These are five culinary herbs that are easy to grow AND easy to use in the kitchen. I use these frequently, though they are by no means the only herbs I grow or cook with.
If you love to cook, then you probably love herbs. But fresh herbs can be really pricey and it can be challenging to keep them fresh once they’re cut. Even if you’ve never grown a single plant before, you can grow at least a few herbs at home.
Note that what herbs you can grow will depend on your geographic location as well as the season. It’s best to consult the Zone Hardiness Map to find our your zone before you get attached to the idea of growing and herb unsuited to your area. I’m in Zone 6b, which is a fairly mid-range climate zone.
GROWING & USING THYME
What is it: a perennial (meaning it will return year after year in the right zones) plant with woody stems and tiny, flavorful leaves. Varieties include English, French, and Lemon
How to grow thyme:
Thyme wants full sun (at least 6 hours a day) for optimal growth and flavor. It doesn’t need especially fertile dirt nor does it require fertilizers. In the ground, it’s water needs are generally met by rainfall unless there’s a drought but in a container, it may require supplemental drinks. Ours grows in a hedge and stays green and flavorful all year long, which is fabulous. Thyme can be grown from seed or purchased plant and is also very easy to propagate by taking cuttings from existing plants.
How to use thyme:
You can snip off stems any time, the plant is quite forgiving. It’s usually necessary to strip the tiny leaves off the stems since the stems are tough. It’s excellent with most meats, especially chicken and beef, and is wonderful with most vegetables and in soups. Thyme leaves can be stripped and dried for winter use very easily if it doesn’t stay green in your zone. It also makes an excellent choice for herbal vinegars or oils.
GROWING & USING ROSEMARY
What is rosemary: a perennial shrub with thick, woody stems and needle-like leaves, which are very aromatic and flavorful. Rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, so it doesn’t do well over the winter in Zones 6 and down UNLESS you plant a cold-hardy variety.
How to grow rosemary:
Rosemary needs lots of sun, the more the better. While the plant does need water, it doesn’t need MUCH water and it does not like to be over-watered. If you grow it in containers, which is common, clay or terracotta work best as they allow the soil to dry out. In the ground, it likes soil that drains well, so consider adding a little sand to the planting hole. I grow the Arp variety which is very cold-hardy. Here in Kentucky, it stays green and tasty all winter long but it’s the only variety I have ever been able to grow year-round here. I grow mine in a hedge to take advantage of its shrubby nature. Rosemary is difficult to grow from seed and is generally purchased as a small plant. You can propagate rosemary by taking cuttings of existing plants, but it can take months to start growing.
How to use rosemary:
You can snip off small amounts any time, once the plant is established. If you’re growing it as an annual (meaning it dies off completely in cold weather) in a container, cut stems off any time you need it but if you’re growing it as a perennial shrub, be sure never to cut more than 1/3 of the plant at a time and avoid cutting the larger, older stems. If you cut into the old stems, the plant will not regrow from that spot.
Rosemary is especially delicious with beef and chicken, and it does great things when added to roast potatoes. The needles can be minced and sprinkled into a dish or the whole stem can be allowed to flavor the dish, then removed before serving. It’s very easy to infuse oil, butter or salt with the flavor of rosemary. Doing so lets you flavor a dish without putting the tough, chewy needles in the food.
If you grow your rosemary as an annual, it’s simple to harvest all the stems before your first frost and dry the needles for use over the winter.
GROWING & USING BASIL
What is it: Basil is a leafy plant that grows as an annual, though it may set seeds which grow in subsequent seasons, giving the appearance that the plant continues to grow. The flavor is in the large, green leaves. There are dozens of varieties, the most common include Genovese, Thai, Sweet and Lemon.
How to Grow Basil:
Basil needs lots of sun, but can bolt (grow rapidly in order to flower) in too much heat. If you try to grow basil and find it gets leggy and bolts, the culprit may be too much sun and heat. In that case, move to a spot where it gets a little afternoon shade. Basil requires regular water, especially in a container. You can start basil from seeds very easily or purchase plants. In order to keep the plant from going to seed and losing flavor, it is necessary to regularly pinch off the uppermost leaves. Fortunately, basil is so delicious its pretty easy to harvest it and keep it from making flowers! Basil grows very easily and quickly from cuttings, so if you do end up pinching off basil faster than you can use it, you can also let it make roots and plant it. That will ensure a continuous crop for the whole summer. Basil tends to do very well in a pot indoors, so long as it’s kept watered and gets sun.
How to Use Basil:
Pick leaves any time. Basil is a staple ingredient in many Italian dishes, especially tomato-based sauces. If you’re also growing tomatoes, a leaf of basil on a slice of garden-fresh tomato is exquisite. Basil can also be processed into pesto. You can preserve basil by throwing leaves into a bag in the freezer or by drying the leaves. The frozen leaves will be mushy but their flavor will hold up very well. Dried basil loses flavor quickly, in my opinion, so I prefer to freeze my surplus leaves or infuse olive oil.
GROWING & USING DILL
What Is It: Like basil, dill is an annual. It has a short, rapid life, growing tall very quickly and then flowering. Common types of dill include fernleaf, bouquet and Dukat. Dill is a stalky green plant with distinctive branching leaves.
How to Grow Dill:
Dill can be grown easily from seed or you can purchase a plant. It likes heat and lots of sun. Once it flowers, the flavor is changed. It’s best to plant new dill seeds every few weeks to ensure a continuous harvest all summer. Some varieties grow VERY tall, so be sure to pick a variety that will do well in the space or container you have in mind. If you let it flower, it will scatter seeds and you’ll likely have a new crop of dill the following year.
How to Use Dill:
Dill is a classic companion to salmon and many other fishes, as well as vegetables like squash and zucchini. It’s also the primary flavor in dill pickles (go figure), so if you plan to put up your own stash, you’ll want to grow plenty. Snip off stalks as needed and sprinkle the fine leaves over baked or grilled dishes. You can also make dill-infused butter or flavor creamy sauces with snips of dill. Dill dries well and holds its flavor nicely. It can also be used to infuse vinegar.
GROWING & USING CHAMOMILE
What Is It: An aromatic plant with fine, soft leaves and white daisy-like flowers, chamomile has both annual (German) and perennial (Roman) varieties.
How to Grow Chamomile:
German chamomile grows easily from seed, as does Roman. Roman chamomile dies back after a hard frost but quickly bounces back in the spring as temperatures rise. Both varieties are low growing and spread somewhat via runners. Chamomile is not fussy about soil and grows well in both full sun and partial shade. It needs regular water.
How to Use Chamomile:
The plant produces small white flowers with a yellow center. These are harvested and dried for chamomile tea. While chamomile isn’t as versatile an herb as the other four, it grows very easily, smells amazing, and makes a very attractive ground-cover or container plant. Roman chamomile will spread nicely but doesn’t mind being moved, disturbed, or trimmed, which makes it very useful as a filler plant or as a substitute for grass.
If you’re looking for excellent quality culinary herb plants, I recommend ordering from Grower’s Exchange in Virginia. I’m not affiliated with them, I just think they sell top quality plants and provide excellent customer service.
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