Herbs are a real boon in cooking. They provide delightful flavor to what might otherwise be dull dishes. Grocery store shelves are replete with different herbs in different forms for cooking and local herb gardeners can grow a wide variety of herbs. You don’t have to be an avid herb gardener to grow a few herbs as part of a flowerbed or culinary garden. I will touch today on 11 common herbs that grow well locally. These are excellent as fresh herbs from your garden but you can also harvest the leaves at the end of the season and dry them for out-of-season use.
A quick-and-easy method of drying herbs without losing color is to place a few sprigs or 1/2 cup leaves between paper towels and heat on high power for two to three minutes or until they are dry and crumbly. Timing varies with different herbs. You can also tie the stems together and hang them upside down in a dark place for several days to dry.
Parsley is a rewarding plant in the herb garden. It adds color and texture to the appearance in two varieties: the common or curled-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum) and the Italian flat leafed parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum). Curled parsley is attractive as an on-the-plate garnish. Italian parsley is most commonly used in cooking, but curled parsley works just as well. Both are commonly used in soups, stews, casseroles and meat dishes and also as a garnish to sprinkle atop various dishes. Grow them in well-drained moist garden loam as an annual or biennial.
Sage is best known in the kitchen in chicken and fish dishes as well as the stuffing accompanying a Thanksgiving turkey. The sage used for these purposes is Garden sage (Salvia officinalis). You can find lots of kinds of sages with some variations in flowers and fragrance. Pineapple sage (S. elegans) produces vivid scarlet-red flowers in the fall. Plant them where you want them in full sun and welldrained soil because they are perennial plants. Not all sage varieties are edible and some are grown just to look good in your garden.
Rosemary is a beautiful ornamental plant and popular culinary seasoning. Even its Latin name, Rosmarinus officinalis, which means “dew of the sea,” evokes images of beauty. Rosemary is often used in Mediterranean cooking. Grow the plant in plenty of sunshine but do yourself a favor by starting with a nursery grown plant. The seeds are a little difficult to germinate and don’t always grow true to type from seed, so they are generally propagated from cuttings. If you choose to keep this perennial from year to year, grow it in a container that you can move indoors when the weather drops below 30 degrees. Otherwise, grow it as an annual and dry leaves to save for seasoning.
Thyme is a hardy perennial that grows well in light, welldrained soil in full sun. Many different species offer variations in color, flavor and fragrance. Thyme, such as Thymus praecox (creeping thyme), T. herbabarona (caraway thyme) and T. serpyllum (mother-of-thyme), is a welcome addition as a ground cover in rock gardens and flowerbeds. Another well-known species is woolly thyme (T. pseudolanuginosus). If you are looking for thymes to use in the kitchen, try T. vulgaris (common thyme), the species most commonly used for cooking, as well as the popular lemon thyme (T. xcitriodorus). Caraway thyme is named for its uses as a substitute for caraway seeds in the kitchen.
Basil can be a star performer in all kinds of gardens. It comes with fragrances such as lemon, cinnamon, anise, clove and camphor. The leaves may be green or red making them attractive and colorful additions to decorative gardens as well. The favorite species for cooking is Ocimum basilicum which is often used in Italian dishes or pesto, mixed into salads or used to flavor diced tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Basil grows best in rich, well-drained soil. Water it thoroughly when the top half inch to inch of the soil is dry to the touch. Grow the plants and harvest their flowers and leaves all season long. However, if you allow the plant to flower, the leaf production declines and it affects the flavor of the leaves. Harvest or prune it often to delay the flowering and to make the plant bushy. AAS winner that you might like to try include “Sweet Dani,” “Thai Siam Queen,” “Purple Ruffles,” “Genovese,” “Spicy Globe,” and “Mrs. Burn’s Lemon.”
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are easy to grow, popular to add to various dishes, and look pretty in the garden — a nice bonus. They come up early. Mine are already sending up slender, rounded, spiked leaves. In early spring, pink or purplish globe-shaped flowers start to bloom. The dried blossoms are used by crafters for flower arranging and potpourris. The plants will make a repeat appearance for many years even through our cold winters. They do best in moist, well-drained soil and love a sunny place in the garden. Use those leaves in vegetable dishes, salads or top baked potatoes with them for a light oniony flavor. Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) provide a mild taste and smell of garlic, but I don’t recommend them. Be aware that they tend to spread through seeds and bulblets. We planted a plant in our garden several years ago then dug them up because they were spreading. It has still found its way into other beds.
Coriander and cilantro come from the same plant: Coriandrum sativum. The leaves are referred to as cilantro and its seeds are called coriander. Coriander seeds are one of the main ingredients in curry powder but they are also used in desserts and baked goods. In many circles, chopped cilantro leaves are considered a must in Mexican dishes, particularly in salsa and guacamole. Cilantro is not as easy a plant to grow as some other herbs and as an annual it must be re-planted each year in full sun and light garden soil. Many people do successive plantings to keep a fresh supply of leaves through the season. Excellent varieties to try are “Calypso,” “Santo,” “Longstanding” and “Slow Bolt.”
Dill is a favorite plant best known for its starring role in pickles. It has been growing in gardens for hundreds of years. Plant it in moist, well-drained soil in full sun, but put it where you can control it. Those seeds that are produced from the small yellow flowers in flat toped clusters are good for pickle making and sometimes in crafts. They are also prolific in starting new plants. Anethum graveolens can be biennial but is more commonly grown as an annual. Older varieties tower over other plants in the garden, but in recent years more compact varieties have hit the market. Look at “Bouquet,” AAS Winner “Fernleaf” and “Dukat” for shorter varieties that do well in small spaces. “Long Island Mammoth” and “Vierling” are more traditional taller plants. Besides using dill in pickles, the young leaves, referred to as dill weed, add sparkle to salads, soups, casseroles, eggs, pasta, fish and other meats.
Lavender has come into its own in recent years as a beautiful and fragrant addition to the herb garden. Its main claim to fame is its scent, and it is popular in perfume and potpourris. Companies now grow this herb for its essential oils used in lotions, perfumes, soaps and cooking. It also lends itself to crafting, cooking and landscaping. Common lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the kitchen herb and a main ingredient in blends of Herbes de Provence. L. latifolia, or spike lavender, is used in soap. Lavandin (L. xintermedia) is the product of a cross of spike lavender and common lavender. The essential oil of Lavandin is used to make soap, perfume and household cleaners. Many cultivars of lavender are available such as AAS Winner “Lavender Lady,” “Hidcote Blue,” “Munstead,” “Kew Red” and “Gray Lady.”
If you want to make a dish taste Italian, simply add oregano. Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum (Greek oregano) and O. majorana (marjoram) are used in much more than pizza and spaghetti. They are found in stuffing, casseroles, soups, stews, egg dishes and meat dishes. Greek oregano has a spicier flavor than mild and sweet marjoram. Grow these perennials in full sun and well-drained soil. Possible cultivars include “Herrenhausen,” “Amethyst Falls,” “Kent Beauty,” “Zaatar,” “Greek” and “Hot and Spicy.”
Like most of the other herbs above, Melissa officinalis, better known as lemon balm, grows best in moist, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. This perennial is well adapted, so watch to make sure it doesn’t try to take over your garden. Remove spent flowers to keep it from going to seed and grow it in a container. The leaves are lemon-scented and often used in teas and desserts, or dried and used for crafts. Favorite varieties include “Aurea,” “Citronella” and “Lime.”
Information for this story was provided in part by the National Garden Bureau as part of their 2012 “Year of ” series.