowers in cooking, soaps, etc.) or right after the bloom is done is you’re mainly interested in using the stems for wreaths, repelling insects, and such. To control size, shear back to a few inches at the end of winter. Prune or shear lightly right after blooming to shape the plant. Best grown in full sun with excellent drainage.
Using it: Lavender is often used in soaps, sleep pillows, and potpourri, but the flowers are also used for flavoring in desserts, baked goods, and beverages. Stems are useful in crafts and decorating. Equally good fresh and dried.
Tip: To keep the vegetable and herb gardens weed free, apply Preen Natural Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer. This will stop weed seeds from germinating for about 4 weeks, enough time for young transplants to become established without weed competition. It can be applied when plants are two to three inches tall and have a set of true leaves. Do not use on newly seeded areas.