Spice up your life with herbs

Grow your own herbs for freshness and flavor.

If you’ve ever worked in the kitchen of a fine restaurant, you know that professional chefs demand and accept from their suppliers only the freshest fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices available. They recognize that the degree of freshness of these products has a tremendous impact on the dishes that they create. In your own kitchen (whether you are a gourmet cook or an enthusiastic backyard barbecuer), the same garden-fresh produce will have a great effect on the meals that you cook and serve to your friends and family.

Fortunately, delicious vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are easy to grow in your own garden for use in your kitchen. Even easier to grow are herbs, and nothing enhances a recipe’s flavor like fresh herbs. Remember the lyrics of a popular Simon and Garfunkel tune from the mid-’60s, whose chorus includes an herbal recitation--parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? According to the Chattahoochee Unit of the Herb Society of America, these four herbs are included in a list of the top ten culinary herbs grown and used by American gardeners.

Whether you live in Alpharetta and have unlimited space to plant, or are a small-space gardener who lives in a condo overlooking Centennial Olympic Park, read on and learn how to grow an amazing variety of fresh herbs that will add pizzazz to your cooking!

What is an herb?

Let’s start with a definition. Technically, all plants with soft stems are called herbs, or herbaceous ornamentals. Herbaceous ornamentals die back to the ground in winter. Herbs can be annual, perennial and biennial plants.

To narrow it down a bit, the plants commonly referred to as herbs are plants whose leaves or stems are used for their medicinal, flavorful or fragrant attributes.

Plants that are prized for their roots, bark, seed, and fruits are considered spices.

There are also evergreen plants that are herbs, with woody stems.  These require annual pruning to continue leaf production from year to year. Some of the plants that we recognize as herbs will develop woody stems and these plants can often be found in a perennial bed, prized for their ornamental value.  Herbs such as salvia, artemisia, hyssop, and lavender are commonly grown as ornamental plants.

Give them what they need

Collectively, herbs need sun. At a minimum, six hours of sunlight is necessary if herbs are to achieve the full size and produce essential oils.  If grown indoors, a southern or southwestern exposure that provides six to eight hours of light can produce a viable herb plant. Locate your herb garden (or container herb garden) close to the kitchen door, if possible. Easy access to the cooking herbs ensures that you will use and enjoy the herbs daily.

Well-drained soil is basic to success when planting herbs. Interestingly enough, the herbs that are most successful here are those suited to Mediterranean climates. Although the soils differ greatly, the sandy soils of that European region drain well, while maintaining sufficient moisture and provide the perfect environment to allow the plants to take in the nutrients necessary for optimal growth.

While we are not naturally blessed with the fertile, good-draining soil of the Mediterranean region, our soil can be amended for better plant growth. As in planting a perennial flower bed or vegetable garden, till the soil deeply (at least 12 inches) and incorporate organic material into the existing soil. Herbs generally like a pH of 6.5, so a soil test is recommended to determine which amendments are required. In our clay soil, lime is usually recommended, so add this to the soil, and remember that an annual application of lime and organic material will greatly benefit the herb garden. Also consider that herbs do not require much fertilizer, so a slow-release fertilizer will be the best product to use for this particular type of plant.

Low maintenance

Herb gardening is particularly suited to raised beds and containers since you have complete control of the soil in these situations. Once again, make sure that the containers you use and the raised beds have the ability to drain well, and amend the soil so that it holds sufficient moisture. Gardening in raised beds and containers will usually require more supplementary water when rain is scarce, so monitor the plants closely for stress. One advantage of growing herbs is that most are adapted to xeriscape, requiring very little extra water. As a matter of fact, most herbs thrive in our dry summer weather and actually perform best when other plants are practically wilting!

The essential oils, which provide the flavor and fragrance that they are grown for, mean that pests are rarely a problem. If undesirable insects are apparent, a quick rinse with insecticidal soap will usually do the trick. The disease is usually not a significant problem, and can often be prevented by good soil preparation, planting resistant varieties, good watering practices (applying only as needed and avoiding overhead sprinklers) and mulching.

Growing and harvesting

The most flavorful culinary herbs are harvested from well-tended plants in their leaf-making state. All herbs have two phases of growth:  the leaf stage and the flowering stage (reproductive stage). Once the plant enters its flowering stage, the leaf production slows down and the existing leaves may become bitter, grassy, woody or yellow. At this point, the leaves are not of optimum quality for cooking. You can delay the flowering by harvesting your kitchen herbs often. If you have too much growth for immediate fresh use, dry or process them for use later.

The basic top ten herbs for any culinary garden:

  1. Curley parsley: a biennial that is wonderful in the garden all year long. Parsley is the host plant for the swallowtail butterfly, so if you see green and yellow striped caterpillars eating the leaves, let them be—just plant plenty so that you have enough for them and your kitchen.
  2. Sage: a favorite in Thanksgiving turkey stuffing and sausages, many cultivars are grown for their blooms in the perennial flowerbed. My favorite is pineapple sage, which flowers in late September, just in time for the hummingbird hatchlings.
  3. Rosemary: the favored herb to use when cooking lamb, rosemary is also an outstanding addition to the perennial border. It has a tendency to become “woody” after a few seasons, so prune only into green wood for best results.
  4. Thyme: with over 400 varieties, from creeping thyme that makes a wonderful underfoot planting to the upright forms such as lemon and caraway, this versatile herb is useful in dressings, soups, with meats and as a flavoring to vinegar.
  5. Basil: a staple in Italian and Asian cooking, this annual plant is a requisite for the garden. Globe, lemon, purple, Thai and sweet basil are a few of the varieties. This is one that should be planted from seed from April through October so that it can be used in your garden all year long.
  6. Cilantro: another annual plant that is very popular in Mexican and Thai cuisines. While in its ”leafy” stage it’s called cilantro, once it has flowered the mature seeds are labeled coriander, and used, crushed, as a spice.
  7. Chives: a member of the onion family, this perennial herb is used in soups, egg and mushroom dishes and mixed with sour cream.  The pom-pom bloom is attractive in the flower garden in the spring.
  8. Dill: This is one that is grown in the cooler season—it doesn’t like our hot summer weather! It grows well from seed in the fall, and it is recommended that monthly seedlings will ensure a good supply of this tangy herb to season fish, dips, and cucumbers.
  9. Oregano: another perennial that is a popular flavor in tomato sauces, pizza, cheese dishes, and poultry. It is a vigorous grower, spreading by underground rhizomes. Excellent in containers.
  10. Mint: a flavorful perennial herb, the invasive nature of mint can catch a novice gardener unaware. Plant in a container or other controlled space and you’ll be happy. While spearmint is the best for the Kentucky Derby’s mint juleps and iced tea, many other flavors are available for use in sauces, cookies, spreads, and marinades.

Or plant these combinations to please your palate:

  • French:  chervil, chives, tarragon, bay, sage, rosemary
  • Italian:  oregano, parsley, garlic, sweet basil, fennel
  • Spanish:  basil, parsley, garlic, rosemary
  • Chinese:  cilantro, chives, fennel
  • Mexican:  oregano, cilantro, peppers, sage, cumin
  • Greek:  rosemary, garlic, mint, parsley, oregano
  • Thai:  lemongrass, basil, cumin, garlic, mint

This list highlights the most popular herbs planted in the garden.  There are many other perennial and annual herbs that can be grown in our climate, and many cultivars of these popular herbs are available from seed or nursery transplants. While there are a few that are a little finicky, plant what you’d like to compliment your favorite cuisine.   Bon appetit!

About the author

Mary Kay WoodworthMary Kay Woodworth is Executive Director of the Georgia Urban Ag Council. In her spare time, you can find her digging in the dirt, pulling weeds, and writing garden-related articles for publication.