I love growing herb plants, they are cheap and easy to grow, they grow well indoors through the winter and I get to eat them. Herb plants grown well in cheap plastic plant containers. I got a stack of them out of the trash dumpster behind my local plant store. A few packets of seeds, some salvaged containers, some dirt and it is amazing how much will grow.
Most herbs are tough wild plants which thrive when pampered by gardeners. Having a few of the basic cooking herbs growing in containers is convenient because they are all a few steps from my kitchen. If I decide I need an herb in the middle of cooking, I cut a little fresh without having to drive to the store. Herbs can be harvested by simply cutting off what you need, I keep a small pair of scissors just for that. Cooking with fresh herbs is much better than the dried stuff they call herbs that come in little plastic containers. The flavor of fresh herbs is better but the potency of dried herbs is about three times that of fresh, so if you are using fresh herbs in a recipe that called for dried herbs, keep this in mind.
Herbs and spices – Culinary herbs are different from spices. For the most part, culinary herbs are fresh or dried leaves. Spices are seeds, roots, fruits, flowers, and bark. Culinary herbs usually have a mild flavor while spices tend to have a stronger, pungent flavor.
Annuals, Biennials and Perennials – Annuals bloom one season, put out a lot of seeds and die, biennial herbs live two seasons, blooming the second season only, perennial herbs bloom each season once established and can be propagated by division or cuttings.
What to grow? – Grow what you like to eat. If you cook a lot, you probably already have some idea what herbs you’d like. I grow some herbs because they are used in cuisines I like to eat. Cilantro for Mexican food, basil and rosemary for Italian.
Lavender, rosemary, bay laurel, marjoram, dill, oregano, sage and thyme are all easy to grow cooking herbs. This will start you out with herbs you can eat. They are all from the mild, dry climate of the Mediterranean and grow well together. They need well draining soil, bright sun, and moderate temperatures. Many of the Mediterranean herbs are very sensitive to soil moisture conditions. Raised beds are sometimes needed to provide the necessary drainage. Oregano, and thyme have tried to take over my garden many times. Now I put them in pots, and sink them into the ground. They grow better this way also because I can use soils that drain better just for them. Some of the best easy-to-grow herbs will take over the garden if you do not watch them.
Every herb garden needs at least five kinds of basil. Basil, is not really a mediterranean herb and needs more water. Parsley, chervil, and mint grow best on soils which retain moisture. Chamomile and mints are always good to have growing for tea. Mints are another plant that are good to grow in pots because once they get going they will quickly overwhelm other plants. Peppermint does not produce seeds and can only be propagated by cuttings.
Mints, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon, should be purchased as plants or propagated by cuttings. If you are planting herb plants from the garden store, plant them in the same way you would plant any other plant, dig a hole, put the plant in and water it well. The woodier herb plants like rosemary, thyme and oregano are better grown from established plants.
Growing herbs outside – Pick a spot that gets at least 6 hours of direct sun each day. Do not plant where water stands or runs during heavy rains. If you don’t have good drainage raised beds will fix it. Add dead leaves and compost to the soil. If you are starting your plants from seeds, put some dirt in a bucket, add a few packets of seeds and scatter them over the soil and water well. The plants will begin to sprout in about a week.
Dry some of your harvest so you’ll have dried herbs through the winter. You’ll never go back to those sad little plastic containers from the grocery store. The shelf life of many herbs is one to two years as long as they are not exposed to light, heat and air. Leaves keep their flavor best when they are stored whole and crushed just before use. Seeds for cooking should be stored whole and ground up as needed.
Keep them well watered, make sure your soil has drainage, make sure to plant them in a place they will get sun, but not too much, feed them a little and they will pay you back many times over. Never use fertilizer, just good dirt with some mulch from the back yard and some alfalfa pellets or some cow manure. Continue to plant seeds every couple of weeks all season long so you will always have fresh herbs available. Most herbs reach their peak for flavor before flowering, that is the best time to harvest leaves or seeds for storage.
Growing herbs inside – Growing herbs inside requires good drainage, sunlight and water. Put an inch of gravel at the bottom of each pot for drainage. Herbs grow best inside in a location with bright, filtered light. A south or west windowsill provides a good spot for an herb garden. Keep plenty of space between your plants to allow for air circulation, Herbs in smaller containers tend to dry out faster, water more often if needed.
Fertilizing – Too much fertilizer produces poor tasting herbs. Heavy applications of fertilizer, will decrease the concentration of essential oils. Don’t fertilizing your herbs in winter. Most plants, especially the warm-climate ones, are asleep and not growing in winter.
Compost is the best fertilizer around. Just toss a handful or two of it around the base of the plant. Mix in lots of organic matter to the soil like mulched leaves to improve texture and drainage.
Plants do not eat fertilizer, they use photosynthesis to eat light. It is amazing but that is what they do. Giving them too much fertilizer is like taking too many vitamins.