Growing Culinary Herbs

Annette McDermott
Culinary herb garden; © Cornelia Pithart | Dreamstime.com

Growing culinary herbs takes only a sunny patch of land or a large container, plants or seeds, water and soil. You can grow tasty culinary herbs such as basil, rosemary and chives to use fresh in your everyday cooking or you can harvest and dry or freeze them for later use. You can also grow your own herbs for herbal teas, tinctures, and medicinal remedies.

Outdoor Culinary Herbs Considerations

Culinary herbs grow well outdoors in beds or containers. They are colorful and fragrant and add ambience and beauty to any outdoor setting. Before growing herbs outdoors, there are some things to consider.

Location

Most herbs require several hours of direct sunlight per day so it's important to find a location in your yard that has full, bright sunlight and minimum shade. If you're planting your herbs in containers, avoid covered porches or placing the containers under shade trees. Some herbs, such as lavender, mint, chives, and catnip, help repel insects so you may wish to plant them near an open patio or in containers on your deck.

Be sure the herbs have plenty of room to grow and carefully research the types of herbs you're planting. Some herbs -- such as mints or lemon balm -- spread rapidly when planted in an open area and may take over other nearby plants.

Soil

According to the The Complete Illustrated Book of Herbs by Reader's Digest (TCIBH), there are three main types of soil: sandy, loamy or clay. Loam soil is brown and slightly moist and crumbly. This type of soil is best for growing herbs due to its ability to hold air and water and support the proper distribution of nutrients.

If your soil is sandy or consists primarily of clay, it's important to add organic material to make it more compatible with herb growing. To do this, TCIBH recommends adding organic material to your soil such as compost, or manure such as organic chicken manure. Bagged organic soil is easily found at your local nursery or home improvement garden center.

Choosing Herbs

Herbs are grown from seeds or plants. Both can be found at your local nursery or home improvement garden center. When buying herb plants, TCIBH recommends choosing smaller, immature seedlings instead of larger flowering herbs that may have overgrown their pots. In addition, thoroughly water your herbs prior to planting. Seeds are available in individual packets or you may find them in kits that contain seed starter containers and fertilizer.

Some herbs are perennials, meaning they will grow every year, while others are annuals and only enjoy one growing season. You'll want to keep this in mind as you choose which herbs to grow.

Planting

The best time to plant herbs outdoors is when the weather is warm and there is no danger of frost. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Some herbs including chives, calendula, thyme, and rosemary can survive colder temperatures. If you live in a tropical climate or a climate that is warm year round, you can grow herbs at almost any time. If you've purchased herb plants, it's important to plant them as soon as possible, preferably within a day or two.

Harvesting and Maintaining Herbs

Once planted, herbs need to be regularly harvested and cared for in order to thrive. Weeds can be kept to a minimum by surrounding herbs with a covering of mulch or straw. Pull any weeds that break through the covering immediately, preferably when the ground is moist, which will make it easier to remove the entire weed. Avoid using conventional chemical pesticides on weeds or nearby areas.

Herbs can be harvested and used as needed, however gardening author Tammy Hartung suggests "deadheading" herbs regularly to increase the growing season. Deadheading is the process of removing blooms by pinching or snipping them. Hartung also suggests pinching the foliage of herbs that are bushy such as basil or lemon balm. Not only does it keep the herbs looking their best, it also helps prevent the herb from going to seed too soon. In some cases, once an herb has gone to seed, the growing process may slow or stop.

Herb Varieties to Try

There are nearly countless varieties of herbs that you can try. To determine which herbs you should grow, consider what you'll use them for. If you plan to cook with herbs, you may wish to buy popular culinary herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, dill, cilantro, chives, parsley, or mint. If you plan to use herbs to make teas and to reap their medicinal benefits, you might choose lavender, calendula, lemon balm, tea tree, or chamomile. Following are some of the most popular herbs to plant:

  • Basil: Basil is by far one of the most popular culinary herbs to grow. It needs full sun, plenty of water and lots of light and warmth but rewards the cook with a strong, pungent flavor that adds the right top note to Italian, pesto, Thai food, and other dishes.
  • Chives: This popular herb is easy to grow and adds either onion or garlic flavor to herb butters, soups, potatoes, and salads. They grow well in pots or in the garden. Simply snip, dice and enjoy when ready to use.
  • Rosemary: The hardy rosemary plant prefers hot, dry growing conditions. Use the needle-like leaves of rosemary to season beef and pork dishes.
  • Sage: With its fuzzy gray-green leaves, sage provides a lovely garden accent and rich flavor for many dishes. It can be grown from seed or from plants but novices may find it easier to purchase plants at the garden center. One plant produces plenty of leaves for culinary use.
  • Parsley: A popular garnish, parsley is also used to add flavor to dishes and soothe an upset stomach. Hartung suggests growing parsley around vegetable gardens for rabbits and deer to munch on, keeping them full so they leave growing vegetables alone.
  • Mint: Available in several varieties including spearmint, peppermint, and chocolate mint, mint is diverse and may be used in culinary dishes, teas, homemade personal care products, or in medicinal remedies. The plant is hardy and grows well, but spreads quickly and needs a dedicated growing area.
  • Lavender: Known for its aromatherapy benefits, lavender is easy to grow and boasts stunning flowers and an intoxicating aroma. The herb adds a nice floral undertone to foods and is a popular ingredient in many homemade beauty products.
  • Dill: Dill has a distinct spicy flavor and tastes great on salads, soups, and vegetables but it's probably best known for its use in making pickles. Its feathery foliage and yellow flowers look beautiful in any garden setting.
  • Stevia: This herb has enjoyed a surge in popularity as a natural alternative to sugar and artificial sweeteners due to its sweet flavor. It thrives in rich soil and full sun.

Grow Herbs for Good Health

Growing fresh herbs will not only add taste and texture to your foods but may also benefit your health. For example, Medline Plus states that peppermint may be effective for treating heartburn and other digestive disorders while sage may improve mood and mental clarity and offer antimicrobial benefits. Be sure to check with your physician before adding these herbs to your diet in an effort to treat an ailment.

No matter which varieties you choose or why, growing herbs in your own backyard is a great way to easily and economically enjoy their benefits.

Growing Culinary Herbs