Common Culinary Herbs

The gardening of herbs is as old as civilization. In almost every culture in history there are references to using herbs for preparing and preserving food, scenting the air, and treating illness and wounds. Most herbs are wild, tough plants that have not changed despite being cultivated for centuries. Almost all herbs grow best in sunny, well-drained, fertile soil; however, many will survive in less than ideal conditions.

The following alphabetical listing of some common culinary herbs gives you basic information on the growth patterns, size, growing conditions, propagation, common pests and diseases, and some suggested uses.

Quick Tips for Growing Basil

Basil is one of the most popular herbs grown. It is an attractive plant that can be stuck in any corner of your veggie or flower garden or in any container outdoors or indoors; just make sure it is a sunny, hot spot.

  • Type: Annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 1–2 feet (30–60 cm); spreads to 1 foot (30 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Sun, light rich soil, slightly acidic

  • Propagation: From seeds, start indoors and plant outside in early summer.

  • Flowering times: Continuous, beginning in mid-summer; remove flowers to encourage leaf growth.

  • Pests and Diseases: Plant away from mint to prevent damage from plant bugs.

  • Harvesting: For immediate use, pinch leaves from the base of branches; for storing larger amounts, cut the plant to 6 inches once or twice during the season.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Great accompaniment for tomatoes, peas, squash, meats, eggs, tossed in salad, potatoes, and cheese.

The tender leaves of basil are easily bruised, causing the fine tissue membranes to rupture and the essential oils to blacken. Cutting basil with a finely sharpened knife and slicing it into fine strips is a way to avoid blackening the leaves.

Quick Tips for Growing Bay Leaf

In zone nine or higher, these make attractive shrubs for your garden. Elsewhere they can be grown in pots and brought indoors in the winter.

  • Type: Shrub

  • Growth habit and size: Height 14 feet (4 m); 6 feet in pots (1.8 m)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun or partial shade, in well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seed, if flowers are left on the plant, they will self-sow.

  • Flowering times: Blooms in spring; plants will rarely flower if grown in pots.

  • Pests and diseases: Watch for signs of scale insects and wash them off with alcohol wipes.

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry in the dark, spread leaves out between sheets of absorbent paper with a weight on top to keep them flat. For quick drying, use a warm oven.

  • Suggested uses: Use in soups, tomato sauces, poached fish, and meat stews. Dried leaves placed in cupboards will repel storage pests.

Quick Tips for Growing Borage

Borage has a cucumber flavor and the drooping clusters of flowers attract bees. The plants can repel tomato worms and are good companions for strawberries and fruit orchards.

  • Type: Hardy annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height: 2–3 feet (60–90 cm); spreads to 16 inches (40 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun or partial shade, in well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds, if flowers are left on they will self-sow.

  • Flowering times: Continuous from mid-summer

  • Pests and diseases: Japanese beetle

  • Harvesting: First leaves can be picked at about six weeks after seeds germinate. Pick flowers just before they open.

  • Preserving and storing: No good way of preserving leaves; for candied flowers, dip in egg white, then sugar, and then dry them.

  • Suggested uses: Use flowers in salads, eggs, and pickles. Cook leaves like spinach or use them fresh in fruit punch or lemonade.

Quick Tips for Growing Chervil

Chervil is a delicate herb popular in French cuisine. It can be planted to repel slugs in your garden.

  • Type: Hardy annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 1–2 feet (30–60 cm); fern-like leaves resemble carrot tops

  • Growing conditions: Partial shade, in moist well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds

  • Flowering times: May to July

  • Pests and diseases: Earwigs

  • Harvesting: Leaves are ready six to eight weeks after sowing. Cut plant back to ground.

  • Preserving and storing: Fresh leaves are best, but can be dried.

  • Suggested uses: Great addition to consommés, beans, peas; combine with lemon balm for fish and egg dishes.

Quick Tips for Growing Chives

Chives make good companions for carrots, are attractive, and can be used as a border in flower gardens.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 6–12 inches (15–30 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun or slight shade in rich well-drained soil, cool temperatures

  • Propagation: Lift and divide clumps every three or four years.

  • Flowering times: Bloom in June

  • Pests and diseases: Avoid wet areas to prevent bulb disease.

  • Harvesting: Cut leaves often, close to the ground.

  • Preserving and storing: Does not preserve well, so grow fresh for winter use.

  • Suggested uses: Great in salads or cooked with meats and stir-fry.

Quick Tips for Growing Cilantro (Coriander)

Cilantro is the parsley-like leaves and coriander is the seed.

  • Type: Hardy annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 1–3 feet (30–90 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in soil with good drainage

  • Propagation: From seed.

  • Flowering times: Spring to late summer

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of pests and disease

  • Harvesting: Pick young leaves as needed; cut seed heads when ripe.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry seeds; leaves do not keep well.

  • Suggested uses: Use leaves in rice dishes, curry sauce, soups, or salads. Use the ground seeds in rich meat soups and stews.

What is a bouquet garni?

A bouquet garni is a collection of herbs tied together and used to flavor soups, stews, or sauces. Traditionally the bouquet garni includes a bay leaf, thyme, and parsley or chervil, all bunched together and tied in cheesecloth. The string is attached to the pot handle and the cheesecloth is removed before eating.

Quick Tips for Growing Dill

Dill has attractive foliage and looks great in the background of a flower bed. It is a highly aromatic plant, a good companion for cabbage, and a negative companion for carrots.

  • Type: Hardy annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 3 feet (90 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in moist well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seed

  • Flowering times: Summer to fall

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of disease; may attract aphids if soil gets too dry

  • Harvesting: For best flavor, pick leaves just as flowers open. Cut stems in dry weather as seeds ripen.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves slowly at about 100°F or 38°C. Hang mature flower heads in a warm, dry place with a tray beneath to catch seeds. Dry in sun or a slightly warm oven.

  • Suggested uses: Great mixed in potato salad, cream cheese, and cottage cheese. Use with salmon, salad, and pickles or on fresh tomatoes. Cook whole with carrots or parsnips.

Quick Tips for Growing Fennel

A fennel plant resembles dill but is taller and coarser. In ancient times fennel was known as an all-purpose medicine.

  • Type: Perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 4 feet (1.2 m)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in ordinary well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds every two to three years

  • Flowering times: July to October

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of pests and diseases

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed; they are best just before the flowers bloom. To use stems, cut young flower stalks just before blooming. For seeds, cut stems in August and dry seeds.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry and freeze leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Can be used interchangeably with dill. Use with Brussels sprouts, or to flavor bread. The seeds can be used ground in lentil soup or with rice.

Mint or lemon balm are the two main herbs used to make a tisane, which is a tea made from fresh or dried herbs steeped for a few minutes in boiling water.

Quick Tips for Growing Lovage

This is a shrub-sized perennial that looks and smells like celery but is larger. If you are unsuccessful in growing celery, try growing lovage instead. It works well as background planting in your garden.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 6 feet (1.8 m); spreads 2–3 feet (60–80 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Sun or partial shade in rich, deep, moist soil

  • Propagation: From seeds or by root division in the spring

  • Flowering times: June to July

  • Pests and diseases: Leaf miner on leaves (prune away infested leaves)

  • Harvesting: Pick young leaves as needed. Cut seed heads when ripe.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry or freeze leaves. Hang mature flower heads in warm dry place with a tray underneath to catch seeds. Seeds can be dried in the sun or a warm oven.

  • Suggested uses: The stems can be used in replacement of celery in any cooked dish. Lovage can also be used as a thickener.

Quick Tips for Growing Marjoram

Marjoram is grown for its fragrance and the flavor of the leaves. It is a good border plant.

  • Type: Tender perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 2 feet (60 cm); spreads 12–18 inches (30–40 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in rich, well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds or by root division in warm areas

  • Flowering times: August to September

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free from pests and diseases

  • Harvesting: Encourage foliage by removing flowers as they appear. Pick leaves as needed. For drying, cut before flowers open in mid-July.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Great with fish, soup, broccoli, cheese dishes, roast chicken, beef, pork and stuffing.

Quick Tips for Growing Mint

The most popular mints are apple mint, spearmint, and peppermint. Mint is a repellent to the white cabbage butterfly. Mint will grow well where water drips, such as near a faucet that is used in the summer time.

  • Type: Perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 2–3 feet (60–80 cm); spreads 12–18 inches (30–40 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Partial shade, in rich moist, well-drained soil

  • Propagation: Divide roots in fall or spring

  • Flowering times: July to August

  • Pests and diseases: Thin crowded lumps for good air circulation to prevent root and foliage diseases. Watch for aphids.

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed; for a double crop, cut plant to ground in mid-summer.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry and freeze leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use in jelly, fruit juices, candy, frosting, cakes, pies, chocolate dishes, pork, potatoes, or peas.

Mint will spread rapidly and take over your small-space garden if not contained. It is best to grow mint in a container that you can place in your garden or on a patio. The pot can be buried in the ground, leaving at least 2 inches of the pot above ground level so there is no possibility of the roots spreading.

Quick Tips for Growing Oregano

Oregano is also called wild marjoram, but it is more shrub-like and spreading. Leaves are darker and have a sharper flavor and fragrance.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 12–30 inches (30–75 cm); spreads 18–24 inches (40–60 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in almost any well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds or division in mid-spring

  • Flowering times: July to September

  • Pests and diseases: Mites and aphids; needs good drainage to prevent root diseases

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed; for drying cut off the top 6 inches from the stem before flowers open.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use in tomato sauces, Greek salad, pork, pizza, green beans, salads, chili, lamb, and guacamole.

Quick Tips for Growing Parsley

Parsley can easily be grown in a pot on a balcony or windowsill. Interplant with roses and tomatoes to enhance the growth of both. Use as a breath freshener.

  • Type: Biennial, grown as an annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 8–12 inches (20–30 cm); spreads 12 inches (30 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Sun or partial shade, in rich, moist, deep soil

  • Propagation: From seed as an annual. Plant will self-sow if allowed to flower in the second year.

  • Flowering times: Early spring to second year

  • Pests and diseases: Rarely bothered by pests; needs good air circulation to remain healthy.

  • Harvesting: Cut stems as needed—no more than two or three at a time from one plant. Harvest leaves before flowering.

  • Preserving and storing: Freeze or dry by dipping in boiling water and placing on a pan in very hot oven for about one minute.

  • Suggested uses: Can be used with almost every meal. Put in stews, soups, sandwiches, sauces, stuffing, eggs, cheese or just use as a garnish.

Which herbs will tolerate dryer soil?

Burdock, catnip, chicory, marjoram, oregano, savory (winter), and thyme are some of the herbs that will grow well in a dryer climate.

Quick Tips for Growing Rosemary

Rosemary is a repellent to cabbage butterflies, carrot flies, and mosquitoes.

  • Type: Tender perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 2–6 feet (60–180 cm); spreads 2–6 feet (60–180 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun or partial shade in light well-drained soil

  • Propagation: By hardwood cuttings in fall or spring

  • Flowering times: June to September

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of pests and disease.

  • Harvesting: Cut sprigs as needed.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry or freeze leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use in poultry stuffing, with cauliflower, fish, or in herb breads. Add to water when boiling potatoes that are intended to be mashed.

Quick Tips for Growing Sage

Sage repels cabbage white butterfly, carrot flies, and ticks.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 1–2 feet (30–60 cm); spreads 18 inches (40cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sin, in almost any soil. Fairly drought resistant so avoid overwatering.

  • Propagation: Divide the plant in spring every four to five years.

  • Flowering times: Spring

  • Pests and diseases: Slugs but rarely any disease

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed. For drying cut the top 6 inches of stalks before flowing in early summer.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use with poultry, sausages, fish, pork roast, hamburgers, peas, and herb bread. Mix with cream cheese.

Rosemary is best grown in a container, as a border plant, in rock garden, or even in a hanging basket. The upright form of the plant can also be trained as topiary. The benefit to growing in a container is that the plant can easily be brought indoors in cold weather.

Quick Tips for Growing Savory

This herb is attractive to bees and will make flavorful honey. Interplant with beans and onions to increase their yield. Savory has a lovely peppery taste.

  • Type: Annual

  • Growth habit and size: Height 6–12 inches (15–30 cm); spreads 6–12 inches (15–30 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in rich, light, well-drained soil

  • Propagation: From seeds

  • Flowering times: June

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of pests and disease.

  • Harvesting: Leaves are most flavorful before the flowers bloom in mid-summer. Cut plant partially back for a second crop.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use with eggs, salads, beans, peas, meats, chicken, soups, and stuffing.

Quick Tips for Growing Tarragon

Tarragon has a slight licorice flavor and is very useful in any kitchen.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 2 feet (60 cm); spreads 15 inches (20 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in dry, not too rich, well-drained soil

  • Propagation: Divide roots of established plants in the spring.

  • Flowering times: July to September

  • Pests and diseases: Usually free of diseases and pests. Aphids may be a problem in some northern climates.

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed. Cut plant to the ground in the fall.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry or freeze leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use in fish or meat sauces, with shellfish, eggs, cheese dishes, green salads, pickles, and tomatoes. Tarragon makes great herb vinegars.

Quick Tips for Growing Thyme

Thyme is a repellent to the cabbage butterfly.

  • Type: Hardy perennial

  • Growth habit and size: Height 6–15 inches (15–38 cm); spreads 9–12 inches (18–30 cm)

  • Growing conditions: Full sun, in almost any well-drained soil

  • Propagation: Divide established plants every three to four years.

  • Flowering times: Mid-summer

  • Pests and diseases: Needs well-drained soil to prevent root and stem disease.

  • Harvesting: Pick leaves as needed. For drying cut plant just before flowers open in early summer.

  • Preserving and storing: Dry leaves.

  • Suggested uses: Use with beef, pork, fish, turkey, eggs, cheese, in stuffing, beans, and vegetable soup.

All herbs lose flavor quickly when heated, so add them to recipes at the end. Dried herbs have a more intense concentrated flavor than fresh herbs, so when substituting them in a recipe use dried herbs for fresh herbs at a ratio of 1 to 3.

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