Behind the Fence

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Growing Herbs


Last month I presented information on growing herbs at the Purchase Area Master Gardener Association Herb Appeal “Living Healthy with Herbs.” I was asked for my notes, which I happily gave to one of the attendees. There was a bit of disappointment that I had not provided hand-outs. I offered to put my notes on my blog for references and for folks that were interested but not able to attend. By the way, if you were not present, you missed an excellent, informative presentation by the key note speaker, Marcy Snodgrass of 3 Hearts Yoga and Juice Bar in Murray, KY. I learned so much about the health benefits of herbs! Did you know that piece of parsley that often accompanies a restaurant meal is a super food, chocked full of vitamins and anti-oxidants?

I talked to the group about growing common herbs, why we grow them and shared a few tips.

Common Annual Herbs (the ones I grow in my garden)

Basil is the one herb I can’t live without. There are many varieties; I usually grow Sweet Basil, Greek Basil and Genovese. Sometimes I plant Lemon Basil, Purple Basil and any other that catches my fancy. I either dedicate a raised bed to basil or plant it amongst my other garden plants. After I get the plants in the ground in late spring, I start seeds for replacement plants later in the summer (just planted my late crop this week.)  I like to let some plants go to flower for the butterflies and bees.

Basil requires more water than some of the other herbs, a good soaking about once a week. Other than compost, I feed my a little fish emulsion if they look like they are hungry.

At our house we use a lot of basil; on pizza, substitute for lettuce on bacon and tomato sandwiches, on bruschetta, in pasta salad and of course pesto.

Cilantro/Coriander (cilantro is the leaves, coriander is the seed) is another favorite at our house. If the seeds are not harvested, they will reseed and, with the help of the birds, will pop up all over the garden. It is a cool season herb and will bolt in the summer heat, but I have found some that are slower to bolt. I grow it year round in my greenhouse that is only heated when the temperature drops to 40° or below.

Cilantro is most often used in Tex-Mex foods. Coriander seeds are dried, crushed and used in baked goods as well as other dishes.

Dill is another annual that reseeds. It grows just about anywhere. The seed heads can be dried to preserve. Of course it is used in dill pickles; also it is excellent in dips, potato salad, on fish and new potatoes. It is also favored as a host plant for butterflies.

Favorite Biennial Herbs

Fennel has an anise type flavor. There are two types, leaf and bulb. It can be invasive and can cross-pollinate with dill and cilantro. I like to braise slivers of fennel bulb in olive oil and serve as a side dish.

Parsley, like cilantro grows best in cooler weather. There are a number of varieties, the most popular are curly and Italian broadleaf. If left to flower, it will reseed creating plants for the following year. It often appears as a garnish but, as I learned from Marcy, it is quite the

power food. Marcy adds it to her juices; it also makes a nice pesto. Knowing its health benefits, I plan to use it more often in salads and soups. I think it would also be nice on sandwiches.

Parsley is also a host plant for butterflies.

Common Perennial Herbs (the ones I have in my garden.)

Rosemary is a tender perennial, which I cover with a thick plastic in the winter. That worked well for my 7-year old rosemary tree until this past winter. Even though it was covered, I lost it due to the extreme freezing temperatures. It is easy to propagate by stem cutting which I usually do each fall. Not last fall, so I am currently without rosemary and have really missed having it. Rosemary tolerates the dry, hot summer weather and it dries well for use in the winter. I use it in meat and vegetable dishes; it is especially nice with roasted vegetables.

Lavender is another tender perennial. I lost 3 of my 4 plants over the winter. English lavender tends to be a bit hardier. Lavender thrives in full sun with good drainage, it does not need fertilizer. Mostly it is used for fragrance, but it is also good in desserts. Bees love it. It can be preserved by cutting and hanging in a cool dark spot to dry.

Thyme for the most part is hardy, but there are a few culinary varieties that are tender. There is no care for thyme; just plant it and watch it grow. I have creeping thyme along my garden paths and love to get a whiff of fragrance when I step into it. It is a magnet for bees, so one must be careful! I really like lemon thyme on steamed vegetables.

Sage is very hardy. It is the only herb my mother grew and she used it only at Thanksgiving. In addition to poultry dishes, I make a brown sage butter to coat butternut squash ravioli. Yum!

Oregano is another hardy perennial herb, most often used in Italian dishes. It is very easy to dry and is loved by bees and butterflies.

Marjoram is similar to oregano but milder. It is a tender perennial.

Tarragon is hardy; it dies back in the winter but emerges again in the spring. French is preferred over Russian for the licorice-like flavor. It is used in salads and Tarragon Chicken but my favorite is Tarragon Ice Cream. It dries well and can be frozen in ice cubes.

Chives are hardy and can become a pest due to the reseeding. Make a note to dead-head before it goes to seed. It is used to flavor many dishes, especially eggs, new potatoes, potato salad, dips, anything where a mild onion flavor is desired. It is best preserved by freezing.

Mint is not only hardy but vigorous. To prevent it from becoming invasive, it should be planted in a pot. In addition to flavoring tea, it is used in desserts, with lamb, as garnish and with some vegetables like peas. Mint attracts bees and butterflies.

In addition to culinary herbs, I grow bee balm for the bees, a butterfly bush for the butterflies and tansy to ward off mosquitoes.

Herbs are grown to enhance our foods, for medicinal uses, to improve health and well-being, to lure bees and butterflies, for fragrance and to make our homes and gardens inviting. They are readily available in the markets so why should one bother to grow herbs at home?

For me the convenience is worth the bother. I may not want to run to the store just to get basil or cilantro, and sometimes the store I go to may not have the herb I want. Having them just outside my door encourages me to use herbs more often. Another popular use is to add a pretty herb to a floral arrangement or make a herb centerpiece. We know that our taste in enhanced by our smell. If the herb used in the meal shows up in the center of the table, the flavor of the food is enhanced.

In the garden, herbs are known to deter insects. Marigolds are widely used to ward off aphids; wormwood, tansy, lemon balm, basil and citronella are thought to deter mosquitoes. According to Louise Riotte, author of Tomatoes Love Carrots, herbs are useful as companion plants; basil improves the flavor of carrots, dill improves the flavor of cabbage, parsley aids growth of tomatoes and roses, chives deter aphids and Japanese beetles. As mentioned earlier, many herbs attract bees and butterflies to the garden.

Whether growing in raised beds, a formal garden, tucked among perennials or in containers, herbs are quite easy to grow. Often they will grow where nothing else will.
They only require soil, sun, water and very little nutrients. I only amend the soil with compost and worm castings. If a plant isn’t growing well or the color looks anemic, I will give a little fish emulsion. Most do not require a lot of water. If they look thirsty during a dry spell, I give them a long drink of water. With the herbs I grow, the exception is basil, parsley and cilantro which do better with a good soaking once a week. Pinching the tops out of plants like basil and cilantro will make them bushier and prevent them from going to seed. Herbs are most favorable and fragrant if cut just before blooming.

If you are inspired to start a herb garden, I believe the Purchase Area Master Gardeners have some left-over herbs they are selling really cheap. Leave a comment or email me at and I will give you the information on how to get them.