Have you been there? A new recipe calls for some fresh basil or dried rosemary. After searching the fridge and spice rack, you realize you do not have what you need to give your meal that kick of flavor that herbs often provide. I have certainly stared down the barrel of an empty bottle of dried oregano. One of my saving graces has been having some herbs growing outside our kitchen window. Herbs are relatively easy to grow, provided you give your plants the right conditions. Let’s examine some common herbs that might get you out of a culinary crisis.
Much of this information comes from University of Illinois Extension's website Herb Gardening. Visit our website to read in more detail on the herbs described below and many more.
Many herbs we grow can be thought of as annuals (at least in Illinois), but some will survive year after year, even yielding us tasty sprigs during the cooler months of the year. The one fresh herb that I always have on hand is thyme. My thyme grows in a large whiskey barrel planter, which I drag to a protected area next to the house to overwinter. In the spring I pull up chunks of thyme from the planter leaving a few small mounds of the plant that will grow and fill in the barrel all over again with tender new stems during the summer. This particular thyme is Thymus vulgaris and was given to me by a friend from her garden and I have been harvesting from this plant for six years. Thyme is a gift that keeps on giving!
Many different types of thyme go beyond flavoring dishes. creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum) is often used as a groundcover. Woolly thyme is another type that has pubescent leaves. All of these can be used as herbs but the most popular for flavoring food are the French and English types.
The neat thing about this herb is that thyme can handle some foot traffic. So, this is a pretty tough plant. However, one critical need for this plant is it must have very well-drained soil. For many homeowners, planting in containers using a well-draining soil-free mix can provide better results than trying to amend heavy soils to facilitate better drainage.
I have grown oregano in the past but have lost it each year to freezing winter temperatures, despite moving it to a sheltered location. Oregano is marginally hardy to zone 5 and will require some type of winter protection. Many gardeners will bring plants indoors for the winter. Of all the herbs, fresh or dried oregano is probably the one I use the most.
Similar to thyme, oregano requires full sun and well-drained soil to provide the best conditions for growth and overwintering. Oregano seed does not always come true, therefore starting plants via division or cuttings is the preferred method for propagation.
The name mint encompasses a variety of different types of herbs. They all have square stems, with flavorings that vary from fruity and sweet to bright and tangy. Mints are often associated with desserts or cocktails, but can also pair well with pork or lamb.
If there was ever a place to use bold font and all capitals it is here: IT IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED TO PLANT MINT IN CONTAINERS! Mint can be an extremely aggressive plant. My former home had a backyard that had patches of lemon balm mint. After seven years of attempted eradication, I still had it popping up in the lawn. It seemed to enjoy being mowed. Because they are so prolific, the best way to propagate mint is through stem cuttings or division. Full sun is ideal for these plants, but they will tolerate part shade conditions.
For mints and some of the herbs we’ll cover next, remove flower stalks to keep up the flavor and production of the plant.
If there was an aroma for summer, for me it would be basil. I have early memories of working out in the garden with my mom on a warm summer day. As the day ended, my mom whipped up a batch of pasta tossed in fresh pesto. We sat out in the backyard eating and watching fireflies. Basil pairs well with our favorite summer vegetable, the tomato. Both tomato and basil contain similar and complementary aromatics which I wrote about in a previous Good Growing article.
Basil is an annual. Typically, I have grown basil from seed, but you can also propagate them through cuttings. A Master Gardener once told me she snips basil out of her garden and puts it in a glass of water on the kitchen window sill. When cooking she’ll pinch off a few leaves and over time the basil cutting will begin to develop roots in the water. After a few weeks, she has a new basil plant. I have grown hydroponic basil with remarkable success.
Basil prefers full sun and fertile soil. It also needs warm temperatures. Planting basil in the spring too early could result in a stunted or (if a late freeze occurs) dead plant. Basil can show cold damage to the leaves at 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Harvest leaves on young plants and then stems as the plant gets larger. Pinching the tips of stems promotes a bushier plant and more opportunity to harvest. Remove any developing flowers as they can impact the flavor of the leaves. I let some of my basil flower as I enjoy the pollinators they attract. The same can be said for most herbs. Many produce flowers attractive to pollinators. Plant a couple extra every year for the good bugs in your life.
Okay, I know I have already claimed the previous herbs are my favorite, I will continue that trend with rosemary. I might just like herbs in general. Rosemary could be considered a perennial by skilled gardeners that can overwinter this plant indoors. (Or those just lucky enough to have the perfect spot indoors for rosemary) My rosemary tends to be grown as an annual. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to overwinter rosemary multiple times. I usually chalk it up to just not having a good indoor spot to put the plant. Homemade bread baked with fresh rosemary may be about the best thing in the world. I shouldn’t write when I’m hungry.
Rosemary can be grown from seed, but most plants begin as cuttings. Rosemary hails from a Mediterranean climate and requires full sun, fertile well-drained soil. Most gardeners want to overwinter their rosemary, but rosemary does not transplant well from the garden to a container. For this reason and the need for good drainage, it is often recommended to grow rosemary in containers.
Overwintering rosemary can be tricky. An ideal spot in the home for the winter should be cool, sunny locations. Rosemary dries out quickly indoors. This does not mean to give it more water. In reality, you want to keep this plant on the dry side. Increasing the humidity around the plant can help limit the drying out of the leaves. Some gardeners will place a saucer with pebbles under the container filled with water to help keep the humidity up around the plant.
I am one of the lucky ones. I am genetically predisposed to prefer the taste of cilantro, even crave it! Instead of its bright aroma, many others taste soap when eating cilantro. Without a doubt, many household disputes have erupted over cilantro. In my home, we find any excuse to use cilantro. Just a few days ago we dressed up a breakfast casserole with cilantro garnish. Delicious!
Cilantro is considered an annual and depending on what you’re harvesting is considered two separate crops. By harvesting the flat parsley-like leaves you are consuming cilantro. If you harvest the mature seeds from the plant you now have coriander. One plant, two crops. That’s efficient!
Seed cilantro in an area that is full sun and well-drained after all danger of frost has passed. Cilantro germinates readily and will self-seed in that location. The plant itself does not last long as it tends to bolt. Sow successive runs of seeds every 3-4 weeks to have a consistent supply of fresh cilantro leaves.