You don’t need a garden plot to keep yourself supplied with fresh herbs all summer long. Some soil, pots, a sunny location, and a bit of care can turn a patio, balcony, staircase, deck, or window into a private herb department. While rosemary and mint are best grown in individual containers, you can pack a smorgasbord of various herbs into a window box.
What kind of herbs can you grow in your garden?
Whether you’re new to herb gardening or a seasoned pro, these tasty, but easy-to-grow, flavor-filled herbs will have you hooked on fresh.
This tender annual can’t tolerate cold, so plant only after the threat of frost is over. Place in full sun in rich, moist soil. Encourage new, bushy growth by pinching back the plant to a pair of branching stems. Because basil is most flavorful before the flowers bloom, pinch them out before they bloom and plant a succession to ensure an ongoing harvest. Pick the leaves immediately before using them.
Basil has a hint of licorice and is a classic choice with tomatoes and in Mediterranean dishes. Sweet basil is the most common, while the less sweet, purple-leaved variety adds color to your favorite dishes. If you have room, try planting lemon, cinnamon, or clove basil, which smell like their names.
Dried basil has minimal flavor, so use fresh or make pesto, then freeze.
This feathery, fern-like herb is a hardy annual and acts as a biannual in some climates.
Dill is tall, so plant it behind shorter herbs. It thrives in the sun, in rich, loose soil, and can be picked at any time — just pinch out the leaves. While the leaves are most flavourful before the flower heads go to seed, the seeds themselves are coveted for pickling. Suppose you want to use the leaves, deadhead throughout the summer. If you want the seeds, allow the plant to flower and set seeds; leave these until they’ve dried out and turned brown.
Vegetable soups, green salads, chicken, and fish pair perfectly with dill’s bright, lemony undertones.
This tender perennial thrives in the heat of a Canadian summer but should head indoors to a sunny window come autumn. Because rosemary needs good drainage, a terra cotta pot is ideal. Unlike most herbs, rosemary likes to dry out between waterings. To encourage growth, snip the ends often.
This astringent herb is perfect for roasted potatoes, lamb, or in a mix of herbs with grilled chicken.
Whether you opt for mild spearmint or more potent peppermint, full sun and moist soil are all that’s required. This low-maintenance plant grows quickly and can be picked at any time. Just pinch off as many leaves as you need.
Fresh leaves make a refreshing tea and jazz up all kinds of warm weather drinks — from mint juleps to lemonade. Mint also lends authenticity to Middle Eastern dishes like tabouli.
How to brew herbal teas from your garden?
Whether served piping hot or icy cold, herbal teas make a refreshing caffeine-free beverage all ages can enjoy. But if chamomile makes you yawn and mint seems mindless, these easy-to-grow plants will have you rethinking ho-hum herbal infusions.
Michael Hansford, a horticultural therapist at the Hollowood Health Centre in Colombus, Ohio, shares his tips for maximizing flavor and minimizing the work. His top three picks for homegrown herbal tisanes are lemon verbena, chocolate mint, and sweet woodruff. Inquire at your local nursery, and if you can’t source a plant, purchase seeds from a seed company to grow your own. Sweet woodruff likely won’t be found among the herbs as it’s usually sold as a ground cover.
Lemon verbena: Love lemon but want to drink local? Lemon verbena provides the most potent lemon scent and flavor outside the citrus family. You won’t believe this light and bright tea doesn’t contain a slice of lemon.
Mix it up: Add some lemon verbena to your favorite green tea.
Chocolate mint: This mint cultivar (Chocolate’ Mentha x piperita f. citrata) has an unusual red stem but a familiar taste. Imagine a Peppermint Pattie melting in your mouth.
Mix it up: Not into chocolate? Ginger mint or apple mint deliver their signature flavor along with a refreshing hint of mint.
Sweet woodruff: Also known as galium, this pretty but common ground cover makes a not-so-common herbal tea. Expect hints of vanilla and almonds. Hewson suggests sweetening the infusion with a leaf of stevia, but honey works just as well.
Mix it up: For an authentic Tibetan-style refreshment, brew a trio of sweet woodruff, basil, and mint.
You might also want to taste:
- Lemon balm
- Culinary lavender
- Or, try adding savory herbs, such as thyme, sage, and basil, to your blends.
How to grow herbs?
Herbs don’t take a lot of attention, providing you keep them happy. Here’s how:
Keep ’em under control: Most herbs need well-drained soil, full sun, and firm boundaries. To prevent wild herbs from taking over the garden, plant invasive plants, such as mint, in pots.
Keep ’em trimmed: Don’t hesitate to cut herbs early and often. Frequent cutting encourages lots of leaves, not seeds.
Keep ’em natural: Never use pesticides, fungicides, or synthetic chemicals on culinary plants. To keep your herb garden organic, augment the soil with well-rotted manure in spring and fall, and fertilize in the summer with manure tea.
Keep ’em dry: Herbs need water, but moisture can lead to mildew and rot. To wet the roots without encouraging disease, water herbs in the morning so the sun can dry the leaves.
Harvesting Your Herbs
Cut only healthy, insect-free stems. The best time to snip is mid-morning, once the dew has dried, but before the sun has wilted the leaves. Then rinse the leaves lightly—you want to remove obvious dirt, but you do not want to wash away the plant’s natural oils, which carry the flavor.
Brewing Herbal Tea
Herbal infusions require more leaves than green or black tea, so don’t skimp, or you’ll end up with bland water. For each cup of boiling water, add one tablespoon of fresh herbs or one teaspoon dried. Place leaves in an infuser (many loose-leaf teapots come with one) or loose in the pot, straining it as you pour.
With fresh herbs, gently crush the leaves before brewing. Whether using fresh or dried herbs, cover the leaves with freshly boiling water and let steep three to five minutes. Want iced tea? Double up on the herbs, then dilute the steeped tea with equal parts ice and water.
How to dry herbs?
Enjoy your summer bounty year-round. All you need is a warm room with adequate airflow. Place individual stems flat on screens or tie small bundles with string and hang them upside down. Most herbs dry in as little as two weeks.
If time or space is an issue, you can speed the process with a dehydrator (follow the manufacturer’s instructions) or a convection oven. In a convection oven, simply place a single layer of leaves on a baking sheet and set at 150F for approximately three hours.
Regardless of which method you use, ensure the herbs are sufficiently dried before storing in an airtight container, or they will go moldy. Properly dried herbs will crumble when rubbed between your fingers. If the leaves feel rubbery or hold together, they need more drying time.
Once dried, place whole leaves in a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid or a zip-lock plastic bag. Your harvest should keep for up to a year and carry you through the winter months when you won’t have the luxury of picking fresh herbs from the garden.
How to grow a bouquet of herbs?
All-purpose plants par excellence, herbs are useful as well as beautiful. Attractively varied in size and shape, their leaves, stems, and flowers are valued for their culinary and medicinal uses. Many are scented or flavored, or both, and most thrive on something between moderate attention and benign neglect in sunny or shady gardens.
Herbs may be annuals (dill, cilantro), perennials (bay, rosemary), herbaceous perennials (chives, tarragon), or biennials (parsley). To further complicate matters, tender herbs such as lemon verbena and pineapple sage are herbaceous perennials in my Connecticut garden but may have to be treated as annuals in yours.
Herbs often grow under even marginal conditions; some turn into vigorous, greedy brutes in ideal conditions. That’s why it’s critical to determine each herb’s mature height and spread before you plant it. A compact, unassuming baby can grow into a monster in one season.
Herbs generally do well in fairly neutral, weed-free soil (6.5 to 7.5 pH) with good drainage and protection from cold or strong winds. But generalizations end there. Plant creeping thyme between stepping stones, mint in the shade of an elderberry bush, towering lovage and bay at the back of the vegetable garden, decorative feverfew, and bergamot in the flower border. Try clove pinks and St. John’s wort in the rockery. Welcome visitors with a fragrant lavender bush beside the front door. Herbs can be tucked here and there almost impulsively, but if you want to establish a formal herb garden, it’s wise to preplan.
First, observe your site. Is it sunny, shady, or somewhere in between? Is it exposed or sheltered? Is the soil light or heavy, wet, or dry?
Consider your needs. Do you want herbs for cooking? Medicine? Crafts? Maybe you want a variety. List the herbs you want to grow, then determine which ones like the conditions you have to offer. If you can’t grow what you want, select a substitute.
For example, you want culinary herbs but have a site that gets afternoon shade. Consider ones that like shade or part shade such as lovage, fennel, parsley, chives, lemon balm, chervil, and anise hyssop, as well as many varieties of mint. You can also try gambling with a few fence-sitters. Sage and thyme perform better in full sun but may produce good crops if given even a few hours of sun and light, well-drained soil. Or pot up sun lovers such as basil or rosemary and set them in a sunny location.
Do you want a formal or informal herb garden?
Next, determine the look you want. Formal or informal? Formal herb gardens are based on patterns and geometric shapes-squares or rectangles. For example-that are divided into smaller, mirror-imaged beds, which are almost always enclosed by low hedges and dissected by paths. Small, compact herbs are usually chosen over tall, showier varieties, and in some cases, entire beds are devoted to a single herb. Although beautiful, formal herb gardens can be labor-intensive, there are hedges to trim, paths to maintain, and beds that must be weed-free to look their best. They can also be expensive to install.
What are the advantages of informal herb gardens?
Informal herb gardens are simpler to maintain. Avoid straight lines, squares, or rectangles; aim for loose, irregular, and adaptable shapes. Informal gardens appear in many guises, including sunny flower borders, shady woodland plots, or dry Mediterranean rockeries. Small installations can be tucked into a corner by your front door just as quickly as they can be planted in your vegetable garden, and look as pretty in the early stages as when fully mature.
Divide the plants from the path with a six to 12 inch high (15- to 30-centimeter) edging of brick, wood, or stone. Edges also help keep the garden looking tidy even when it needs weeding. Or install a soft border, such as lavender, santolina, dwarf box, or germander, keeping in mind how big the plants will be at maturity and that they’ll require regular pruning.
Are herbs drought tolerant?
Though many herbs are drought-tolerant, it’s essential to water them regularly while they’re becoming established and at the start of each season when they’re putting on new growth. Moisture requirements vary from herb to herb, so water at the plant’s base to give each precisely what it needs.
How to protect herbs from pests and diseases?
Herbs are relatively resistant to pests and diseases but are not immune to attack. Avoid problems by maintaining healthy soil, raising or buying robust seedlings, properly hardening off plants before planting out, and adequately spacing them to encourage air circulation.
Pests to watch out for include slugs, which adore many herb seedlings. Hand-picking at night is the best control. Aphids, whiteflies, and spider mites are more often found on herbs grown indoors but will attack tender outdoor herbs, especially nasturtium, calendula, lemon verbena, and scented geraniums. Squashing them by hand or blasting them repeatedly with water usually dispatches them.
Foliar fungal infections that crop up in hot, humid weather can turn healthy plants to black mush in a few days. Herbs with woolly or hairy leaves, such as artemisia, lamb’s ears, and yarrow, are most susceptible. Cut away affected stalks and wait; the plant may recover. Improve air circulation and prune herbs carefully to avoid future problems.
Powdery mildew whitens the leaves of herbs, mainly if the plants are too close together or if the weather is damp. Allow for adequate air circulation and water sparingly.
Proper watering is also critical to avoid root rot, a fungal disease that kills drought-loving plants such as lavender, sage, oregano, rosemary, and tarragon. Make sure drainage is adequate, keep the soil loose, and don’t overwater.
Here is an herb garden ideal.
My formal-looking but informal-feeling herb garden is a 16-by-16 feet square (4.8-by-4.8-meter), with four 6-by-6 foot beds (two-by-two-meter) dissected by gravel paths. A boxwood hedge encloses each of the four beds, and there’s a sundial in the middle with thyme growing at its base. Hedges of lavender and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus, Zone 6), the house, and my cold frames serve as the garden’s exterior borders. The site is right outside my back door, giving me easy access to herbs all year. It’s well protected, and residual heat from the house allows me to overwinter herbs, such as lemon verbena, that are too tender for my climate. I established formal theme beds (culinary, medicinal, crafting, and tea herbs), but mix and match informally within the beds.
How to control your herb garden?
Some herbs can become invasive. Control self-seeders by cutting off fading flowers before they go to seed. Those that spread by runners, rhizomes, or roots can be confined by planting in a deep pot. Or, if you have an established crop you want to eliminate, cut it down when it sprouts in spring and mulch the area heavily for an entire season. The following herbs must be controlled: bergamot, comfrey, lady’s mantle, lemon balm, mint, oregano, sweet Annie (though I don’t find it misbehaves in my garden), sweet woodruff, sweet violet, tansy, and valerian.
KEY: Culinary: C, Tea: T, Medicinal: M, Floral & Craft: F
Herbs Recommended For Partial Shade (3 to 4 hours of sun daily)
- Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium, annual) C
- Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis, Zone 4) F
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium, Zone 3) F
- Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium, Zone 4) M
- Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis, annual) M & F
- Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum, Zone 6) T
- Lovage (Levisticum officinale, Zone 3) M
- Chives (Allium schoenoprasum, Zone 3) C
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis, Zone 3) M
- Borage (Borago officinalis, annual) C & M
- Coriander, cilantro (Coriandrum sativum, annual) C
- Valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Zone 4) M
- Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare, Zone 6) C
- St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum, Zone 3) M
- Bay (Laurus nobilis, Zone 8) C
- Bergamot (Monarda didyma, Zone 4) T
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum, Zone 5) C
Herbs Recommended For Shade (need a few hours of filtered light daily)
- Comfrey (Symphytum officinale, Zone 3) M
- Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum, Zone 5) M
- Elecampane (Inula helenium, Zone 4) M
- Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata, Zone 3) C & M
- Archangel (Angelica archangelica, Zone 4) T
- Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis, Zone 3) M
- Mint – Many to choose from. Some of my favorites: Water mint (Mentha aquatica, Zone 6), ginger mint (M. x gracilis ‘Variegata,’ Zone 6), peppermint (M. piperita, Zone 5), spearmint (M. spicata, Zone 4), and apple mint (M. suaveolens, Zone 6) C
- Sweet violet (Viola odorata, Zone 5) F
Plant markers are necessary when you’re just familiarizing yourself with herbs. They’ll help you keep track of the plants and avoid confusion. They’ll also mark perennials that die back in winter. Garden centers and herb farms have various ceramic, wooden, or slate markers or make your own by painting the names on garden stones. Whatever you choose, remember the following are poisonous:
- Columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris, Zone 3)
- Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia, Zone 3)
- Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens, Zone 6)
- Opium poppies (Papaver somniferum, annual)
- Monkshood (Aconitum napellus, Zone 2)
- Castor bean (Ricinus communis, Zone 9)
- Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea, Zone 4)
- English ivy (Hedera helix, Zone 5)
- Golden chain tree (Laburnum anagyroides, Zone 5)
- Pokeweeds (Phytolacca americana, Zone 5)
Sun-Loving Herbs (6 to 8 hours of direct sun daily)
- Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua, annual) F
- Sage (Salvia officinalis cvs., Zone 5) C
- Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia’ Hidcote’, Zone 5)
- Winter savory (S. montana, Zone 5) C
- Basil (Ocimum basilicum, Zone 9) C
- French lavender (L. stoechas, Zone 8) T & F
- Oregano (O. vulgare, Zone 5) C
- Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis, Zone 3) M
- Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, Zone 6) T
- Thyme (Thymus vulgaris, Zone 4) C
- Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla, Zone 8) T
- Dill (Anethum graveolens, annual) C
- Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus, Zone 3) C
- Clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus, Zone 7) F
- Coneflower (Echinacea, Zone 3) M
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria, Zone 3) M
- Hardy marjoram (Origanum x majoricum, Zone 6) C
- Scented geraniums: Many to choose from. Some of my favorites: Pelargonium’ Attar of Roses’, ‘Old Spice’ and ‘Rober’s Lemon Rose,’ P. crispum’ Variegated Prince Rupert’ (Zone 10) F
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Zone 8) C
- Summer savory (Satureja hortensis, annual) C
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare syn. Chrysanthemum vulgare, annual) F
How to preserve your herbs?
Got a bounty of fresh herbs you’d like to use all winter but little time to preserve them? The following ideas are as versatile as they are quick. With clean, fresh herbs at hand, each method takes no more than a few minutes of active time.
1. Hang your herbs to dry.
While you can quickly dry herbs in the oven or in a dehydrator. Hang drying is an even quicker way to do the job.
Five-minute fix: Leave a generous stem when you pick your herbs. Carefully rinse the leaves to remove the dirt. Then lightly pat the herbs dry. With a piece of string, tie a bunch together by the stems, then hang the bouquet of herbs upside down in a well-ventilated area and let is hang. Drying time varies with the ambient humidity and the type of herb you are working with. But the herbs should be thoroughly dried within a couple of weeks. When the leaves crumble when rubbed, the herbs are ready to go into an airtight plastic bag or a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Best choices: Rosemary, lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, thyme, and oregano.
Keeps for: Up to one year if appropriately sealed.
2. Freeze herbs to preserve them.
Frozen herbs add punch to sauces, stews, and soups. Defrosting isn’t required. Just drop them in your soup, watch them melt, and taste the difference.
Five-minute fix: After you wash the herbs, place the leaves in a blender and purée with just enough filtered water to make a liquid. Pour your puréed herbs into an ice cube tray and place it in the freezer. After frozen, you can pop the herb cubes from the tray and store in a resealable plastic bag to preserve the flavor.
Best choices: Sage, chives, thyme, basil, rosemary, oregano, or a mixture of your preferred herbs.
Keeps for: Up to six months in your freezer.
3. Infuse herbs into vinegar.
Herb-infused vinegars form the base of fabulous homemade dressings. Use them anywhere you would typically use wine vinegar—sauces, stews, and soups.
Five-minute fix: Wash the herbs to prevent any dirt from being added to the mix while keeping the stems’ leaves. Dry them and place a large handful in a glass jar. Fill the jar with a pinch of salt and white wine vinegar. Give the jar a shake and seal tightly. It is critical to shake the jar daily. In a few weeks, you’ll have delicious herb-infused vinegar.
Best choices: dill, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, or a mixture. A whole clove of garlic works well, too.
Keeps for: Up to a year if stored in dark, cool storage.
4. Add your herbs to oil.
Herb oil adds flavor to a meal without adding extra work to food preparation. Toss vegetables in it before roasting, rub some under the skin of a chicken before popping it into the oven, or drizzle some on homemade pasta.
Five-minute fix: Wash and dry your herbs. Purée in a blender with an equal amount of canola oil or olive oil. After you blend it smooth, pour the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze. Once frozen, move the cubes to a resealable bag. Defrost the herb cubes before using them.
Best choices: sage, basil, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, chives, savory, or a mix.
Keeps for: Use immediately upon defrosting—up to six months in the freezer.
5. How to make herb butter?
If you ever had fancy herb butter served to you at a high-end restaurant, you know that it makes a great impression. A little time bit of time leaves a big impression. Let a slice of herbed butter melt over steamed vegetables, slather on a fresh baguette, or stir some into mashed potatoes. What could be tastier?
Five-minute fix: Wash, dry, and finely chop your homegrown herbs. Mix two parts softened butter into one part herbs. Add a touch of fresh black pepper if you prefer. Place the herbed butter on parchment paper or a waxed paper sheet and roll to form a log. Wrap the log in cling wrap and freeze. When it’s time to use the herb butter, slice it into half-inch slices. They soften in five minutes or less.
Best choices: Parsley, dill, chives, basil, tarragon, or a combination.
Keeps for: Up to six months in your freezer.