Home & Garden

Seasoned advice for growing your own herbs

Old red wagons to hold the pots that contain the herbs in this garden.
Old red wagons to hold the pots that contain the herbs in this garden. MCT

Fresh herbs are everywhere these days, in recipes, restaurants and supermarket produce aisles.

But in a nation that was relatively herb-averse for decades, even lifelong gardeners may have little experience growing, say, basil and cilantro.

Garden writer Ann McCormick demystifies the process in “Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses” (Quarry Books), the new book she co-authored with chef Lisa Baker Morgan.

Along with Morgan’s simple and appealing recipes that put these herbs to work (two examples: springtime vegetable stir-fry and pan-fried cantaloupe with honey-ricotta and fresh mint), you’ll find McCormick’s detailed guide to growing 15 adaptable and easy-going herbs.

Homegrown herbs won’t necessarily taste better, says McCormick, but they’re a wonderful addition to a garden, adding interest and aroma, and providing ready access to fresh, seasonal flavor. You may see cost savings, too.

A packet of fresh oregano costs $2 or $3 at the market. “You may pay – top dollar – $2.99 for a 4-inch pot of oregano,” she says. “You can grow that in a container and … you’re going to have access to fresh oregano (throughout your growing season).” And, of course, many perennial herbs will return year after year in the garden, depending on your growing zone.

Herbs generally need a warm, sunny place to grow. Some herbs, like dill, aren’t hard to grow from seed, but she recommends that gardening beginners start with the potted herbs available at garden centers.

While all 15 of the herbs in her book were selected for adaptability in many growing regions, sweet marjoram, chives, basil and thyme are among the most forgiving and resilient, she says.

If you’re bringing home a potted plant to put in the garden, exercise self control before using it in the kitchen, McCormick says. You want to give it a chance to grow before using its leaves. If your basil plant comes home standing 4 inches, for instance, wait until it’s about 6 to 8 inches tall before you start harvesting.

The rules for harvesting vary, but you never want to strip a plant of all its leaves, effectively cutting off its food supply. “When you’re harvesting an herb, you don’t want to take off more than a third – at most half – of the total leaves,” says McCormick.

But the more you use a plant, the more you delay flowering, which represents the end of an herb’s growing cycle. Clipping your herb regularly will provide you with a longer-lasting supply.

Herbs are at their most flavorful when they’re first harvested because, over time, the essential oils that give them their fragrance and flavor escape and evaporate.

Try some of these

Arugula: Your salads will have personality when made with these peppery leaves.

Cilantro: The leaves and seeds are prized around the world.

Dill: It goes to seed as temperatures approach the 80s. You don’t have to nurture a 4-foot dill plant. Look for dwarf varieties such as “Fernleaf.”

Lemon verbena: Steep the leaves in boiled water for a lovely, mild, golden tea.

Sweet basil: It’s a must for summer pesto.

Sweet marjoram: It’s a good match for recipes with cheese.

Flat-leaf parsley: It adds freshness and brightness to most recipes.

Bay tree: The fresh leaves are more fragrant and gorgeous than dried ones, perfect for flavoring all kinds of cooked dishes. Many gardeners grow it outdoors in a location that’s protected from strong winds, but a pot also works.

English or French thyme: The earthy flavor makes it a kitchen staple, and you’ll have it all year once you find the right place for it.

Garden sorrel: The bright, citrus flavor is perfect for salads. Also chop and mix into yogurt or sour cream for a fresh sauce or sandwich spread. Put in five or six plants, and you’ll have plenty through summer and at least a few good leaves in the coldest part of winter.

Garlic chives: Also called Chinese chives, it gives a garlicky flavor to stir-fries. You can use the leaves in cooking as edible string. It’s easy to grow and stays from early spring until frost. Cut off the flower buds and their stalks to control reseeding.

Kentucky colonel mint: Grow it in a large pot to prevent it from spreading wildly, and give it shade from the afternoon sun.

Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida): If you have trouble growing French tarragon because of the summer heat, this is a respectable substitute. It has charming marigold-like yellow blossoms in addition to anise-flavored leaves.

Oregano: There are many kinds. I buy the Greek (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum) and aromatic Sicilian (Origanum x majoricum) varieties. You’ll appreciate both in winter, when many plants have faded.

Rosemary: This shrub becomes a go-to flavor in the dead of winter.

Karen Sullivan, Charlotte Observer