My last blog post was about making a planter for a home herb garden. In this post, my intention is to impart some words of wisdom about growing herbs at home. Virtually all of the herbs suited for a home garden are easy to grow. They aren’t really fussy, although you will get the best results if you give them a few hours of sun and a well-drained soil - good advice for almost any outdoor plant. Some like water, some are drought-tolerant, but as long as the soil drains well, they can all be watered moderately and will thrive in almost any climate.
Herbs will grow in the ground or in pots equally well. That said, many of them are rank planmts that spread like crazy when planted in the ground. Not only that, you have to bend over to cut plants in the ground, whereas container-grown herbs can be grown at waist height and are easy to control and harvest. Further, it is simple and inexpensive to rig up a drip watering system on a timer, so you never have to worry about watering. If you buy potting soil at your local nursery, it may already come with the fertilizer mixed in. If not, a few shakes of any kind of generic fertilizer a couple of time a year will do the job.
Potting Soil: If you want to make your own potting soil, here is a formula that is very inexpensive, light weight and all-purpose:
1 gallon Peat moss
1 gallon Vermiculite
1/4 Cup Lime
1/4 Cup Slow release powdered or granulated fertilizer such as Osmocote
Buying stared plants vs growing from seed: Unless you have a lot of patience and a nurturing personality, I strongly recommend buying started plants rather than growing from seed. A pack of seeds costs around a dollar and a started plant from a retail nursery is around $1.50. Not worth it for half a buck.
Here are a few tips to help you get great results:
Basil is one of the few herbs that is an annual rather than a perennial. It grows like crazy and you have to keep it from going to seed if you want it to last a season. Many supermarkets sell bushy basil plants in 6” pots that are ready to use for less than $3. I recommend these plants. No waiting and the quality is excellent.
Harvest basil leaves by pinching them from the stems anytime after the plants have reached a height of 6 to 8 inches. Pinch the leaves from the tips of the stems to encourage the plant to branch and make more leaves. Try to keep the stems pinched even if you don’t use the leaves; otherwise, the plant will begin to flower and make seeds, and will stop producing leaves.
There are two varieties of chives for the home garden, onion chives and garlic chives. The difference is obvious. Either variety grows well in the home garden, and both leaves and flowers are edible. You will get more leaves if you pinch off the flowers before they develop.
Like most lettuces, cilantro will bolt in the summer, so it is best grown at home in the spring and fall. That said, you can buy a huge bunch of perfect cilantro at the local market for 50 cents, so I don’t recommend it for the home garden.
Dill is an annual that is self-seeding. It grows like crazy and the plants don’t last that long. It also gets 3-4 feet tall. If you want a constant supply, you will need to replant every few weeks. Not a good candidate for the home herb garden unless you have a lot of space. Dill grows wild in many places in California where I live. If I see some in good condition, I’ll cut what I need. Otherwise I’ll buy it in the market.
Mint is the world’s most aggressive plant, worse than the plant in the Little Shop of Horrors. If you put it in the ground in your garden, you will never get rid of it. It spreads by underground runners, and even a little piece of a runner is enough to start a forest of mint. Therefore grow it only in containers. I do not recommend clay pots because the plant will likely burst the pot. Two or three times a year, I take the plant out of its container, chop off a piece and replant it in new soil.
Oregano is a member of the mint family. It is aggressive, but not anywhere near as bad as mint. It is easy to grow and comes back year after year. In mild climates, you can harvest oregano leaves all year long.
Parsley (either the flat leaf Italian or curly kinds) is a lush plant growing up to a foot high in a beautiful rosette of green foliage. It dies in the winter in cold climates but lives on in warm climates. It is very easy to grow and is tolerant of almost every kind of growing condition. Like cilantro, you can buy parsley in markets for 50 cents a bunch that is superb quality. For that reason, I don’t bother with growing it at home.
Rosemary is a semi-woody evergreen shrub. In California, it is commonly used as a low (2-4 feet high) hedge plant. You can cut off what you need for cooking and nobody will know the difference. That said, there are some newly developed varieties of rosemary particularly well-suited for culinary use. The one I like is called “Tuscan Blue”. Although it grows well in pots, it is a large plant and will soon outgrow an herb-size container. Keeping it trimmed as much as possible will slow the growth, but eventually you will need to replace the plant. Rosemary is best propagated from cuttings rather than seeds, so you can take a few cuttings, stick them in damp sand and see if any will take.
Unlike most herbs, sage is a perennial in cold climates and an annual in warm climates. It does not do well in warm-climate summers. Like rosemary it is a shrub, but one that is wider than it is tall, maybe 3’ wide by 1’ high. It is very drought-tolerant and, although it likes sun, it will do well in light shade. There are many varieties of sage and they all have a different flavor profile, so be sure and taste before you buy. Personally, I don’t care much for sage, so I don’t grow it.
Another member of the mint family, thyme is a low growing, woody perennial. It is extremely fragrant and flavorful and grows well in tough, dry conditions. It is difficult to start from seed, so buying started plants is recommended. There are many varieties of thyme, about a dozen developed specifically for culinary use. Each variety has its own flavor profile, so when shopping for thyme at the nursery, when nobody is looking sneak a taste before you buy to be sure it meets your needs.
Another member of the mint family, there are two varieties of tarragon to consider, French or Mexican (also called Texas or Winter). French tarragon is one of my favorites. It is a traditional seasoning for eggs, poultry, salads, cheese, and fish. It is always included in seasoning blends such as fines herbes and bouquet garni. It is a must-have ingredient for Sauce Béarnaise and makes an excellent herb-flavored vinegar. The Mexican variety, which has a longer season than the Fernch variety has a strong anise taste that I don’t care for, but you might like it.
Tarragon likes warm weather. Started plants are not available in nurseries until May, even in warm climates. It is perennial, but will die back when the weather gets cold. It will easily outgrow a small container in one season, but you can chop off a piece and replant it in new soil for next season.