Herbs are among the most rewarding plants to grow in the garden. Most of them are easy to grow and give so much while asking for so little. They can be used so many ways in the kitchen and have medicinal uses, too.
Here is a short and sweet guide to growing nine herbs that are readily available at garden centers, have multiple culinary uses, and grow well here. Some herbs tend to do poorly in our summer heat (cilantro, dill, and parsley, I’m looking at you.) Plan on planting them in early spring and late summer so they can flourish in the cool seasons.
Most herbs will look their best planted in full sun and well-drained soil locations. That said, grow them in part sun if that’s all you have. Most of us use the leaves, not flowers or fruits of herbs. Foliage production requires less energy from the plant which means you’ll still have herbs to snip for cooking. To improve drainage, amend your clay soil with two inches of a pine bark soil conditioner or a similar type, and layer over a few inches of topsoil and an inch of compost then till again.
You can grow herbs in raised beds or containers. If your deck is closer to the kitchen than the garden, consider siting frequently used herbs there in a raised planter or pots to provide convenient access while cooking. In containers, use a high-quality potting mix with some compost in it for best results, and put a bit of screening material at the bottom of the pot over the hole to retain the soil. Allow herbs to dry out a little between waterings so they don’t rot.
While fertilizing produces attractive foliage, it can also diminish flavor. Apply compost once or twice per season or apply a fish and kelp emulsion monthly. Basil is an exception. Fertilize it lightly but regularly. Removing flower buds from leafy herbs will inhibit seed formation and help direct the plant’s energy to the production of leaves. To save herb seeds for later planting, allow late-season flowers to develop.
Basil is easily grown from seed and can be grown in successive crops every 3 to 4 weeks for an endless bounty of basil. This also allows you to let older plants flower and attract bees which will pollinate summer vegetables. Basil is prone to various diseases so keep water off the foliage, space plants for good air circulation, and don’t overwater it. Greek column basil is becoming popular because it doesn’t go to seed. Cinnamon basil is good for cocktails, sugar cookies, and tea.
Cilantro & Culantro
On regular cilantro the leaves are cilantro, and the seeds are coriander. Cilantro dies out in our heat, so plant a few crops of seeds a couple of weeks apart for a longer harvest. Plant it in part sun and cut off flower buds to avoid bitter flavors or allow it to go to seed to harvest coriander. Mexican cilantro (aka culantro) needs a spot in light shade but tolerates more heat and offers a similar, but stronger, flavor. Try culantro to make recaito, a cooking base made from cilantro, onion, garlic, and peppers to season soups, stews, bean, and rice dishes.
High and dry is the key phrase when growing lavender. Sunny slopes or raised beds or berms are your best bet. Add half a cup mix of bone meal, agricultural lime, and composted manure in equal parts to the amended soil for each plant. Do not crowd plants so that good air circulation can be maintained. Lavender also does well in containers. Mulch with light-colored stone, not wood or bark.
Mint can be rambunctious so consider planting it in containers to control invasiveness. Many flavors and varieties are available and it can be used in almost every aspect of cooking. Peppermint is excellent as a stomach-soothing tea. Try mint pesto on lamb, substituting mint for basil.
A favorite in Mexican, Greek, and Italian cooking. Oregano cooked in olive oil with garlic makes a great steak topping, and it is delicious incorporated into lamb meatballs and on homemade pizza. Oregano is a perennial and is very cold hardy, often providing foliage most of the year. Make sure it has good drainage.
Though it founders in our hot summers, parsley has so many culinary uses that it must be on this list. It’s also a very healthy addition to the diet. Juice parsley in your green juice to bind and detox heavy metals and to get vitamins K, C, and A. Plant in the morning sun.
Delicious with meats, potatoes, stews, olives, and bread. Upright forms are more hardy than creeping types. If planting creepers, make sure drainage is good to prevent winter rot. Watch out for tiny sucking insects on the undersides of leaves and treat with neem oil spray. ‘Chef’s Choice’ is my favorite variety.
A short-lived perennial often grows year-round but must have well-drained soil or be grown in containers. In early spring, prune leggy stems to a few leaves allowing for fresh, compact new growth. One of the classic sage recipes is brown butter sage sauce which alone makes it worth growing but it is also wonderful in a lasagna with butternut squash and goat cheese and in cheese-and-sage stuffed chicken.
Excellent in soups, roasted vegetables, and meats, English thyme does best here. Lemon thyme also does well and is good with fish, and delicious minced then added to the top layer of lemon bars. Syrup made with strongly steeped thyme, honey, and lemon soothes coughs.
Favorite Cooking Tips
Keep herb marinades for veggies separate from meat and used smashed garlic cloves. Reserve the marinade after the veggies go on the grill, fish out the garlic, and then return the cooked vegetables to the marinade after grilling so it doubles as a sauce. Use mayonnaise blended with herbs (and maybe some garlic) as a topping for fish, and vegetables, or used in chicken, tuna, potato, or other vegetable salads.
Tina Mast is Communications Director for Homewood Nursery, and lives and gardens in Wake Forest. You can reach her at email@example.com.