A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Culinary Herbs
The wonderful aroma wafting from the kitchens of fine restaurants is often the result of herbs that chefs use to flavor food. However, anyone can master the art of growing herbs and using them to create delicious meals.
With a little preparation, even beginners can grow a variety of herbs indoors or out. The key to success is creating the best growing environment for each plant, and then nurturing herbs until they are ready to harvest.
Become Familiar with Herb Categories
It is a good idea for beginners to learn as much as possible about various herbs before starting a garden. Plants fall into categories, and each has its characteristics. Some are easier to grow than others.
These plants come back every year. Bee balm and anise hyssop are examples of colorful perennial varieties that produce a wonderful aroma. Oregano, thyme, mint, sage, and chives are also perennials. Since perennials come back from their roots, there is no need to replant each season. Outdoor plants are dormant in the winter, and indoor plants will become dormant during the colder months unless the light is plentiful.
Gardeners need to plant annuals each year. Growers can plant new seeds or buy seedlings and then set them out. Some common annuals are cress, basil, cilantro, and marjoram.
These herbs create their seeds after they flower each season. If growers let plants go to seed, they may plant themselves in the same spot. Seeds fall around existing plants and sprout the next season. Dill, arugula, calendula, and cilantro are some herbs that self-seed.
Choose Which Herbs to Grow
Since growers typically have limited space for their gardens, most need to narrow down the types of herbs they will plant. Every herb can thrive in a well-maintained indoor garden. Those who want to grow outdoors should consider the climate when researching and selecting herbs.
There are dozens of varieties, but beginners might want to start with the following herbs, which many chefs consider essential:
A flavorful herb that adds zest to dishes like pizza, salads, and marinades, Greek oregano likes to grow in the heat. This annual does well in raised beds and containers.
The warm, aromatic flavor in many dishes comes from basil. Culinary varieties include Spicy Globe, Genovese, and Dolce Fresca basil. Basil is an annual that doesn’t like cold weather and must be protected if it is planted outdoors in the spring.
Most people have definite opinions about cilantro because it has a pungent taste that adds intense flavor to recipes. Chefs frequently use it to season Indian, Mexican, and Asian dishes. It is an annual plant that does well in cold weather and likes full sun to partial shade.
Many cooks consider rosemary an essential herb. It has a fresh, sharp scent and flavor that goes well with focaccia, roasted vegetables, and roast chicken. Most growers treat the herb as an annual, but it can survive in some colder climates if plants are sheltered from harsh winds.
Chives are known for their mild flavor and often used to add an onion taste to soups, eggs, burgers, salads, and marinades. Chives are ideal for beginning gardeners because they are easy to grow and will thrive in ordinary garden soil and a sunny spot. These perennials produce pink flowers that attract beneficial insects and bees. Gardeners must clip flowers unless they want a hearty new crop of chives growing everywhere.
Chefs chop dill leaves and add them to soups, salads, eggs, and salmon, for a unique flavor. The plant’s flowers and seeds are used in pickling. It is a self-seeding perennial. Growers can harvest seeds in about seven weeks, and leaves are ready about three months after planting.
Experienced cooks use curly and flat-leaved parsley with quiche, pasta, chicken, potatoes, and salads. It is also one of the most-used garnishes. An easy-to-grow herb, parsley plants thrive in partial shade or full sun. It is a biennial that produces delicious leaves the first year but goes to seed the next.
Both common thyme and lemon thyme are slow-growing plants. Lemon thyme is wonderfully fragrant, with a sharp citrus-thyme flavor. It pairs well with marinades, chicken dishes, and roast vegetables. A perennial, thyme is drought resistant and loves full sun.
Create a Growing Environment
Once gardeners have chosen their plants, it is time to set up either an indoor or outdoor garden that will allow plants to thrive.
Container gardens work very well for all types of herb gardens. Almost any kind of container will do, as long as it provides adequate drainage. Herbs do not have extensive root systems so that they can thrive in reasonably small containers. However, small pots also have less soil, making it easy to over or under water plants.
Self-watering pots are good choices for herbs like parsley, marjoram, chives, and mint, which do not need to dry out between watering.
Carefully prepared herb gardens will thrive on windowsills or porches. In fact, they do well in any area where they get at least six hours of sunlight a day. However, growers need to follow a few rules:
- Herbs planted in the same container should all have the same sun and watering needs.
- It is essential to use a premium potting mix and make sure pots have drainage holes. Without good drainage, plant roots will rot.
- It is crucial to choose the best growing location. Most plants do well near an unblocked, south-facing window. Plants like mint, thyme, and parsley need less light and thrive near west-facing windows.
- Most herbs like the same indoor temperatures as people do. They are happy at 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. They also do well when outdoor temperatures drop as low as 55 degrees Fahrenheit, as long as leaves don’t touch window glass. Basil is the exception and prefers a consistent 70 degrees at all times.
Whether gardeners have acres of land or just a balcony, the simplest way to grow outdoors is to start herbs in containers and then move them outside. That makes it easy to bring in plants during bad weather and offers flexibility when choosing growing locations. Beginners should note the following:
- The most convenient location for outdoor herbs is often right outside the door. Many people grow a variety of herbs on porches. That makes it easy for cooks to pick herbs as needed, and plants create a wonderful scent.
- Many herbs are quite beautiful, and some have gorgeous blossoms. Gardeners can plant them among shrubs, to add colorful accents.
- Growers who plant outdoors should be aware of each herb’s cold tolerance and be ready to bring them inside if necessary. Fortunately, even outdoor herbs quickly adapt to sunny porches and windowsills.
Nurture Plants According to Their Needs
The suppliers who sell herb seeds and seedlings can provide a wealth of information about herb growing. It is also vital that buyers follow the care instructions included with each herb. Details explain how much water, sun, and fertilizer plants need and usually recommend the best soil.
Nearly all herbs need at least six to eight hours of sunlight every day, but sweltering days can damage even the most robust. During scorching weather, it is a good idea to move plants into the shade.
Herbs do not typically need a lot of fertilizer, and some will die if they get too much. Some, like oregano and thyme, are more flavorful when gardeners do not give them too much water or food.
Pinch Herbs to Encourage Growth
Pinching plants means removing an upper portion of a stem to encourage new leaf growth from leaf buds. In herb plants, there are small knobs located in the areas of the plant where leaves meet stems. These are dormant buds.
A dormant bud will not grow if there is growth above it. When gardeners remove growth above a dormant bud, the plant signals the bud to grow. Plants usually make dormant buds in pairs, so taking one stem off results in two new stems. Regularly pinching plants makes them big and bushy.
Gardeners should pinch when plants are small and during times when they are not harvesting much. They need to remove the top portions of stems every week or two. Growers use a pinching action near the stem’s top to remove the top section cleanly.
Enjoy a Bountiful Herb Harvest
The best part of growing an herb garden is the steady supply of fresh, flavorful seeds, leaves, and flowers it produces. The more growers pick herbs, the more they get.
It is essential to learn each plant’s growth pattern and harvest accordingly. For instance, growers should pick basil leaves often and remove the flower buds, but avoid cutting plants back all the way.
It is simple to create an indoor or outdoor garden that provides a year-round supply of flavorful herbs. Beginning growers should learn as much as possible about herbs, choose the types that suit their tastes, and then create a growing environment. Herbs thrive indoors and out and do very well in containers. As long as gardeners give them the required amount of water and sun and do not over-fertilize, even beginners can look forward to bountiful harvests.