I love running my hand across the basil as I walk through the vegetable garden. I hesitate, then breathe deeply as its spicy scent fills the air.
I can't resist breaking off a stem of oregano, then crushing the leaves and holding them up to my face so I can enjoy the powerful fragrance.
For me, a garden isn't complete without herbs. Definitely basil. And oregano. And parsley. And don't forget chives, rosemary, thyme and mint.
You get the picture.
There's nothing like having fresh herbs to use all summer long. I can't imagine ribs without oregano, tea without mint, baked potatoes without chives. I dry herbs to have during the cold months. It brings back memories and scents of summer's bounty and gives me a sense of accomplishment, of self-sufficiency.
Luckily, herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. They're seldom bothered by pests or diseases. They're mainly sun-worshippers that get more aromatic and tastier when ignored. They disdain fertilizer and respond well to constant harvesting. Most thrive with little water. Even a tiny herb garden can produce more fresh herbs than a family can use.
Herbs fall into the same classifications as other garden plants: annuals, biennials and perennials.
The annuals grow, flower and produce seed all in one season, then die. Basil is an annual herb.
Biennials take two years to mature. Parsley falls into this category.
Then come the perennials. Most culinary herbs are in this category. Some, like oregano, need to be cut back every fall. They send out new growth in spring. Others, like sage, develop woody stems and can survive from year to year.
Further, herbs are versatile and carefree. You can grow them in the ground, in pots or in hanging baskets. They also make good neighbors in the ornamental garden. I have oregano growing alongside kniphofia and watsonia. I have thyme growing as a ground cover beneath the roses, and one raised bed in the vegetable garden has been given over to spearmint so there's plenty to clip for iced tea in summer and hot tea in winter.
I have a pot of chives on the deck as well as a hanging basket filled with sage, oregano, thyme, parsley and rosemary. They'll likely outgrow their containers by the end of the season, but meanwhile they're close at hand if I need a few sprigs to season a meal.
Why grow herbs when they're so easy to buy ? fresh or dried ? at the grocery store? If you've ever grown and dried your own basil or parsley flakes, or made pesto with basil picked just minutes before, you'll never want to buy packaged herbs again.
So let's go into the garden and pick a place for herbs. As long as it gets plenty of sun, the best place for an herb garden is near the kitchen or along the pathway to the front door so you walk by it very day. That's the surest way to guarantee the herbs will find their way to the kitchen table or the cooking pot. Too little sun and they'll get leggy and lanky. Herbs and shade just don't mix.
Most herbs aren't picky about soil and actually grow better in less- fertile soils. Harsh conditions can make herbs like oregano and sage even more powerfully fragrant. That said, don't put them in the toughest spot in the garden and walk away. New herb plants need pampering like any other new addition to the garden. Once established, though, the perennial herbs almost take care of themselves.
Water sparingly for best flavor and fragrance, but don't let them wilt. Most aromatic herbs prefer to be a bit on the dry side. Save the fertilizer for ornamentals and vegetables.
Plant what you love, but be bold. Try something new. If you don't like it, you can always take it out. Most gardeners start with the basics: basil, parsley, oregano or marjoram, thyme and sage. You can use them fresh or dried.
If you plant cilantro each spring, you can harvest the leaves, and if you let the plant go to seed, you'll be harvesting coriander seed. Dill can be tricky, but fresh dill leaves and seeds are a fragrant treat.
If you love oregano, why not try Greek oregano?
And mint, while it does need to be contained lest it overrun the entire garden, comes in a world of fragrances besides the usual spearmint or peppermint: chocolate mint, pineapple mint, apple mint.
Snip constantly to keep your herbs producing fresh, fragrant foliage.
Herbs like cilantro won't make it past spring before bolting (going to seed) and dying. Basil will grow all summer, but the first frosts will blacken the leaves and kill the plant. Most perennial herbs can survive our mild winters with little trouble. Culinary sage is tough, although purple sage is tender. In containers, the herbs will need regular watering.
Apply a few inches of mulch to insulate the soil, conserve moisture and suppress weeds.
Finally, dress up the herb garden with a few edible flowers like calendulas, borage, violets or nasturtiums.
Whether you pronounce herbs with a hard "h" or leave it off, don't forget to put them in the garden.
Here are a few herbs that can be planted now. Some, like basil, will last until the first frost while others, like rosemary and oregano, will live for many years.
(Ocimum basilicum): Summer annual. Grows to 3 feet tall. Full sun. Regular water.
Produces masses of aromatic leaves all summer. Snip off flower stalks as soon as they appear to prevent the plant from going to seed. There are dozens of varieties of basil available: purple basil, lemon basil, licorice basil, Thai basil, and more. Basil is easy to grow from seed, but don't be in a hurry to start it too soon. Low temperatures and cool soil are enemies of basil seedlings, since the combination leads to damping off, and basil is very susceptible. Plant when the soil is warm, or use heating mats if starting seed indoors.
(Petroselinum crispum): Biennial usually grown as an annual. Grows to 12 inches tall. Full sun. Regular water.
Parsley produces leaves its first year. In its second year, it produces yellow flowers and seed, then dies. It's famous for being finicky to start from seed, so buy starts from the nursery. It comes as curled or flat-leaf varieties. Both have the same fragrance.
(Salvia officinalis): Perennial. Grows to 2 feet tall and as wide. Sun. Limited water.
Sage's wooly gray leaves are gorgeous. And they come in purple, green and gold as well as tricolor (purple, white and green). The plain green one is the typical culinary sage and the hardiest. Sage has no trouble with winter in my Auburn garden (elevation 1,250 feet). It sends up spires of blue flowers in summer that are beautiful in arrangements.
Cut it back every spring to encourage new growth. However, sage tends to get quite woody after a few years, much like lavender, and needs to be replaced every three or four years.
(Thymus vulgaris): Perennial, 6 to 10 inches tall; can spread wider. Sun. Limited water.
Thyme is a versatile plant. It can be a ground cover that creeps and crawls along the ground, smothering weeds. It's the perfect herb for soups, stews and poultry. It also looks good among roses. Some gardeners use it as a lawn substitute or let it grow among the grasses in a traditional lawn. It comes in many flavors including lemon and lime. In fact, there are hundreds of varieties of thyme. It, too, can get woody, but responds well to being sheared to the ground.
(Allium schoenoprasum): Perennial. Grows to 12 to 18 inches. Sun. Regular water.
Chives are related to onions and have a similar flavor and fragrance, but milder. Each spring, they send up stems topped with light-purple flowers. I clip the flowers away and use them in flower arrangements. That way, I prevent the plant from going to seed and spreading itself everywhere. A small plant easily grows into a fat clump about a foot wide. You can divide the clump to make more plants. Keep snipping chives and they will keep growing.
(Rosmarinum officinalis): Perennial. Prostrate types grow to about 2 feet tall. Upright forms can grow to 5 feet. Sun. Limited water.
Rosemary has become part of most ornamental gardens. It looks great spilling over a wall, it is tough and carefree enough to cover large expanses of difficult-to-garden areas, it is covered with cheerful blue flowers most of the year, and it has a heavenly scent. Its leathery, slightly sticky leaves are narrow and dark green, slightly reminiscent of Douglas fir needles. Give rosemary as much sun as possible and water sparingly. It can take regular watering but doesn't like wet feet.
(Origanum vulgare, O. heracleoticum): Perennial. Grows to 18-24 inches. Sun. Limited water.
Snip and use fresh throughout the season. To dry, pick just before flowering. I strip the leaves from the stems and put them in a paper bag. Four or fives times each day I shake the bag to redistribute the oregano leaves and keep them from accumulating moisture. When thoroughly dry, store in sealable plastic bags.
I prefer Greek oregano (O. heracleoticum). A warning: The purple- flowering oregano reseeds itself prolifically, so cut flowers before they go to seed if you plant this one.
Marjoram is a type of oregano, although it is milder and not as hardy in winter.
(Mentha): Perennial. Grows to 12-18 inches tall. Part sun. Prefers lots of water.
Mint is a thug. It will take over the garden, so be careful where you plant it. Give it boundaries. There's the typical light green, crinkly- leaf spearmint and the purple-flushed leaves of peppermint, but take a look at the herb section of any nursery, and you'll likely find pineapple mint, apple mint, chocolate mint and more. You have to really use your imagination to discern some of the exotic scents. Pick the leaves any time. If you're going to dry mint, it's best to pick the leaves just before it flowers.