Herb gardening 101: Tips for gardeners
For those ready to tune into their senses, growing herbs holds many rewards.
The most obvious, of course, is taste. Nothing beats a handful of fresh basil and few sprigs of oregano to season a fresh pasta sauce. A bit of fresh sage in sausage dishes is guaranteed to enhance the flavor. And what’s a mojito without muddled mint?
But don’t forget about your other senses. Lavender plants are lovely to smell. Plant a pot full of chocolate mint and inhale the scent of a peppermint patty.
Take a few tips and create an herb garden that will help you tune into all your senses. With a bit of finesse, some of those herbs can even thrive inside over the winter, if you have space for containers.
1. Getting started:
Start by giving yourself a questionnaire to decide which herbs to plant. What do you like to cook? If Italian is right up there, parsley, oregano and basil should be a focus – though we wouldn’t narrow it down to just that cuisine: those herbs are beloved around the world.
Fresh sage is great in the obvious, stuffing, but it also pairs well with pork. Sage and butter added to pasta is a winning combination.
Rosemary complements pork, chicken and lamb, but the adventurous cook knows how versatile it can be. If you bake your own bread, look up a recipe for rosemary olive bread. And if your plant is thriving, snip off a sprig and sink it into iced tea or lemonade.
For those who love Latin American cuisine, oregano, thyme and marjoram are often essential, as is cilantro, the herb that will help cool that burning mouth if fire is on the menu.
Ground cumin is beloved in Middle Eastern culture, though for the novice gardener, this might be one best simply picked up from store.
Two that every good chef like to have on hand (and that are easy to grow): parley and chives.
2. Location, location, location
We’ll start with the obvious. It’s summer, and it most areas, painfully hot. If you haven’t planted already (and read on for tips if you have), consider starting from small plants, and introducing them slowly to the heat. It’s not a great time to start from seed, but nurturing a few small herb plants is doable.
And there’s no time like the present to look around the garden and plan for next spring. Is your garden a space that has full sun, or mostly shade? Is that beloved herb a wanderer (think mint or chives)? Are you planning on growing these plants in the winter in a sunroom or windowsill?
Do a little research on your plant to see if it will return every year, like mint, or whether you’ll want to harvest it before the frost hits. Basil is a good example of an annual. Some may even be biennials (think cilantro), meaning the plant will live for two years.
3. Soil prep work
Once you’ve discovered what sun requirements your plants need, it’s time to talk soil. Great soil will be an investment year after year.
With few exceptions, herbs like well-drained soil. If you have hard, clay soil, you’ll want to loosen it up and add some good stuff to it. In other words, compost.
If you don’t compost yet, it’s time to start.
Invest in a composter and you’ll be kind to both Mother Earth, and your garden. Look for something like the Compost Wizard Recycled Plastic Tumbler Composter, $162.54, Lowes.com.
4. For the container gardeners
If you don’t have much space to garden, you’ll likely want to look into herbs that do well in pots. Happily, that’s most of them. And it’s fine to start a little herb garden even at this late date in the growing season.
Perhaps the best thing about containers is that most can be moved to the shade in the heat of the day.
Even those with no yard can have a mini herb garden on a small patio (or even inside where the light floods in).
All it takes is a little know-how and a good-sized container.
Rosemary is beloved, not only for its flavor, but its appearance. It’s a lovely house plant that will do well in the winter, as long as you prune it back a bit so it doesn’t get too leggy.
If you have a sizable container, consider planting basil, beloved by many chefs. A few others that thrive in containers: parsley, cilantro and oregano. And any gardener who has had an outdoor space taken over by mint will tell you that the container may be the only way to go with that herb.
5. Harvesting the crop:
The question most gardeners have is, how and when to harvest.
Seeds: If you’re looking for the seed, wait for it. The spent flower of the caraway plant, for instance, is what cooks wait for patiently. Cilantro will seed in the heat with flowers. After those flowers fade, you’ll find small green seeds. Collect your coriander seeds when they’re green, or wait for the seeds to dry a bit and turn brown.
Herbs: Most herbs are harvested for their leaves. You’ll want to harvest most of them before they flower, and in the cooler part of the day, before the sun turns oils in the plants a bit bitter. Annual herbs like basil will thrive if they’re pruned (read picked), as will perennials like mint and oregano.
6. Preserving for Year-round enjoyment
Finally, preserving herbs is a snap. Parsley, thyme, mint and several other herbs dry well in a cool, dust-free area. Just tie up a bundle and hang them for a few days.
For herbs like basil, freeze them on a baking sheet, then bag the leaves. Another option is to freeze chopped up herbs like basil or oregano in an ice cube tray. Just cover chopped herbs with water, freeze, and bag the cubes. You can pop those cubes into your pasta sauce all year long.