Growing fresh culinary herbs is a simple way to add additional layers of flavor and excitement to meals without adding calories, carbs, or fat. A few fresh herbs snipped from the garden can add an accent to almost any dish. Packaged meals or canned foods take on an entirely new complexity when fresh herbs are added. Culinary herbs, whether used fresh or as dried herbs, are an important ingredient in any kitchen. But, which 4 Culinary Herbs to Grow in the Garden, what is the big question?
1. Get started with easy-to-grow culinary herbs in the garden
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are all hardy plants and a good choice for a starter garden. They are in fact an ancient combination of herbs used in pagan love charms dating back to the 13th Century and earlier in the British Isles. The Celts, Irish and Saxons believed parsley was for lust, sage for wisdom, rosemary for remembrance and thyme for love.
Beyond charms and potions, those four herbs offer nearly limitless possibilities for Italian, French and American gourmet cooking. Parsley is the essential ingredient in Tabouleh. Sage is mandatory for turkey stuffing, roasted chicken or stew. Rosemary is an important ingredient for roast pork tenderloin, steak, or grilled vegetables. And, a little thyme sprinkled on roasted potatoes, or salads will delight the taste buds. Mixed together fresh or dried, these four herbs make a refreshing Italian Seasoning.
• Ethnic cooking
• Use herbs in grilling, baked dishes, and soups
• Great for salads
2. Planting culinary herbs
Purchase only healthy plants at the local nursery. Herbs should be vividly green and well rounded. Avoid scraggly plants that show evidence of little or non-existent care. Herbs will usually be sold in three or four inch pots up to one-gallon containers. Larger herbs will provide an earlier harvest during the first year. If buying smaller plants, the herbs should receive additional water and care in the garden until they become established.
3. Best soil for herbs
Herbs are considered low maintenance, but not “no maintenance”. Like other plants they need well drained soil, water, sun and nutrients to prosper whether in a garden or in a container. The best soil for herbs will be rich in organic matter, to hold moisture, and have enough sand or vermiculite to allow good drainage. Culinary herbs will slowly die in soggy soil.
Potting soil and planting soil mixes are usually higher in organic matter and lower in sand than what is best for herbs. Add sand to increase the ease of watering your herbs and improve the soil drainage.
• Herbs are low maintenance
• Water only as needed
• Soil should be rich and well drained
4. Fertilizers for culinary herbs
Herbs require nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for good growth. Nutrients are needed most during the spring and summer. Over fertilizing herbs will increase the foliage but decrease the flavor.
Fertilizers come in both dry and liquid forms. Herbs prefer organic fertilizers like fish emulsion that supplies adequate nutrients for container plants or herbs in the garden.
• Fertilize several times during spring and once in summer
• Use high nitrogen fertilizer
• Liquid fertilizer works best
5. Sun or shade
Most herbs originated in Mediterranean climates with full sun and dry rocky soil. Many are hardy plants and are happy in most climate zones from Arizona to Vermont. Varieties like parsley and thyme will grow in partial sun.
6. Beyond basic green
If you’re looking for foliage color in a culinary garden there a lot of options even within the four starter herbs of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Consider tri-color varieties of sage or lemon thyme for added interest.
Parsley is available in a flat leaf Italian variety (P. c. neapolitanum) considered the most flavorful. Favorites include: Dark green Italian, Giant Italian, and Single Italian. Curly leaf French varieties (Petroselinum crispum) make the most attractive garnish. Look for: Moss Curled or Forest Green.
Sage likewise offers a number of choices. Berggarten sometimes called Mountain Garden with denser growth and rounder but longer-lived leaves. Holt’s Mammoth, provides excellent flavor and is used in making condiments. Purpurascens or Red Sage has leaves with a blush of red-violet when new and slowly matures to gray-green. Tricolor, as the name suggests, provides a breathtaking gray-green leaf with irregular cream borders. The new foliage is flushed with purplish pink.
Rosemary or Rosmarinus in Latin means “dew of the sea” which is probably a reference to the plant’s native habitat on seaside cliffs in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Popular varieties are: Barbecue with stiff stems perfect for skewers for kebabs. Blue Boy presents a dense symmetrical mound with pleasant fragrance and flavor. Blue Spires is a strong vertical herb useful for landscape hedges and seasoning. Goriza offers a sweet gingery fragrance. Huntington Carpet works well for ground cover. Irene is a cold hardy prostrate variety. Prostratus will trail over the wall or edge of a raised bed—also great choice for hanging containers.
Thyme offers a wide range of color choices too. Caraway-scented thyme (Thymus herba-barona) has lance-shaped dark green leaves with a caraway fragrance and offers clusters of rose-pink flowers in midsummer. Common thyme (T. vulgaris) has narrow to oval grey-green leaves with white to lilac flowers during late spring to early summer. This one makes a good container plant. Several sub-varieties are available. Argenteus sometimes named Silver Thyme, or Hi-Ho Silver with even more pronounced silver variegation. Be aware that silver thyme, while more decorative, is less useful as a culinary herb. The flavor cooks off rather quickly unless added at the end. Italian Oregano Thyme has a strong oregano flavor. Orange Balsam offers narrow orange-scented leaves. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) provides lance-shaped medium green leaves with a lemon fragrance and pale lilac flowers during summer.
7. Tips for growing culinary herbs
Getting started growing culinary herbs is surprisingly easy with many interesting choices for the garden. Following these simple tips will help make your culinary garden a success.
• Buy only healthy plants
• Plant in rich, well-drained soil
• Full sun or 6 hours of sun is best for most herbs
• Water herbs deeply when needed
• Feed or fertilize several times during the growing season