Planting, Maintaining and Using Culinary Herbs
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.
Spanish 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, which connects 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 Stevia.
It’s 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 herbs daily.
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 Rosemary by the front door, or your uniform border of Conehead Thymegracefully 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.
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 the richness of the mulch 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 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 this.
Many 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 HERB PLANTS
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 will 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 each plant’s page 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 plant demands 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 great or large 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 easier 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 and get to be different heights. Inevitably, when herb plants are mixed in a planter, one herb plant will take over the others. Sometimes herb plants like different kinds of 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.
Now 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.
BAY: 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 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.
FENNEL 2 plants. One for you and one for the butterflies.
FRENCH TARRAGON 4 plants. Even so you will never have enough.
GREEK OREGANO 2 plants, because you will put this in everything.
PARSLEY 4-6 plants. Even though this plant lives two years, you should replant every spring for the best results.
ROSEMARY1 plant, if you live where Rosemary is hardy; 2 if you must grow it as an annual and harvest and dry for winter. SAGE 2 plants. You can choose from any of the forms of Garden Sage. They all have excellent flavor.
SWEET BASIL 4-8 plants. It takes 3 cups of fresh Basil leaves to make enough pesto to coat one pound of pasta!
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. After you succeed with these, the herbs of the world are waiting for an honored spot in your garden.
Using fresh from the garden herbs is definitely the ultimate reward for the hard working gardener. It is almost impossible to use all of the 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.
DRYING AND FREEZING HERBS
Angelica: Dry roots the first year, leaves and stems the second spring.
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 fresh.
German Chamomile: Dry flowers.
Chicory: Dry roots, leaves have no taste when dried or frozen.
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 fresh.
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 storage.
Sage: Dry leaves whole off stem or on stem and pull off for storage.
Winter Savory: Dry whole leaves on stems.
French Tarragon: Best fresh, but can be leaves can be frozen on the stem.
English Thyme: Dry or Freeze whole stem segments.
If you are just starting out, our Kitchen Herb Garden Six Pack is a good way to get your feet wet.
Or, if you need to fill a large garden fast (and cheap), try our 36 Pack Basic Culinary Herb Plant Assortment, available in either 6 plants each of 6 different varieties or 3 plants each of 12 different varieties.
If you have gone beyond basics, our Gourmet Herb Garden Six Pack will tantalize your taste buds. Of course, there is also the 36 Pack Gourmet Culinary Herb Plant Assortment, available in either 6 plants each of 6 different varieties or 3 plants each of 12 different varieties.