Herbs for Flavor and Fragrance

Herbs are a delight to the senses, bringing enjoyment through their flavors, fragrances and ornamental qualities.  Herb gardening continues to increase in popularity, as more and more people grow and experiment with herbs every year.  And no wonder – herbs are easy and fun to grow!

Growing Herbs in the Garden

Herbs can be grown in any sunny spot in the garden.  Although a formal herb garden can be beautiful as well as useful, herbs are just as happy growing in the vegetable or flower garden.  Their primary requirement is full sun and well-drained soil.  Many herbs, including Thyme, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage and Savory, are of Mediterranean origin and are therefore quite tolerant of drought and low fertility. Do not keep these types too moist, and use fertilizer sparingly.  Growing them on the “lean” side increases the concentration of essential oils that gives them their characteristic flavors and scents.  Basil, Parsley, Chives and Tarragon prefer regular watering and fertilization for best growth and best flavor.

Herbs also grow well in containers.  You can grow a single plant in a pot, or if the pot is large enough to accommodate several plants, you can create a mixed herb garden in the container. If you grow your favorite cooking herbs in pots, you can keep them handy on your patio or deck, where they will certainly be used more frequently than if you have to make a trip to the vegetable garden to gather seasonings for dinner.

Start with Plants or Seeds?

Many people choose to purchase young, started herb plants in the spring.  This method gives quicker results than growing from seed.  Some types, like Oregano and Thyme, grow so slowly from seed, that buying started plants is much more practical.  The tiny, fragile seedlings are difficult to manage on a windowsill or under fluorescent lights in the home.  You may, however, want to try your hand at starting Basil, Parsley or Sage indoors – they are easier to handle.  While Parsley and Sage can take a light frost, Basil is very frost-sensitive, and you must wait until all danger of frost in past before setting the young plants into the garden.  Basil will struggle when night temperatures are below 55 degrees, so wait until balmy weather arrives before planting them outside.

Some herbs are very easy to grow from seed by sowing directly into the garden.  Dill, Cilantro, Chamomile, Chervil, and Borage will easily grow from seed sown right outdoors.  These types will oblige you by returning as self-sown seedlings the following year as well.  Simply let some of the seed mature on the plants and drop to the ground.  Nature will do the rest.

There are many interesting herbs that cannot be grown from seed at all.  These must be grown by dividing the clumps, or by rooting cuttings.  This may be because the plants do not produce viable seed, or because it is a special variety which does not come true from seed.  Examples include true French Tarragon, the variegated forms of Sage, and many varieties of Thyme, including Lemon, Doone Valley, Elfin, Silver, and Wooly Thymes.

Harvesting and Storage

Once your herbs have grown a bit, you can start cutting them for seasoning.  When gathering just a few leaves to flavor a dish for dinner, snip or pinch a short section of stem and leaves from the top of the plant.  Repeated snipping and pinching will encourage your plants to become full and bushy.  With Parsley and Chives, you can simply snip off a few leaves at the base of the plant.  As mid-summer approaches, you’ll want to harvest some herbs for drying and winter storage. For best flavor, harvest the stems and leaves before they flower.  If you miss that stage, simply snip off the flowers, and wait for a new flush of growth.  Bundle the herbs with twine or string, and hang them upside-down in a dark but well-ventilated location.  When completely dry, gently rub the leaves off the stems and store them in glass jars.  Do not crush them – crushing the herbs releases their essential oils, thereby reducing the flavor.  When cooking with dried herbs, you will need only one- third to one-half of the amount of fresh herb..