Jane Says: An Herb Garden Makes Everything You Cook Taste Better

Even if you only have room for a hanging container, you can grow some of these fresh, flavorful plants.

Tabbouleh with parsley. (Photo: Cyclone Bill/Flickr)

May 20, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“What’s the best way to go about growing herbs for the kitchen, and what are some ways to use the harvest?”

—Laurie Eyre

I know your question is a relatively simple one, but boy, is there a lot to say on the subject. This week, let’s stick to the garden, and next week, I’ll circle back to the kitchen.

The great thing about growing herbs is that they are adaptable to almost any living situation you find yourself in. Growing a selection of herbs is not only convenient—you can harvest just what you need—but downright inspirational. Having an abundance of parsley at hand, for example, allows you to work its fresh, bright flavor (not to mention healthy amounts of iron and vitamins A, B, and C) into everything from potato salad or buttered noodles to burgers or an Argentine chimichurri sauce for Memorial Day grilled steaks. Once the weather turns hot and stays that way, I’ll pretty much be living on tabbouleh, made in true Middle Eastern fashion—that is, an emerald-green mound of chopped parsley and mint leaves sprinkled with bulgur. In other words, when you start thinking of parsley as a green vegetable instead of a garnish, a whole new world opens up.

Growing herbs provides a constantly evolving connection to our long, complex global history. The human-herb bond reminds Stephen Orr, author of the book The New American Herbal, of our relationship with domesticated animals. “Wherever we go, we transport our useful plants with us,” he writes in his introduction. “In fact, the broadest definition of the word ‘herb’ is a plant that people use. If you exclude all the plants we eat as food, you still obtain a huge list of thousands of species valued for fragrance, industry, oil, textiles, fibers, medical reasons, flavor, dyeing, hallucinogenic/intoxicating purposes—or even poison. For uncountable years, these species have traveled around the world wherever civilizations took them. Some of them, such as sesame, safflower, fenugreek, and indigo, have been cultivated for such a long time that no one really knows where they are native.”

Herbs are tough, tenacious plants and take up little space, so they have an excellent success rate for new or space-challenged gardeners. While it sounds obvious, the fact that you don’t always have to plant your herbs together in the same spot may come as a welcome surprise. Herbs vary in type (annual, biennial, or perennial) and growing requirements, after all. Some you want lots of (basil for pesto or chamomile for tea), others, not so much (a little oregano goes a long way). You’ll find some options below that you can mix if desired—whatever works best for you and your gardening space. But first…

A Few Ground Rules

This time of year, young herb plants are available at farmers markets, nurseries, and garden centers. They will get an herb garden off to a running start, but if you’re interested in growing herbs from seed, the easiest ones to germinate include basil, chives, cilantro, dill, marjoram, and oregano.

In general, herbs need lots of sun, but some—mint, parsley, and chervil come to mind—also flourish in partial shade. For whatever you’re planting, good drainage is essential.

Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, and marjoram are tolerant of dry, rocky, and poor soil. Consider their native habitats, counsels Orr: “Overfertilizing them will only make them grow too many leaves and diffuse the flavor and fragrance you are growing them for. If you must perk up an underperforming herb, apply a natural organic fertilizer such as compost or a diluted dose of bottled fish emulsion very infrequently.”

The chemical compounds that yield each herb’s characteristic flavor and fragrance are at their most potent right before the plant blooms, and the more you harvest leaves or sprigs, or at least pinch back flower buds, the more the plant will flourish.

Growing Herbs in Containers

Left to their own devices, vigorously growing herbs such as mint, rosemary, and French tarragon can run roughshod over more polite plants in a garden bed, so corralling them in long boxes or large pots (use an old plastic bucket with drainage holes poked in it and bury in a garden bed if desired) makes good sense. One bonus is that curbing their root systems helps keep the plants compact and flavorful. Another plus is their decorative appeal: Grouped with pots of ornamentals, they look terrific on a patio or a deck and can be easily moved inside for the winter.

Orr suggests grouping similar types of herbs together in the same pot: woody herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon); leafy herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro, chives); tea herbs (such as lemon verbena, lemon balm, pineapple mint). It helps to have the herbs you use most often near the kitchen door so you can nip out in the middle of cooking if need be.

Orr also offers suggestions for a hanging herb garden for a small space. Rosemary, thyme, and sage, in particular, enjoy the drainage in a hanging planter. “Add an herb or two with a trailing growth habit like dittany of Crete, nasturtium, yerba buena, or variegated pineapple mint to dangle from the planter.” He recommends starting with an open metal basket or even a sturdy multitiered hanging produce basket. Dampen several pieces of dried sphagnum moss, squeezing some of the water out, and line the basket with a one-inch layer. Fill the moss with potting soil, leaving room for the soil from the potted herbs, and position your herbs; water thoroughly and hang from a metal plant bracket on a sunny patio or a balcony.

The main thing to consider when planting herbs in containers is that the soil dries out quickly, especially in a hanging basket or clay pots. Mediterranean herbs, in particular, are extremely drought-tolerant, but you may still have to water every day or so in hot, dry weather.

Growing Herbs in the Vegetable or Flower Garden

According to Barbara Damrosch’s all-encompassing Garden Primer, one of the advantages of growing herbs in the extra space of a vegetable or kitchen garden is that you can grow them in succession. Certain annual herbs, such as dill, chervil, and coriander, go to seed readily, she explains, especially when the weather becomes very warm: “It’s great to be able to sow a fresh crop and have it coming along as you’re approaching the cooler weather of fall.” If you like to till the garden under at the end of the growing season, you’ll want to place perennial herbs such as sage or chamomile in a dedicated area.

Because so many herbs are so beautiful, they fit into a flowerbed too. A number of them have flowers that pollinators love, so plant extra dill, basil, and bee balm (beloved by hummingbirds as well as bees), for instance, and let them go through their life cycle. The gray-blue leaves of common sage are striking, as are the purple, almost black, foliage of opal basil or the pink-veined cultivar called Purple Ruffles.

Enough! It’s late May, and I need to hurry up and go plant stuff. So do you.