Defining herbs is no easy feat when you consider that this group includes plants from every continent and climate — and the word herbs refers to everything from shrubs and trees to short-lived annuals and tough-as-nails perennials. Throughout history, herbs have served as food, medicine, fragrance, ornament, and even magical ingredients. In the days before refrigeration, people used strongly flavored chives, thyme, sage, rosemary, savory, basil, and mint to flavor meats. Aromatic herbs with scented flowers and leaves bring a pleasant fragrance to homes today and still help protect woolen and linen fabrics from insect damage. Some medicines consist primarily of herbal preparations.
How and where you choose to grow herbs is limited only by your imagination and, of course, by the needs and characteristics of the plants themselves. Most herb plants aren’t too fussy about the soil they grow in as long as it’s well drained.
Most herbs have fragrant or pungently flavored leaves or flowers that make them useful for cooking, crafts, natural remedies, potpourri, and more. Consider the following ways to use harvested herbs:
✓ Food and drink: Herbal teas offer alternatives to stronger brews, and no supper is complete without seasonings for soups and salads, meats, and vegetables.
✓ Fragrance: In the days before frequent bathing, central vacuum cleaners, and indoor plumbing, herbs played a large role in odor control. Today, aromatherapy, the art, and science of affecting mood with scent make liberal use of dried herbs in little pillows and bowls of potpourri.
✓ Crafts: Herbs give color, structure, and fragrance to dried wreaths, arrangements, and other crafts. Some herbs lend their colors to fabrics and paints.
✓ Medicine: People have used herbs to treat every ailment known to mankind: headaches, depression, colds, general aches and pains, and so on. Laymen can safely use aromatic herbs to add a zip or tranquilizing effects to ointments, massage oils, and baths.
Fitting herbs into your garden
You can fit herbs into your garden and landscape in myriad ways. Tuck herbs into your flower garden, plant them among your vegetables or give them a special garden of their own. Take advantage of their flowers or leaves to add spark to container gardens and window boxes. Use creeping kinds between paving stones, or allow them to trail over retaining walls. Even if you’re challenged for space, you can grow some herbs on a sunny windowsill as houseplants.
✓ Herb garden: Take a herbs-only approach and design an intricately patterned garden. A typical arrangement consists of a geometric border of tidy, compact plants such as basil or lavender surrounding groups of herbs with contrasting foliage colors and textures.
✓ Ground cover: Creeping herbs such as thyme can cover large areas quickly or fill the gaps between stones in a path. Allow them to trail over a wall to add color and soften the effect of the stone.
✓ Vegetable garden: Some herbs make natural companions for vegetable plants. Basil, for example, is said to improve tomatoes, whereas dill and cabbage complement each other.
✓ Flower garden: Many herbs have beautiful flowers or foliage that add color and texture to flower borders. As a bonus, some of these plants attract butterflies and provide food for their larva. Good additions to your flower garden include catnip, lavender, chamomile, borage, and oregano.
✓ Container garden: Treat them as ornamental plants or bring your culinary herbs closer to the kitchen by planting them in pots, tubs, or baskets. In cold climates, grow tender herbs such as rosemary and bay in pots that you can bring indoors for the winter. Be sure to give these Mediterranean-climate plants 14 to 16 hours of bright light year-round to keep them happy. Be sure to keep the soil moist but never soggy.
Watching for invaders
Some herbs have a very bad habit: They just don’t know when to stop growing. These so-called invasive herbs travel in the following ways:
✓ Seeds: Some plants produce way more seeds than you need. Their little seedlings pop up everywhere, like weeds. Examples of prolific herbs include German chamomile, fennel, and garlic chives. Keep them in check by removing the flowers before they disperse seeds.
✓ Roots: With some herbs, such as comfrey and horseradish, your eradication efforts may lead to an even larger patch of the confounded plant. Any bit of root left in the soil may grow into a new plant. Introduce these unruly herbs to your garden with caution.
✓ Rhizomes and stolons: Some herbs take off cross-country, growing horizontal stems from their crowns that creep over or under the soil, forming new plants along the way. (Rhizomes grow under and stolons on top of the soil.) These plants are useful for covering large areas or filling gaps between paving stones but rapidly become a nuisance in other situations. Tansy, mint, and Artemisia can be particularly rampant; plant these herbs in containers or in gardens surrounded by 12-inch-deep barriers that prevent the roots from getting out. Pull up escapees as soon as they appear.
Encyclopedia of Herbs
Easily one of the most popular culinary herbs grown, basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an annual that comes in more than 30 varieties, which include both ornamental and tasty forms. For plenty of pesto, grow sweet basil varieties such as Mammoth or Large Leaf in your vegetable garden. Or try varieties with unusual foliage, such as purple-leafed Dark Opal and Purple Ruffles or frilly Green Ruffles. To edge a garden or spice up a patio planter, grow compact, small-leafed varieties such as Spicy Globe and Green Globe. For an alternative taste sensation, grow lemon, anise, cinnamon, and Thai basil varieties.
✓ Planting and care: Sow seeds directly in the garden, or start indoors. Give basil moist, fertile, well-drained soil, and space plants about 1 foot apart in full sun. Water them in dry weather, and pinch off young flower buds to prevent bloom and encourage more leaves. Protect basil from frost, which will kill it.
✓ Special uses: Plant with tomatoes to discourage tomato hornworms. Use dried or fresh leaves to flavor food.
The beautiful flowers alone make planting calendula (Calendula officinalis) worthwhile. Add the fact that the flowers are edible and can be used in healing salves, and calendula becomes a must-have in the herb garden.
✓ Planting and care: Sow seeds directly in the garden in full sun, or start indoors. The plants can tolerate light frosts. If some flowers are allowed to form seeds, the plant will self-sow.
✓ Special uses: The yellow, gold, or orange flowers have a tangy and peppery taste; they can be used in dyes and added to salves, soaps, and lotions.
Caraway (Carum carvi), a member of the carrot family, is a biennial that produces its aromatic seeds in its second growing season, although some plants may bloom the first year. The plants have fine, lacy foliage topped by umbels of tiny white flowers.
✓ Planting and care: Sow seeds directly in the garden in full sun, where they can remain for two growing seasons. In hot climates, give caraway partial shade. Seeds germinate slowly and have deep taproots, which bring minerals to the surface and loosen the soil. Plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall.
✓ Special uses: Add the leaves to salads or soups. Use the distinctively flavored seeds in bread, stews, and other foods. The flowers attract many beneficial insects.
Choose 2- to 3-foot-tall German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) or creeping, 9-inch Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), depending on your garden desires. The perennial Roman species is hardy through Zone 3 and thrives in cool, damp climates. German chamomile is an annual. Both plants have lacy, aromatic, apple-scented foliage and small, daisylike flowers.
✓ Planting and care: Sow seeds directly in the garden and keep moist until well established. Chamomile can tolerate some drought after that and appreciates full sun. Harvest the flowers when fully open, and dry them on screens in an airy place. Plants self-sow prolifically, so after you plant some, you’ll have chamomile for a long time unless you remove all spent blooms before they develop seeds.
✓ Special uses: The dried flowers make a popular tea for relieving stress and heartburn. They’re also used in many cosmetics and toiletries. Roman chamomile makes an excellent ground cover or mowed lawn in mild, moist climates similar to England or the Pacific Northwest.
Their grassy, onion-flavored foliage makes chives (Allium schoenoprasum) popular in the culinary arts, but this perennial plant makes a good 1-foot-tall addition to the ornamental landscape and vegetable garden, too. The dense tufts of lavender flowers bloom in early summer. A related species, garlic chives, grows about 2 feet tall and has starry white flowers in late summer to early fall. Both species self-sow freely.
✓ Planting and care: The best way to obtain chives is to divide a clump into groups of slender bulbs and plant in any well-drained garden soil. Chives prefer full sun but aren’t fussy. If you sow from seed, cover the seeds lightly with soil, keep the soil moist, and be patient; the seeds may take 2 to 3 weeks to sprout. Keep weeds away to make harvesting easier. Harvest by shearing the stems to within a few inches of the ground.
✓ Special uses: The pungent foliage reportedly repels some injurious pests, especially around roses, tomatoes, carrots, grapes, and apples. Puree the leaves in a blender with water, strain, and use as a spray to prevent powdery mildew. The flowers attract beneficial insects. Use chives in cooking as you would onions, or serve fresh in salads, dips, and sauces.
Coriander and cilantro
This annual herb (Coriandrum sativum) is so versatile that it bears two names — cilantro for the leaves and coriander for the seeds. The flat, parsley-like leaves add pungency to Latin American and Asian dishes. The seeds play a major role in curry and other Middle Eastern fares. Ancient Mediterranean peoples prescribed cilantro and coriander for many medical ailments.
✓ Planting and care: Sow directly in fertile garden soil, where seeds will sprout in a couple of weeks. Plant every 2 to 3 weeks for continuous harvest, because the plants tend to set seed quickly (especially in hot weather) and stop producing new foliage. Harvest young tender leaves before plants send up flower stalks. Harvest seeds when the seed heads turn brown but before they scatter, and dry thoroughly before using for best flavor.
✓ Special uses: Use leaves and seeds in cooking. Plant near aphid-prone crops to help repel pests. The flowers also attract beneficial insects.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another member of the aromatic carrot family. The seeds are an essential ingredient in pickles, bread, and other savory dishes. The fine, threadlike foliage is rich in vitamins and flavor for fish, sauces, and dips. The tall, narrow plants of this annual herb grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Choose the variety Bouquet for seeds, or grow Dukat or 18-inch-tall Fernleaf if you want mainly leaves.
✓ Planting and care: Sow seeds directly in fertile, sunny garden soil. Barely cover the seeds and sow again every few weeks for continuous harvest. Protect from strong winds.
✓ Special uses: The flowers attract beneficial insects, and the foliage is a favorite of swallowtail butterfly larvae. It reputedly makes a good companion for cabbage crops and can be planted with low-growing lettuce and cucumbers. Use the seeds and leaves in cooking.
Useful in cooking and in the garden, 4- to 8-foot-tall fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has a tropical look and resembles giant dill plants. Common fennel is hardy in Zones 6 through 11, but you can grow it as an annual in cooler climates. It self-sows and can become a nuisance weed. Try the bronze-red-leafed variety Purpureum as an ornamental plant. If you want to eat the root, look for the annual or biennial plant called finocchio or Florence fennel.
✓ Planting and care: Sow directly in fertile, sunny soil where you want it to grow. Its long taproot makes it difficult to transplant. Protect from strong wind.
✓ Special uses: You can use all parts of fennel, from the bulblike root to the leaves, stalks, and seeds. Harvest seeds when they turn brown; snip leaves and stems as needed, and use fresh or cooked lightly in soups and sauces. The flowers attract many beneficial insects.
Take care where you plant the tenacious perennial horseradish (Armoracia rusticana); its pungent roots extend 2 feet into the soil, and the smallest piece can sprout into a new plant. The wavy, 1- to 3-foot-long leaves are attractive, however, and small white flowers add to the plant’s appeal. It’s hardy through Zone 5.
✓ Planting and care: Plant the roots in deep fertile soil about 1 foot apart and 2 inches deep in full sun. To keep horseradish from taking over your garden, plant it in a bottomless trash can sunk into the ground. Wait a year or so before harvesting the roots in the fall.
✓ Special uses: The roots are sharply pungent and valued for the zip they give sauces and tomato drinks. The young spring leaves are edible when they’re cooked like spinach. Try a little horseradish to open your sinuses the next time you have a head cold. Some biodynamic farmers believe that horseradish is beneficial in fruit orchards and around potatoes.
One of the most recognized and popular scents for cosmetics, toiletries, and aromatherapy, lavender (Lavandula) also adds drama to your flower garden. Several species exist, all of which have needle-like foliage and spikes of purplish blue flowers. The English lavender varieties, such as purple Hidcote and Munstead, grow up to 24 inches high and are hardy through Zone 5. Pink flowering varieties include Hidcote Pink and Miss Katherine. Other species are less hardy but equally appealing, including spike, French, and fringed lavenders.
✓ Planting and care: Start from stem cuttings, because seeds may not give you plants of uniform quality. Plant in compost-enriched, very well drained, even gravelly soil in full sun. Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart for a low hedge or mass planting. Prune in early spring to encourage bushy growth.
✓ Special uses: Harvest flowers as they begin to open, and dry them in bundles hung upside down in an airy place. The flowers attract bees and beneficial insects.
With 20 or so species and more than 1,000 varieties to choose from, you should find a mint (Mentha) to suit your taste. Peppermint and spearmint are the most popular, but fruit-flavored varieties also exist. Some plants have variegated foliage, including the pineapple mint Variegata. Some mints, such as Corsican mint, creep along low to the ground; others grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Hardiness depends on the variety and species.
✓ Planting and care: Start new plants from stem cuttings of the varieties you want, to make sure that you get the flavor or scent you expect. Plant just below the soil surface and keep the soil moist until the plants begin to grow. Mints can be invasive, so contain them or plant them where you don’t mind having a carpet of fragrant foliage.
✓ Special uses: Harvest the fresh leaves and add them to Middle Eastern dishes, soups, vegetables, and beverages. Mint flowers attract beneficial insects. Also, the fragrant plants reportedly repel some damaging insects and improve the health and flavor of nearby cabbages and tomatoes.
Small fragrant leaves on sprawling 1- to 2-foot stems topped by loose spikes of white to pink flowers give oregano (Origanum vulgare) a casual appeal for planting in vegetable and flower gardens or trailing over a wall or basket. Many cooks prefer Greek oregano over the readily available common oregano. Before buying plants, pinch a leaf to test flavor and pungency. Some varieties, such as Aureum Crispum and Compactum, are more ornamental than edible. It’s a hardy perennial in Zone 5 and warmer areas.
✓ Planting and care: Start new plants from stem cuttings to guarantee the best flavor. Seed-grown plants may lack their parents’ pungent flavor. Any average, well-drained soil in full sun will do. Harvest leaves as needed, or cut the plant down to a few inches from the ground and hang the sprigs to dry.
✓ Special uses: The tiny flower clusters attract bees, butterflies, and other beneficial insects. The fresh and dried leaves add classic flavor to many Latin American and Mediterranean dishes. Some varieties look good in hanging baskets, patio containers, and flower gardens.
A common garnish on restaurant plates, parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is probably the most recognized herb. The leaves contain loads of vitamins A and C and help sweeten garlic breath. Although both varieties are edible, the flat-leafed variety has a stronger flavor, whereas the curly-leafed kind is more commonly used as a garnish.
The plants are biennial and hardy through Zone 5; they bloom only in their second year. The 1-foot-tall plants form tidy, bright green mounds of ornamental foliage. Plant in vegetable and flower gardens or in container gardens.
✓ Planting and care: Soak seeds overnight before sowing, and plant directly in the garden. If you start seeds indoors, plant them in peat pots (biodegradable compressed peat moss containers) so that you don’t have to disturb their taproots when transplanting them later. Give the plants fertile garden soil and a cool, slightly shady spot in hot summer climates. Snip fresh leaves as needed, or cut the whole plant to a few inches high and dry the leaves on a screen.
✓ Special uses: Use for cooking, especially in Greek and Middle Eastern dishes. Parsley makes an attractive ornamental garden plant and serves as food for swallowtail butterfly larvae. The flowers attract beneficial insects.
Two types of this tender perennial evergreen shrub exist — upright and prostrate — and both are fragrant and edible. The short, needlelike foliage of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) gives off a heady, distinctive aroma when lightly bruised. Ornamental varieties include those with golden or variegated leaves, pink or bright blue flowers, and especially sprawling or upright forms.
✓ Planting and care: Start from rooted stem cuttings, and plant in welldrained garden soil. Rosemary doesn’t tolerate soggy soil or complete drought. Although the herb is hardy only to Zone 8, you can grow rosemary in a greenhouse or indoors under strong light. Plant it in a pot at least 1 foot deep to accommodate its taproot, and maintain humidity by setting it over moist pebbles or misting the plant a few times a week.
✓ Special uses: As an ornamental, rosemary excels in the low shrub border or trailing over a low wall. Its aromatic foliage is said to repel flying insects from cabbages and other vegetables. Use fresh sprigs in meat stews; use dried rosemary for culinary use or to scent rooms and linens.
In Zone 5 and warmer areas, sage (Salvia officinalis) is a perennial that grows into a shrubby mound of fragrant leaves. It can grow up to 2 feet tall. The 2- to 3-inch-long leaves are fuzzy and oval, ranging in color from silver-green, purple, golden to mixed white, green, and pink, depending on the variety. Sage is equally at home in the herb garden and among the ornaments in a container or flower bed. In late spring, sage produces spikes of blue or white flowers.
Several sage species exist, varying in hardiness, pungency, and size. One of my favorites, pineapple sage, is winter-hardy only to Zone 8, but its softtextured, pineapple-scented foliage and red flowers make a beautiful addition to my flower garden.
✓ Planting and care: It’s easier to start sage from stem cuttings, but sage can grow slowly from seeds. Plant in organically rich, well-drained garden soil, and give it full sun. Avoid soggy soil. Prune to keep the growth compact.
✓ Special uses: The spiky flowers attract bees and other beneficial insects, and look great in the garden. Use sage to scent dresser drawers and to help prevent damaging clothing moths. Use the leaves, either fresh or dried, in poultry and meat dishes.
The incredibly sweet leaves of Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) can be used to sweeten a variety of foods and beverages.
✓ Planting and care: Hardy only to Zone 9, stevia
✓ Special uses: To make stevia powder, remove the leaves; dry them in the sun; and grind them, using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice or coffee grinder. Use the powder to sweeten just about anything, but use it sparingly — it’s very potent.
A tender perennial shrub in Zone 9 and warmer areas and a relative to oregano, sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) has to be grown as an annual. It tends to sprawl and is best confined in a container or planted in a herb garden.
✓ Planting and care: Start from seed in late spring indoors, or buy rooted cuttings to be sure that you get the plant that you expect. The plant prefers full sun and fertile garden soil. Remove the flowers to encourage more leaves. Harvest and dry the leaves for year-round culinary use.
✓ Special uses: The light-purple flower clusters attract many beneficial insects. The leaves taste similar to oregano and are used extensively in cooking, especially in vegetable and egg dishes.
A staple in French cooking, tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is used to flavor a variety of foods, especially chicken, fish, and egg dishes. French tarragon — the preferred variety for cooking — can be propagated only from cuttings and divisions. If you see tarragon seeds, they’re likely Russian tarragon, a hardy but less flavorful plant.
✓ Planting and care: Plant tarragon in full sun and very well-drained soil, and water sparingly. Consider growing the herb in clay pots to ensure the excellent drainage it requires to thrive.
✓ Special uses: Use tarragon fresh or dried in just about any savory dish or sauce.
Hundreds of thyme (Thymus) species and varieties are available, ranging from creeping 1-inch-high mats to 18-inch shrubs. All varieties have tiny oval leaves, in colors ranging from wooly gray to smooth green to golden to white-edged. Even the fragrance varies from very mild to pungent and includes lemon, caraway, and coconut.
Creeping thyme makes a fragrant, attractive ground cover and excels between paving stones; shrubby types make useful low hedges. Clusters of tiny white, pink, or crimson flowers bloom in summer, sometimes covering the plants. The creeping thymes are the hardest kind and survive in Zone 4.
✓ Planting and care: Start with rooted stem cuttings to guarantee the flavor and appearance of your thyme. Plant in organically enriched, welldrained soil in full sun. Divide the plants every few years, and keep them pruned to encourage dense growth.
✓ Special uses: The flowers attract bees and many beneficial insects. Much folklore exists on the use of thyme as a helpful companion plant for roses and vegetables. Use the herb between patio and walkway stones, or plant it as a ground cover to replace lawn in small areas. The trailing kinds look good in hanging baskets and planters. Harvest the leaves and young stems for cooking.
Photo credit: Pixabay
Source: Organic Gardening for Dummies by Ann Whitman, Suzanne DeJohn