Herbs are some of the “oldest” plants around and have been used for centuries for both cooking and medicinal purposes as well as in perfumes and sachets etc. These are some of the most versatile plants on the earth and hundreds if not thousands of books have been written on their usage. The use of herbs is pretty much limited only by your imagination.
CULTIVATING: Most herbs will grow best in full sun and do not require high soil fertility to produce a flavorful crop. If fertilizers are applied, utilize balanced amounts of the major nutrients nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium. The most important aspect of herb cultivation is good drainage. This will improve the winter survival of permanent plantings by minimizing root damage.
Which herbs you grow is a personal choice depending on your intended use.
HERBS TO GROW: Many herbs are easy-to-grow annuals, which can be direct-seeded when the danger of frost is past. The annual varieties most popular include:
• Basil, Cilantro, Dill, Fennel, Sweet Marjoram, and Savory.
Perennial herbs are generally much slower growing the first year and are best started by transplants. The varieties most popular include:
• Mint, Chives, Rosemary, Sage, Tarragon, and Thyme.
Other garden favorites are:
• Parsley and Hot Peppers, which can be started from transplants.
• Garlic and Shallots, which are established from cloves or sections of the original bulb.
Flowering herbs also include:
• Borage, Nasturtiums and Chive.
Herb Harvesting; Considerations for harvesting vary with the intended use of the plant materials:
• For drying, whole herb plants can be cut just before flowering for highest flavor and yield.
• Fresh leaves can be picked at any time the plants have enough foliage that their growth is not impaired.
• Flower parts need to be closely monitored for picking just as they begin to open.
• Dry seed heads will need to be gathered before they begin to shatter. These and drying herbs are best hung in a well-ventilated room away from direct sunlight to avoid loss of color and flavor.
Don’t forget to water you outside plants in wintertime. Here in the South Valley outside Albuquerque, we need to water about every 10-14 days.
Herbs really don’t take a lot to grow. All that is required is some good, well-drained soil in an area with 6 or more hours of sunlight and as a rule, you’re good to go. There is hardly anything more satisfying than going out to your herb plot and picking some fresh sprigs for your favorite breakfast, lunch or dinner dish.
Annuals as a rule need to be replanted each year because they die off with the arrival of cold weather. You can try moving your potted herbs indoors for the winter but you should carefully inspect each plant for insects and disease before doing so. Moving them indoors may or may not work. It’s somewhat difficult to have them flourish inside.
Basil, Cilantro, Chamomile, Dill, Parsley, Rosemary, Sweet Marjoram and Summer Savory are considered annuals.
Perennials such as Thyme, Sage, Lemon Balm, Tarragon, Lavender, Mint* and Sorrel should overwinter well in most areas.
*Mint. If you like a lot of mint, you’ll love this plant because it can spread like crazy and take over your garden.
Biennial are plants that grow well for two seasons and then die off and need to be replanted. If you want a continuous supply of the bi-annuals you need to replant one plot each year.
Parsley is one of the most popular bi-annuals and is used in soups and salads etc. and as a garnish.
Some of the more common uses of herbs:
Basil: One of the most popular herbs. Recipes calling for Basil abound. Because Basil will die off in colder damp weather, do not plant outside until the weather is warm. It’s best to wait a week or so after your last frost before planting.
Dill: Great in eggs and on fish and for making Dill pickles etc. It’s easy to grow but does not like too much heat. With the onset of hot weather it seems to go to seed overnight. I set out 3 dill plants last spring that went to seed and found dill growing 40 some feet away from the mother plant. Not a problem as we used a bunch of it for pickles and so on. They don’t call it dill “weed” for nothing though.
Sage: You’ll find variations of sage growing everywhere in every type of terrain. Sage used as border plants and in rock gardens add a great look to any garden or yard area because of the great color of the leaves. It’s wonderful with pork and lamb and sage rubbed chicken and grouse are in about every cookbook written.
Rosemary: One of the oldest herbs known to mankind. During our winter here it gets to looking pretty ragged but comes back with a renewed vigor each spring. This herb loves sunshine but be careful to not over water.
Rosemary, when it’s planted in areas that get any freezing at all does best if you protect the roots with a 2-3 inch layer of mulch.
Thyme: Thyme planted along a walk or used as a border for a drive is not only a good looking ground cover and gives off a rich fresh scent. The lemon variety is particularly nice.
Chives: Chives are used in eggs and salads or in about any dish you want to add a gentle garlic flavor to. Chives in bloom with their purple flowers are a great attraction to bees. Chives are also a good companion plant for fruit trees. Hardly anything better than mixing up some eggs with ham and white cheddar with fresh chive added in for breakfast on a Sunday morning.
Oregano: It seems you can’t cook anything Italian without this great herb. Use this in sauces and in some chicken dishes. Oregano will often clump and come back year after year.
Mint: Mint teas in summer and hot tea in winter are one of the most refreshing drinks around. Plucking a fresh mint leaf for chewing on is one of my favorite “treats” while working in the garden. Once again, a caution, about mints. You’re better off growing mints in a container or using a good deep border as it LOVES to spread and will take over your garden.
- You need a sunny spot that gets 6-8 hours of sunlight a day.
- If you are going to container plant, fill it with good potting soil. The containers need to be of adequate size to allow the plants to thrive. This is going to make them heavy so it might be best to put them on a plant dolly—this is like a furniture dolly but much smaller.
- Plant later in the day to reduce stress on the newly moved plants.
- The plant hole needs to be 1 ½ to 2 times the width of the plant.
- Be gentle if removing the plant from a container. You don’t want to shock the plant any more than absolutely necessary. If you have a plant in a peat pot you may want to cut the pot on at least two sides to allow for easier root growth. I like to cut the bottom ½” completely off. This allows the roots to spread easier.
- Use the largest pot you can safely handle. The plants should be at least 12” apart and DO NOT plant the herb any deeper than they were originally.
- Fertilizing should be done with a liquid fertilizer at ½ the recommended strength. Once your plants get going you’ll need to water at least once a week—about 1 inch of water should do it but it will depend on your climate. Water only as often as necessary to prevent root rot. A handy item for checking is a moisture meter. These can be found in most stores that have garden supplies and can be used for any type plant whether indoors or out.
- You can begin to harvest your herbs as soon as they begin to show some real growth, but until the plant gets well established take only small amounts so that you leave the majority of the plant intact.
- If you keep the tops of the herbs pinched back through early summer, it will encourage a bushier plant. This will give you more leaves for harvesting as opposed to a tall plant with fewer leaves. You can control how your plant grows by pinching off leaves much the same a pruning a large bush or tree. Lately a favorite item in some of the stores has been shaping Rosemary to use as a tabletop Christmas tree and then transplanting outdoors in the spring.
Want to make some herb flavored vinegar for yourself or gift giving? See our page on making your own Herbal Vinegar.
Other beneficial uses of herbs.
If you garden, you probably already know that beneficial insects can help control the population of the ones that eat plant leaves. It’s easier than you think to draw good insects into your garden using the right plants, and it’s a lot less toxic than using pesticides that will wipe out both harmful and beneficial insects.
To greatly reduce the population of aphids and mites in your garden, attract lacewings by planting the annual herb Dill among your other vegetables. Dill is tall without a lot of foliage that doesn’t block sunlight, so it can be planted about anywhere in the garden. The lacewings will feast on the smaller insects and their eggs. In addition you will have fragrant dill to use in recipes and for canning.
Cilantro/Coriander is an herb that attracts ladybugs. Ladybugs have a voracious appetite for undesirable insects and eggs when they’re young.
Parsley attracts tracheid flies and hoverflies that feed on aphids and mealy-bugs, among other damaging pests.
Lavender is not only a fragrant and beautiful annual, it sports a delicate purple flower attractive to parasitic mini-wasps and hoverflies.
(Parasitic mini-wasps destroy a variety of nuisance insects by implanting their eggs inside the host. The eggs feed on the host and eventually kill it.)
Many of The perennial herbs such as Spearmint, Peppermint, Bee balm and so on have many medicinal and dietary uses. In addition their tiny fragrant flowers draw big-eyed bugs, hoverflies, butterflies and ladybugs.
Planting herbs in and around your garden not only gives you a source of fragrant leaves for flavorings in cooking, preserving and sachets they will also help keep your damaging bug problem under control.
See our page on controlling insects in your garden under “Garden help.”