Fresh, homegrown herbs are easy to grow and an economical way to add a little gourmet to your every day. Learn about selection, care, and growing of herbs, and how to use them in your home and kitchen to spice up your life!
The broad category of plants known collectively as “herbs” have a multitude of uses. Broken down into a list of general categories, there are culinary, salad herbs, vegetable herbs, herbs for tea, scented herbs, dye plants, medicinal plants, and strewing herbs.
An annual herb in northern gardens, adds delicate flavor and aroma to many cultural dishes of Greece, Italy, and the Near East as well as modern cuisine; believed to have originated in India where it was viewed as a holy plant and grown around shrines and temples. Basil plays a primary role in tomato sauces, pesto, and salad dressings.
Cooking tips: If using fresh, remove leaves from stems; chop with stems into soups and stews. Try using basil with egg or cheese dishes, sautés, stir-fries, pureed vegetable soups, dips, and sauces.
Storage tips: Fresh basil deteriorates quickly, so use as soon as possible; for short-term storage, wrap in a lightly damp towel and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); freeze fresh leaves in a plastic zip-top bag (remove air, seal, and freeze) do not thaw before use. Pesto freezes well in airtight containers; I like to use an ice cube tray to make small frozen portions that I later store in zip-top bags until I need them; basil can be dried easily for longer storage.
Growing tips: Grown as an annual, basil thrives in heat and can be damaged or weakened by cool, wet weather; pinch tips to remain bushy and keep from flowering; may prefer to be container-grown if soil is clay-based or ‘heavy’. Can also be grown indoors.
Grown as an annual; another of the ancient, old-world herbs, seems to have been native to a vast area ranging from southern Europe through the Near East all the way to India; used today in a variety of ethnic cookery, particularly Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Indian. Coriander, the seed of Cilantro, is a core ingredient of Indian curry. Cilantro is popularly used in salsa; has a unique flavor that people either like or dislike.
Cooking tips: Add fresh leaves to soups, stews, and stir-fries for an aromatic touch (wait until the end of cooking time before adding to retain fresh flavor); toss fresh leaves into green salads, pasta and potato salads.
Storage tips: For short-term storage, wrap in a damp towel or stand upright in a container with an inch of water and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); freeze fresh leaves in a plastic zip-top bag (remove air, seal, and freeze) do not thaw before use; cilantro is one of the few herbs that does not retain its flavor when dried.
Growing tips: Happy in cool weather, can bolt (go to seed) in heat/stress conditions; harvest regularly, sow seeds every few weeks for continued supply; allow to go to seed in fall for self-sown ‘volunteers’ in spring.
Although the place of origin is unknown, it is believed to have grown wild all over the European continent; its name is derived from the old Norse word dilla, meaning “to lull” and has carminative qualities as well a other medicinal uses; used dried, fresh, or as seed, it has a unique yet mild flavor that enhances a wide variety of dishes; well known for its role in flavoring dill pickles.
Cooking tips: For the most part, dill is used alone and rarely blended with other herbs; chop fresh into chilled summer salads (pasta, potato, tuna, and cucumber); add to soups and stews; make your own dill garlic butter: melt butter on low, lightly sauté garlic, add chopped dill and continue to sauté another couple minutes, then pour over potatoes, or other cooked vegetables, or add a splash of lemon to use with fish; create a salad dressing using dill and a yogurt/mayonnaise base or an oil/lemon base; knead (weed or seed) into homemade bread dough.
Storage tips: Fresh dill is best used as soon as possible; for short-term storage, wrap in a damp towel or stand upright in a container with an inch of water and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); can be dried easily for longer storage.
Growing tips: Full sun; grows tall with bright yellow umbel flowers that attract butterflies; grown as an annual that freely self-sows in garden.
For centuries, fennel has been utilized as a food, medicine, herb, and even insect repellent; in ancient Greece, it played a significant role in celebrations of the gods and goddesses and was planted in the temple gardens and worn as crowns during celebrations. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans believed fennel an excellent aid for digestion, bronchial troubles, poor eyesight, and nervous conditions. Today, in India, fennel seed is used for seasoning as well as chewed after the meal as a breath freshener and digestive aid. Nutritionally it is very low in calories but offers significant vitamin A, calcium, potassium, and iron. Although it grows wild around much of the world, two varieties are cultivated: the bulbous Florence fennel and the common fennel grown for its seed and leaves; belonging to the Umbel family, it is related to carrots, celery, parsley, dill and anise; thrives in warm, moist climates.
Cooking tips: Bulb can be baked, steamed, or sautéed; try a sauté of fennel, artichoke hearts, zucchini, tomatoes, sweet bell pepper, thyme, and a dash of salt/pepper; use feathery leaves fresh, try in place of dill (excellent on baked or broiled fish).
Storage tips: Store fennel bulb in plastic bag in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks, leaves will go limp after picking so it’s best to wrap them in a moist towel and refrigerate.
Growing tips: Full sun, grows tall (up to 5 feet) with bright yellow umbel flowers that attract butterflies; annual that freely self-sows in garden.
Well known for its aromatic, medicinal, and culinary uses and a familiar remedy for ailments ranging from indigestion to bee stings, as well as a popular ingredient in recipes for jellies, juleps, and teas; easily identified by square stems, two main varieties are spearmint and peppermint. All mint contains menthol, giving it its fresh, cool quality and is active ingredient in medicines for upper respiratory ailments (Vicks) and in rubs for sore muscles (Bengay), insect and pest sprays as well as toothpaste. The history of mint can be traced back to Greek mythology when Persephone’s jealousy over Pluto’s love for a nymph named Minthe caused her to transform the poor nymph into a plant. Because Pluto could not reverse the spell, he enhanced the sweet smell of the plant to smell sweeter when tread upon. Mints, native to five of the seven continents (Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Australia), grow easily in full/partial sun, love moisture, flower in the warm months and crossbreed easily. They can be invasive spreaders if not contained; plant in an old cracked birdbath to keep from spreading; plant with tomatoes and cabbages to repel cabbage butterflies.
Cooking tips: There are more than 25 different species of culinary mints; remove leaves from stems before using; try with chicken, pork, eggplant, cabbage, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots, white beans, black beans, lentils, yogurt, vegetable soups, and fruit salads. Add to drinking water for a refreshing beverage or stir into fruit beverages, teas, liqueurs, and cordials (keep leaves attached to stems).
Storage tips: Pick in the morning, before sun evaporates its essential oils; keep freshly picked mint in a glass of water in the refrigerator (occasionally change water); for short-term storage, wrap in a damp towel or stand upright in a container with an inch of water and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); freeze leaves whole in plastic zipper bags or minced in water in ice cube trays.
Growing tips: Herbaceous spreading perennial up to 2 feet tall; likes rich, moist soil; full sun to light shade; best grown in a container to avoid spreading uncontrollably; can also be grown indoors.
A low-growing perennial herb with a spicy taste; stronger in flavor than marjoram, which is very similar in appearance. Oregano is believed to be antispasmodic, antiseptic, bactericidal, stomachic, an expectorant, and a sedative. It alleviates colic, stimulates the appetite, facilitates digestion, and is thought to have a beneficial effect on the respiratory system. Marjoram is closely related to oregano but has a milder flavor. Cooking tips: use blended with other herbs to make Italian seasoning, make herb butter or add to melted butter, add to vinegars; perfect complement to tomato dishes; flower heads are edible however the herb’s flavor is best just before flowering.
Storage tips: For short-term storage, wrap in a damp towel or stand upright in a container with an inch of water and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); leaves can be left on the stem to dry and later stored in a cool dry place, out of sunlight.
Growing tips: Perennial, both upright and spreading (some varieties grow 3’x3’), best in full sun/light shade; edible flowers are bee and butterfly attractions; drought tolerant; trim back after blooms fade.
Offers not only wonderful flavor and color but outstanding nutrition; contains more vitamin A than carrots and more vitamin C than oranges; also very high in iron and other minerals. Two varieties are Italian flat-leafed and the curly-leafed type.
Cooking tips: Think of it as a green and toss into salads; use in stir-fries (add toward the end or after cooking to retain best color, flavor, and nutrition); add to chilled pasta or vegetable salads, soups or stews; use fresh or dried in homemade tomato sauce.
Storage tips: For short-term storage, wrap in a damp towel or stand upright in a container with an inch of water and refrigerate (do not wash prior to refrigeration); can also be easily dried.
Growing tips: Biennial, typically grown as an annual and freely self-sows in the garden; tolerates light shade; allow it to go to seed in fall for self-sown ‘volunteers’ in spring.
A Mediterranean native and an evergreen perennial; there is an upright variety and a trailing type (both used for cooking); commonly used with chicken and lamb dishes and also added to bread or pizza dough; flowers can be added to salads for flavoring and color; the herb of remembrance; also used in cosmetics, soaps, perfumes, shampoos, hair conditioners, and aromatherapy.
Cooking tips: Can be used fresh or dried; all parts can be used: sprigs, whole or crushed leaves, and flowers; use a sprig to enhance applesauce, hot cider, and butter; use the dried stems (with leaves stripped) as skewers for BBQ.
Storage tips: Pick just before use; store fresh by keeping leaves on stem and in refrigerator; hang by bundles in paper bags to dry; store dried leaves in amber bottles or out of direct light.
Growing tips: Zone 7, treated as annual in colder climates; trailing type is less hardy; upright variety ‘Arp’ has been proven to be the hardiest to cold temps; full sun to light shade; needs good drainage—drought tolerant. Take cuttings in August to root for indoor growth.
More than 900 species of salvia have culinary, medicinal, and ornamental uses; native to the Mediterranean countries and North Africa, it is a hardy perennial that prefers full sun and well-drained soil; the word salvia comes from the Latin “salvare,” meaning to rescue or to heal. The English word sage means “wise one”; in the middle ages was thought to impart wisdom and improve memory, lifting spirits and promoting longevity; can be companion planted with cabbage, making cabbage more succulent and not as attractive to cabbage butterflies; also grows well with carrots, rosemary, strawberries, tomatoes, and marjoram; doesn’t grow well with onions or cucumbers.
Cooking tips: Aids in the digestion of fatty meats like beef, pork, fish, lamb, poultry, duck, and goose; fresh young leaves are eaten fresh in salads, soups, omelets, marinades, sausages, meat pies, yeast breads/rolls and stuffing; dip leaves in batter and fry for a snack; dried leaves make a great tea, add honey to ease sore throats and colds.
Storage tips: Strong taste increases as leaves are dried; harvest in morning before heat of sun evaporates its essential oils; hang in bunch or pinch leaves from stem and place on cloth or paper in shade to dry; store in airtight colored glass or solid container out of direct light.
Growing tips: Bushy-growing evergreen/semi-evergreen perennial for full sun and well-drained soil; can be damaged by extreme cold temperatures; drought tolerant.
A Mediterranean native, is one of the world’s oldest horticultural crops, dating back to 3000 B.C.E.; derived from thymon, the Greek word for courage; Greek warriors took baths infused with thyme before going off to battle and ladies embroidered thyme sprigs on soldier’s tunics; a small perennial of the mint family, it survives most winters when protected with a layer of mulch; many varieties including garden thyme, English, French, caraway-scented and lemon thyme.
Cooking tips: Blends well with and enhances other herbs (one of the primary components in both bouquet garni and herbes de Provence; used to enhance flavor of vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish dishes; strip leaves from stem and sauté with mushrooms. Use 1-2 tablespoons per pound of mushrooms; use mixture in omelets, add to quiches or stir-fries; chop thyme and add to flour, 1 tablespoon per cup of flour; use for dredging chicken or frying; works as a digestive aid, helps break down fatty foods; great as a tea.
Storage tips: Fresh thyme may be stored in a plastic bag in refrigerator (don’t wash until ready to use); dry by bunching sprigs together and hanging in a cool, dark spot; freeze in airtight bags or preserve in vinegar or oil.
Growing tips: Low, spreading evergreen/semi-evergreen perennial for full sun and well-drained soil; can be damaged by extreme cold temps; drought tolerant; trim back after blooms fade.
Other Great Herbs to Know & Grow
- Perennial: Chives, lavender, lemon balm (in mint family = serious spreader if not contained; can be invasive), bay laurel, savory, catnip, chamomile, coneflower, hops
- Annual: Tarragon, lemon grass, lemon verbena, sorrel
- Edible flowers: Borage, nasturtium, bee balm, marigolds, calendula, roses, dianthus, violas, saffron crocus
- Evergreen herbs: Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, bay laurel
- Herbs with showy flowers: Catmint, pineapple sage/ honeydew melon sage, monarda/bee balm, anise hyssop, lavender
Most herb flowers are especially attractive to bees and other pollinators. As an important food source for them, herbs can be planted near your vegetable garden and/or fruit plantings to increase pollination.