By P. Allen Smith | Photography by Mark Fonville
Herbs are incredibly useful, but also are beautiful and fragrant. I have herbs planted everywhere throughout the farm. You’ll find them in the vegetable garden as well as in containers by themselves and mixed in with flowers for a decorative element that’s also functional.
If you’re just getting into growing your own food, herbs are a great place to start. You’ll need to keep a few rules in mind, but otherwise, growing herbs is a cinch.
You’ll need to have your bed or containers in full sun or at least half-day sun. Plant the herbs in soil that drains well and is consistently moist but not soggy. I like to keep a saucer under the containers to keep the soil moist. I also keep the tags from the plants and stick them in the soil near the plant so I can keep track of what I have planted where.
I like to keep containers with herbs close to the kitchen so it’s easy to use the fresh leaves throughout the growing season. These are some of my favorite herbs to grow:
Rosemary is an aromatic evergreen and has become an indispensable kitchen herb. It is a tender perennial evergreen with a shrubby form that hails from the Mediterranean region, so it prefers a warm, sunny and dry environment.
It is not cold-hardy throughout the country; most varieties will not survive below 15 or 20°F. Don’t let this keep you from growing rosemary. The herb is ideally suited for container gardening. Keep a pot outside your kitchen door or plant it, container and all, in the garden. Just lift it out of the ground when temperatures begin to drop in autumn and bring it indoors.
When you bring rosemary inside for winter, put it in a sunny window (south facing is ideal) and take care not to overwater it. The roots can easily rot. An occasional misting helps if it gets too dry indoors.
Onion chives are a grassy-looking perennial with onion-flavored leaves and purple blooms. The mild onion flavor is a tasty addition to any savory dish. Use the flowers in salads. Plants are perfect for containers!
In the spring, plant chives about four weeks before the last frost or plant in fall in mild climates. They need well-drained soil amended with compost. Chives are not finicky and tolerate neglect, but will do best if you don’t completely ignore them. Water and fertilize occasionally with an all-purpose liquid plant food and divide crowded clumps every two to three years. If you harvest the leaves often, fertilize every few weeks.
After the first killing frost in autumn, cut the plants back to ground level. They will return the following spring. In sub-tropical climates they are evergreen, but you can cut them back anyway to refresh the foliage.
Basils are a favorite annual for summer. If you like to cook, you’ll want to grow an assortment, from the tiny-leafed spicy globe and boxwood types to the cinnamon-spiced Thai, to the big leaves of Italian classic sweet basil.
Set your plants out about two weeks after the last frost when the days are warm; basil can’t stand cold weather. When planting, add plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal or cottonseed meal to the soil. Basil is not a heavy feeder, but because you’ll harvest often and it is continuously replacing the harvested leaves, feed every couple of weeks with an all-purpose liquid plant food. Most grow about two feet tall, but the little-leafed ones are shorter.
Basil needs well-drained soil and full sun, but it appreciates afternoon shade in the hottest climates. Water deeply during dry spells. Plants in pots dry out faster so water them more often. Watering is very important because drying stunts growth. Avoid splashing water on the leaves to prevent leaf spots and sunburn. In fall you can bring potted basil inside, as it is quickly killed by the first cold.
Keep plants pinched and they will stay fresh and productive until fall.
Among all of the herbs I grow, mint requires absolutely the least amount of care. In fact, it grows so prolifically, it could overrun the garden!
I grow two main varieties: spearmint and peppermint. You can easily tell them apart by their distinct aromas and by their stems and leaves. Spearmint has a broader leaf. Its stem seems to be a bit greener and the leaves are more crinkled. Peppermint, on the other hand, has a narrower leaf and its stems are a bit redder.
Over time, you may find that your plants can become tall and spindly. If this happens, just cut them back. I use scissors, but if you have a larger plot you can mow it with a lawn mower. This will cause the plants to produce lots of new tender shoots, where you’ll find the best flavor.
To keep peppermint from invading your garden, keep in containers or plant in a bottomless plastic nursery pot that is at least 10 inches tall. The aggressive underground stems will be confined within the container, and you’ll have plenty of fresh mint for tea, lotions and infusions.
Thyme is easy to grow in the garden or a container. I recommend starting with a planting or a cutting from a friend. It should go into the ground a couple of weeks before the last frost, when the soil is around 70˚F. Thyme thrives in the sun and requires little water after the initial watering. You may want to place thyme next to rosemary since their needs are the same.
Growing thyme in containers allows you to reproduce the well-drained soil conditions of the Mediterranean slopes where it grows wild. Since the soil in my garden is largely heavy clay, I have to use caution when planting anything that requires good drainage. Even a plant as durable as thyme can be a total bust if I don’t set the plant up for success by amending the soil with plenty of sand and pea gravel to minimize the effects of excessive moisture. Thyme is evergreen in most zones, but when it really gets cold I try to cover the plants with frost blankets to preserve the foliage and help the plant winter over.
The more thyme you use, the more it grows. When cutting it, be sure to leave at least 5 inches of growth so the plant can flourish.
I think you’ll find growing herbs to be very rewarding. And, the thing to remember about herbs is that the more you clip them back and use them, the more delicious leaves they’ll produce.