I recommend starting with a few of the easiest annual herbs. During their one year in the garden you'll enjoy their beauty as well as their taste in various dishes. Here are five annual herbs to try in your garden. Try them tucked among your other flowers or in a place all their own.
Basil is a staple in my herb garden. I use it to make fresh pesto, in my salads and pasta, or to season vegetable or egg dishes. Basil is grown for its leaves, which come in various colors and flavors. If you cut off the flowers, the plant will produce ample leaves for about six weeks. I prefer one of the sweet basils for making pesto. Those in the purple group make beautiful flavored vinegars, and the ruffled ones add color and texture to a garden. Other basils available include lemon, cinnamon, Thai, clove, and more.
Cilantro is a must in Mexican cooking. You simply can't make pico-de-gallo or cowboy caviar without it! This herb is two-in-one. It's leaves are the herb cilantro, while its seeds are coriander. Since I grow mine as cilantro I cut back the flowers to keep it producing more leaves. This plant has a short garden life, so I recommend making successive plantings every 3-4 weeks to insure a continuous supply of fresh leaves. Newer cultivars like 'Leisure', 'Santo', and 'Marino' don't flower as quickly and thus last a bit longer in the garden. As a landscape plant, cilantro adds delicate, soft green texture and color.
Parsley is actually a biennial, though we typically grow it as an annual herb. Biennials produce all leaves the first year, and flower the second year. We grow parsley for its leaves, which are used in cooking and as garnishes. There are two types of parsley: curly-leaf and flat-leaf. The flat-leaf one is used most in cooking. This plant's dark green color and small height make it a great flower bed edging or border plant.
Chamomile and calendula are grown for their flowers. Chamomile has daisy-like white flowers with a yellow center. It is available in two types: German and Roman. I grow German chamomile that has tiny, feathery leaves and small ½ to 1 inch flowers. Be sure to harvest and use the flowers before the plant sets seed or else you'll have little plants coming up everywhere next year. The German version is a cool season plant so doesn't do well in our summer heat. I use chamomile flowers to make a relaxing evening tea. Calendula, also called pot marigold, has orange-yellow flowers that add color to the garden and zest to salads and similar dishes.
For more information on growing herbs, check out University of Illinois Extension's Herb Gardening website at http://extension.illinois.edu/herbs/basil.
Annual herbs are easy to grow from seed or plants. Pick a sunny location, give them good soil, adequate water, and enjoy!