Throughout the world various regional cuisines have developed from
the cook's need to use what was available and the lowly herb plant has always
been at the forefront. Italians embraced Oregano,
Mediterranean cooks found Rosemary and, in America, chilies became
a hot item.
explorers of the 1600s knew they would need to plant herbs when they reached unknown
shores or they would be forced to eat whatever the cook could
find. This was a frightening thought! As a result, Monks distributed Sweet Fennel
along El Camino Real, The Kings Highway,
the missions in California. Fennel plants can still be seen along
Interstate 101 which traces this legendary route.
What do YOU have to cook with? Junipers, Ivy, Bermuda Grass?
Quick, plant an
Herb Garden! Lucky for you, this is fun and exciting to
do. It is more fun now than it has ever been. Life in today's culinary herb
garden in not just about common herb plants like Basil and French Tarragon, but
is also about luscious more exotic herb plants like African
Blue Basil and Sweet Spanish Tarragon.
LOCATING THE HERB
wonderful living in the Modern Age. Fruits, vegetables and herbs can
be flown in from all over the world at a reasonable cost. But, when
you have the stove on and the pot ready, even the drive to the store
may be too far. There are three rules for deciding where to put your culinary
herb garden. They
are all about LOCATION, LOCATION LOCATION.
The first rule of location is to plant your
herb garden as close to the kitchen
door as possible while still keeping in mind the other two rules below.
Accessing your cooking herbs should be as
easy as going to your pantry for that dried out and dusty stuff. A
conveniently located culinary herb garden ensures you will use and enjoy your
The second rule of location is to plant your kitchen garden in
full sun. (If you live in a desert then afternoon shade is alright). Why, full
sun? Herb plants grown in full
sun have denser foliage, darker color and higher levels of essential oils
that provide the flavor you want. A shady location promotes weak, elongated
growth that is reaching for the sun. This growth is inferior in
form and flavor and frequently attracts insect pests that would not be a problem
in a sunny spot.
The third rule of location is to put your herb
plants either in their own garden or in the vegetable garden or another inconspicuous place where
you won't hesitate to chop off a healthy portion. While many herb plants are
attractive and well suited for landscaping, you may find
it emotionally stressful to butcher your perfectly trained Rosemary by
the front door, or your uniform border of Hopheaded Thyme gracefully lining your
driveway. It would be
like trimming your drapes. Landscape plants add value to your home; vegetable
and herb plants add value to your meal. Plus, herbs need to be pruned
often to encourage fresh leafy growth, instead of flower heads. Hacking
your chives back to the ground each time you use them is necessary to avoid
useless grassy pieces forming side by side with plump spears. Imagine the hole
this would leave in your ornamental garden. Herb plants pruned often can also be
overtaken by their ornamental "neighbors" who are not being pruned regularly. This means
certain death to your poor little culinary herb plant.
IT STARTS WITH THE SOIL
One of the greatest myths about growing Herbs is that they will grow
in almost any soil. They are like all plants and prefer a nice healthy, loose or
friable soil. Good drainage is an absolute must. Its easiest to
amend the soil, preferably with compost, before the garden is planted. Herbs
have coarse roots that benefit from chunky organic matter. These larger
particles of soil also provide the air spaces necessary to keep
the plants from drowning. Yes, plants do need air and yes they drown when they
don't have it.
Soil can also be improved by mulching the
ground heavily after planting Barring the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers,
insects and microorganisms will compost and transport this
richness down into the soil. It will take longer to improve the ground
this way but it is still a worthwhile effort. Even if you only pile
on shredded leaves, these natural amendments add the nutrients from
the decayed plant which reduces the need to fertilize. Most herbs prefer
a neutral to slightly alkaline soil and compost can help to regulate
PRUNING THE HERB GARDEN
Herbs are herbaceous; they die back to the ground in winter. Thoughtful
pruning is not necessary for these varieties, just chop it
off to the ground any old time. Usually this will be when you harvest or when
you cut back to get rid of the flowers. At the very least, you will do this at
the end of the growing season. Some herbaceous herbs are Oregano, Chives,
Sweet Fennel, Winter Savory, Tarragon, Bee Balm and Mint. Herbaceous
Herbs can even be mowed several times a year to keep them free
from old and dead branches. Maybe an all Herbaceous culinary Herb garden would be a
good idea. Except for the mint. Keep it out of the garden and in a well confined
area, like a pot suspended in mid air. This plant is invasive and should NEVER
be planted in your garden.
Evergreen varieties of herb
plants like Rosemary,
Thyme and Sage require pruning at least once a year. Hopefully, you will
be cutting often for the kitchen. If not, either in fall or early
spring, you need to prune branches that are old and show no sign of new
growth, those that are dead, and those lying on the ground or crossing
other branches. When the branch of an evergreen herb plant reaches its
maximum height (see our catalog for specifics) and starts to become
woody, it will produce little new growth. If there are other shorter and
healthier branches, the tall woody branches should be removed. This
brings more light and energy to the best part of the plant. When
harvesting an evergreen herb for the soup pot, cut only about one third
of the foliage at a time. Always cut the stem to a section that still
has growth showing. These pruning practices are vital to the longevity
of the plant.
ANNUAL HERB PLANTS
All of the herb plants mentioned under
Herbaceous and Evergreen are perennial herbs. This means they live more
than two years. Some of the culinary herbs are annuals. These include
Basil, Chervil, Cilantro and Dill. The life cycle of an annual herb
that it produces seed each year before it dies. The best way to have a
continual supply of most of these is to plant new plants every four to
six weeks during the growing season. Once an annual starts to make
flowers it is difficult if not impossible to make it return to the
production of leaves. And, when a culinary herb plant is making flowers, it is NOT
making leaves. Also when an herb plant begins to flower the leaves can
yellow or become bitter making them less desirable for cooking.
GROWING HERB PLANTS IN A CONTAINER
Growing herb plants in containers
offers several advantages. Herb plants in containers can ornament your
patio while bringing cooking herbs to the brink (or sink) of sacrifice
for the kitchen. Because your herb plants will be mobile in their
containers it makes it easeir to choose the best growing location.
Container growing also makes it possible for those who have only a
balcony or patio to grow herb plants. And, for some culinary herb
plants, like invasive mints, containers are the only option. When
planting an herb pot, select a container that has at least a one gallon
capacity. If you don't have a gallon pot, use a milk jug or any gallon
container to measure your soil. Each plant will need its own
gallon of soil. If you plant several together, make sure they have enough space by
measuring your soil. We prefer to plant only one variety of herb plant per container. Different
herb plants grow at different times,
at different rates to different heights. Inevitably, when herb plants are mixed
in a planter, one herb plant will take over the others. Sometimes herb
plants like mints or lavenders look very similar to each other and if
different kinds are planted together, one may take over the other or it
may be difficult to tell which mint or lavender or other herb plant you
are taking cuttings from. A high quality commercial potting soil
with organic fertilizer mixed in should be used. Herb plants like a
chunky, well aerated soil. Adding one part perlite to three parts potting soil will improve
drainage and suitability for most herb plants to grow well. You can also combine two parts
fine textured humus/compost to one part perlite to make your own medium.
TOP 12 HERB PLANTS FOR BEGINNERS
that you know where to plant and how to prune, the fun part comes with the choice
of herb plants. No doubt if you are just starting out, you will want the basics.
Here's an outline for an Herb Garden that will
satisfy the most recipes per square foot. It is based on the needs of a family
of four who cooks often.
1 plant, at least. Grow it in a pot and bring it in for the winter in you have to; a bay tree is an absolute must.
DILL: 4-6 plants.
Like Basil, you
have to plant in succession to have fresh Dill throughout the growing season.
ENGLISH or GARDEN THYME: 4 plants. These are small plants and you might want to let one flower (for
garnish and for the bees) while harvesting from the other 3.
2 plants. One for you and one for the butterflies.
TARRAGON: 4 plants. Even so you will never have enough.
OREGANO: 2 plants, because you will put this in everything.
good Spearmint like Mint the Best or
Kentucky Colonel Mint
and 1 nice Peppermint.
4-6 plants. Even though
this plant lives two years, you should replant every spring for the best
1 plant, if you live where Rosemary is
hardy; 2 if you must grow it as an
annual and harvest and dry for winter.
2 plants. You can choose from any of the forms of Garden Sage. They all have
SWEET BASIL: 4-8 plants. It takes 3 cups of fresh Basil leaves to make enough pesto to coat one pound of
WINTER SAVORY: 2,
maybe 3 plants, depending on how much you put in your spaghetti sauce.
Of course, these are only general guidelines. But, this list is a great
starting place for building your culinary repertoire.
succeed with these, the Herbs of the world are waiting for an honored spot in
USING YOUR CULINARY
Using fresh from the garden herbs is definitely the ultimate
reward for the hard working gardener. It is almost impossible to use all
great bounty these simple herb plants provide. All summer and fall, the fresh
cuttings for the kitchen are taken for granted. Wandering through the gardens
and picking the herbs that will highlight tonight's meal becomes routine. When
winter comes, however, the reliance focuses on what has been preserved.
You probably already know from first hand experience what dries well and what
doesn't. Whenever I cut herbs for the kitchen, I always cut too much. Those snippings
not used end up in a special dish my son made in Boy Scouts at camp one summer.
When I don't have time to run out to the garden, those pieces, now dry, end up
in the pot. Some of them have rich concentrated flavor when dried and some taste
like dust or grass. Below is a handy guide for which herb plants to dry and
which to freeze.
TABLE FOR DRYING AND
Angelica: Dry roots the first year, leaves and stems the
Basil: Freeze leaves whole or ground in oil in small zip
lock bags laid flat.
Bay: Dry leaves.
Bee Balm: Leaves are really best when used dried instead of
German Chamomile: Dry flowers.
Chicory: Dry roots, leaves have no taste when dried or
Chives or Garlic Chives: Spears best fresh, but can
Snip into pieces first.
Dill: Dry seed. Freeze leaves in bundles.
Fennel: Dry seed. Freeze leaves.
Lavender: Dry flowers.
Lemon Balm: Dry the leaves on the stems
Lemon Verbena: Dry leaves.
Spearmints: Best used fresh, dry leaves on stems.
Peppermints: Best dried leaves on stems, too strong when
Oregano: Dry leaves and flower heads while still green.
Parsley: Freeze leaves, Italian Parsley is better for this.
Rosemary: Dry on the stem and then pull leaves off for
Sage: Dry leaves whole off stem or on stem and pull off for
Winter Savory: Dry whole leaves on stems.
Tarragon: Best fresh, but can be leaves can be frozen on
Thyme: Dry or Freeze whole stem segments.