By Cyndy Crist
Herbs for Small Gardens:
Herbs can be one of the most rewarding things to grow in a small garden, and while I’m guessing most of us grow them primarily to be used in cooking, they have other values as well. For example, many are quite attractive (I love the look of feathery fennel, the deep red leaves of some basils, and the flowers of pineapple sage); some are grown for their fragrance more than their flavor (lavender being an obvious example); and others can look beautiful in fresh or dried arrangements (again, think fennel and lavender). Still, for me, the primary purpose is culinary and that will be my focus here.
Growing Tips on Specific Herbs:
Happily, most herbs are quite easy to grow. Most require full sun and even moisture, but some can thrive in otherwise difficult locations. For example, many Mediterranean herbs do well grown next to hot pavement or stones; thyme and chamomile can stand up to foot traffic and still thrive; and mint can grow in somewhat soggy spaces. Many herbs are quite hardy in most USDA zones (English thyme, oregano, lovage, chives, and tarragon among them); some will survive through mild winters in my zone 4 garden if well covered (sage is one); and some common herbs, like parsley, are biennials that will grow for two years before needing to be replaced.
In addition, some annual herbs will self-seed and return beyond their “inaugural” year if the ground around them is left largely undisturbed. Borage, with its beautiful blue blossoms, and sunny calendula are two that have made repeat visits in my garden, and chamomile is another prolific self-seeder (with some varieties also hardy in many zones). Of course, self-seeding isn’t always a blessing. Take garlic chives, for example. When they’re blooming, I love the look they add to my kitchen garden, and I like to use both the leaves and the blossoms in salads. However, they are notorious self-seeders, and I find myself pulling out new plants by the handful during the growing season. I’d save myself lots of headaches if I was more vigilant about deadheading them before they set seed.
Some perennial herbs have proven themselves to be thugs that I’ve worked hard to remove from my garden and others require a close eye to keep them in check. I made the mistake of planting Tansy once and it took a lot of digging to remove the shoots that popped up throughout the bed. I’ve also grown two oreganos and loved their looks initially (the Greek for its purple flowers and the golden for the way its rambling leaves lit up a mostly green garden), but they eventually spread far beyond their intended spaces. Since oregano is about the only herb I prefer to use dried in cooking anyway, I gladly removed it from the garden. Mint is notorious for spreading far and wide, and even sinking a pot in the ground won’t keep it in check if the pot has a drainage hole; as a result, I now only grow it in pots on my porch.
Perennial Herb Favorites:
While I highly value some perennial herbs, many of my favorites are annuals that must be planted each year. Since I can’t imagine my little potager without them, I gladly plant basil and chervil every year, and I also add at least one lemony herb, most often lemon verbena or lemon grass. I also always have Italian parsley in my garden, so that gets planted every other year, and if my sage doesn’t survive the winter, I plant a replacement of that as well. With both basil and sage, I often plant more than one variety to bring visual variety to the garden and the table.
I also love rosemary and grow it in a big pot that sits in the kitchen garden from late spring until late fall and then moves into the sunroom for the winter. I’ve generally had quite good luck over-wintering plants of a mature size (e.g., the stem has become woody and strong). In fact, I had one that I kept growing for six or eight years at least, and I didn’t lose it until the summer that it drowned from overwatering because, unbeknownst to me, the roots had become so matted that they had completely closed off the drainage hole in the bottom of the pot. I briefly mourned its loss, then immediately replaced it since I love having fresh rosemary available throughout the winter.
Among the perennials in my garden are chives, whose leaves and flowers I prize; French sorrel for early spring, lemony tang; lovage, which imparts a celery-like flavor that works especially well in potato dishes; thyme, which can be used in many ways and harvested nearly any time of the year (I’ve been known to sweep snow off it mid-winter); tarragon, so great with chicken; and wild arugula, whose fine-cut leaves offer a peppery bite. Although not considered by most as an herb, I also generally grow several varieties of garlic in my potager; it is an indispensable companion to many herbs in the kitchen.
Growing Herbs for Beauty:
I have focused primarily on growing in a kitchen garden, but it’s worth noting that herbs can be successfully and beautifully grown in any suitable garden space. For example, bronze fennel can be a lovely companion for pink or white roses, lavender and hyssop add beautiful purple to any perennial border, and thyme and chamomile can create a living carpet between the stones of a garden path. I’ve also seen curly parsley creating lovely green edging along perennial beds and dill adding a feathery contrast to plants with flat, smooth leaves. There are also a number of plants that are classified as herbs but generally grown as perennials, including Artemisia (wormwood) and Nepeta (also known as cat mint), or annual flowers, like Nigella and nasturtiums.
Growing Herbs in Containers:
Many herbs also lend themselves well to growing in containers. Since this makes them movable, you can take advantage of specific growing conditions that suit them best and place them close to a kitchen or back door for ready cutting for use in the kitchen. As noted earlier, some herbs in pots can be successfully overwintered inside, and rampant and invasive growers like mint can be kept in check. As with any container growing, the keys are selecting the right soil and right size of pot (for example, tall pots are best suited to herbs that send down deeper roots) and remembering to water regularly throughout the growing season, and especially during the hottest, driest days of summer.
Pairing Herbs with Different Cuisines:
There is no end of ideas about how to use herbs in the kitchen. The key, I think, is thinking about what kinds of ingredients and culinary styles or traditions you prefer and planting accordingly. For example,
- basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, and rosemary are great with tomatoes and tomato-rich dishes;
- chervil, parsley, chives, and tarragon are backbones of French cuisine;
- many English dishes rely on sage and thyme;
- dill is a feature of many Scandinavian dishes;
- Thai basil and lemon grass are much used in many Asian cuisines;
- basil, oregano, and arugula are essential to Italian culinary traditions; and
- basil, lemony herbs, and mint can all be wonderful with fruit as well as vegetables.
Great Resource Books on Herbs:
I have built a pretty big collection of herb books over the years. Most offer great advice about growing, cooking with, and saving herbs, and many have wonderful non-culinary and crafting ideas as well. My oldest and probably most-used herb books were written by Emelie Tolley and photographed by Chris Mead. They inspired my early herb growing and also have aided my hand-made gifting for many Christmases. I especially like Tolley’s Gardening with Herbs for design and hands-on growing guidance, and Gifts from the Herb Garden, which offers lots of edible and decorative project ideas. The The Harrowsmith Illustrated Book of Herbs is one of two great books in my library by Patrick Lima for that publisher; it is a highly valued part of my collection and one that has become well worn by repeated use. A newer addition to my shelves is the New Book of Herbs by Jekka McVicar, a beautifully illustrated and comprehensive guide by the woman dubbed “the queen of herbs” by Jamie Oliver. It is as beautiful to look at as it is informative to read – in other words, strong on both style and substance.
I guess something of the same thing can be said for herbs and why I love growing them. They are both practical and beautiful, great to look at and delicious to eat. They inspire endless ways to use and enjoy them, singly or in combinations. As a result, they are very rewarding to grow. If you haven’t done so already, give them a try. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.