There are so many reasons to grow your own herbs. The most important reason is flavor; you just can’t beat the fresh flavor of homegrown herbs. Of course, growing a culinary herb garden is also an easy way to save money on your grocery bill. Store-bought herbs are expensive, often of questionable freshness, and many are hard-to-source. But, savvy gardeners know that most herbs can be easily grown in a home garden or on a sunny deck.
Growing a Culinary Herb Garden: The Basics
Before you break ground on a culinary herb garden, start with a little planning. What herbs do you use the most? Do you want to grow enough to dry or freeze for winter use? If you’re new to gardening, start small and plan to grow a handful of your favorite kitchen herbs in window-boxes or fabric containers. Once you’ve had success with container gardening, you may wish to plant a garden dedicated to culinary herbs, or add herbs to existing vegetable or flower beds.
You’ll find that the majority of herbs are very easy to grow if they have a sunny spot with well-drained soil. This is especially important for herbs with Mediterranean origins like thyme, rosemary, and oregano that thrive with heat and little water. Leafy herbs like parsley, chives, and cilantro can be planted in ordinary garden soil and in less light, but still do grow best when given at least 6 of sunlight per day. If existing soil is less-than-ideal, you can always grow herbs in raised beds.
When prepping a new garden, remove any turf and weeds from the site and dig to loosen the soil. Amend with compost or aged manure before planting. After seeds have been sown or seedlings planted, water regularly until the plants are growing well. Perennial herbs like thyme, chives, and sage are very drought tolerant once established. To promote healthy plant growth, fertilize occasionally with an organic herb garden fertilizer.
Growing a Culinary Herb Garden: 8 Essential Herbs
Most herbs can be grown from seed or transplants purchased at a local garden centre. Certain perennial herbs, like chives, are also easy to divide and if you’re lucky, a gardening friend may share a clump with you.
Basil – Basil is perhaps the most popular of the culinary herbs for its warm, aromatic flavor that is essential to so many dishes. There are a lot of types of basil, but for culinary use, you can’t beat varieties like Genovese, Spicy Globe, and Dolce Fresca. Basil thrives in warm weather and shouldn’t be planted in the garden until the risk of spring frost has passed. Don’t rush basil into the garden; if spring temperatures plunge after planting, cover basil with a row cover or mini hoop tunnel to protect the tender plants. I use a lot of basil and find it economical to grow it from seeds started indoors under grow-lights about eight weeks before the last expected frost. However, you’ll also find basil seedlings at most garden centres in late spring.
Greek Oregano – If you’re looking for an oregano with outstanding flavor, it’s hard to beat Greek oregano. In my zone 5 garden, Greek Oregano is an annual plant and doesn’t overwinter unless sheltered in a cold frame. Plant this heat-lover in raised beds, containers, or create a gravelly berm where it and fellow Mediterranean herbs like thyme and rosemary will thrive. When buying seeds or plants, avoid anything labelled simply as ‘oregano’. That is likely Origanum vulgare, a plant often called wild oregano that is a vigorous self-sower and lacks the depth of flavor you’ll find in Greek oregano. We harvest fresh Greek oregano in summer for salad dressings, marinades, and pizza, but much of our crop is dried for winter dishes. If you’re already a fan of Greek oregano, you may want to try growing Syrian oregano, a flavourful herb known as za’atar in many parts of the world and is featured in my book, Veggie Garden Remix.
Cilantro – Cilantro is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of herb. Its pungent taste adds intense flavor to Mexian, Asian, and Indian dishes, and for me it’s a ‘love it’ plant. Cilantro grows well in full sun to partial shade, but does best in the cool weather of spring and fall. In summer, cilantro quickly bolts, losing flavor. There are a few bolt-resistant varieties like ‘Calypso’, ‘Slo-bolt’, and ‘Cruiser’ that cilantro lovers may wish to try. Succession plant fresh seed in the garden every few weeks for the longest harvest of home-grown cilantro. For summer cilantro flavor, consider growing a heat-loving cilantro substitute like Vietnamese coriander or papalo.
Rosemary – I consider rosemary an annual in my garden, although I have seen it overwinter in a nearby yard where the soil was gravelly and the site was sheltered from winter winds. That said, most varieties of rosemary will only winter reliably outdoors in zones 8 and up. In colder zones, rosemary is an annual herb, typically dug up and brought indoors before the first autumn frost. For those who want to try and overwinter rosemary in zones 6 or 7, ‘Arp’ may be your best bet as it’s considered to be one of the most cold tolerant varieties. I don’t bother growing rosemary from seed as it’s extremely slow growing. Instead, look for healthy transplants at your local nursery in late spring. Fresh rosemary is a must when growing a culinary herb garden. It’s fresh, sharp scent and flavor pairs well with roasted vegetables, focaccia, and roast chicken.
Chives – Chives may be the easiest herb to grow in a garden. Just pick a spot with full sun to partial shade and ordinary garden soil and they’ll be happy for years. I like to top dress the plants with an inch of compost or aged manure each spring to encourage healthy growth. In spring, summer, and autumn, we use chives almost every day to lend a mild onion flavor to soups, eggs, marinades, salads, burgers, and numerous potato dishes. You can grow them from seed, but chives need months to go from seed to harvest. Instead, start with a few chive plants – from a nursery or from a gardening friend. In early summer, the grassy clumps are topped with bright pink flowers. The bee-friendly blooms are edible and can be left on the plant to entice bees and beneficial insects or sprinkled over salads and quiche. If you don’t want chives popping up all over your garden, clip off the flowers once they fade, but before they go to seed.
Dill – I always include dill in my culinary herb garden, not only for its distinctive flavor, but also for its popularity with the many different beneficial insects that visit my garden. Dill offers a variety of edible parts; the leaves are chopped in eggs and soups, and also used with salmon and in salad dressings, and the seeds and flowers are used in pickling. Dill is usually direct seeded in the garden in early to mid-spring, with the leaf harvest beginning about six to seven weeks from seeding. The seed harvest takes longer and is ready to harvest around three months after spring sowing. For a non-stop supply of homegrown dill, sow fresh seed every 3 weeks from spring through mid-summer. ‘Bouquet’ is a popular variety that is productive and fast-growing, but I also like ‘Fernleaf’, an All-American Selections award winner that is compact and ideal for containers.
Thyme – Thyme is a low-growing herb perfect for the front of a garden bed, rock garden, or tucked in a container. It prefers well-drained soil and full sun, and is drought tolerant. The tiny flowers of thyme are attractive to beneficial insects and pollinators, making them excellent companion plants to many vegetables. There are hundreds of different thymes, but for culinary use, I stick with common thyme and lemon thyme. Lemon thyme is ridiculously fragrant and has a sharp citrus-thyme flavor, perfect for marinades, roast vegetables, and chicken dishes.
Parsley – When I was a kid, I used to think that parsley was only used as a garnish. Little did I know it would become one of my must-grow culinary herbs. There are two main types of parsley; curly and flat-leaved. Both can be used in the kitchen, but I prefer the bright flavor of Italian flat-leaved parsley which I chop generously into salads, pasta, and quiche, or sprinkle over potatoes, chicken, and a million other dishes. Parsley is very easy to grow and can be planted in full sun or partial shade. In order to produce a heavy crop of flavorful leaves, it needs regular moisture, particularly when grown in containers.
For more information on growing herbs, check out the wonderful book, Homegrown Herbs: A Complete Guide to Growing, Using, and Enjoying More than 1oo Herbs.
Are you growing a culinary herb garden this year?
Frances Pitcher says
thanks for such good advice and so well explained