Having your own culinary herb garden is something every home cook or chef should include in their bag of tricks.
Almost anyone can learn to chop vegetables, saute a few onions or roast a turkey. However, mastering the art of using herbs to bring out the best flavor of the food is what transforms the ordinary meal into something to be remembered.
By having fresh herbs nearby, it becomes much easier to experiment and start creating new and flavorful dishes your family is sure to appreciate. And once you master a few of the basics, it’s a fairly easy process.
Setting up an herb garden is an ideal way to start experimenting with the many uses of herbs. Herbs are one of the easiest plants to grow and should have a place in any home cook’s garden. Explore the many types and ways to grow and cook with culinary herbs on our site.
What are Culinary Herbs?
In general terms, an herb is a plant that is used for its flavor, aroma or medicinal properties. The culinary group of herbs is especially prized for their use in the kitchen. Every culture has its own unique ways of incorporating herbs into its cuisine.
In addition to using herbs in cooking, many herbs have medicinal properties that have been used for centuries to treat a multitude of ailments from the mild to severe. While true homeopathy may be better left up to the professionals, there are many herbal remedies which can safely be used at home. Create a simple satchel of lavender to promote restful sleep or a mint flavored tea to ease a stomach ache.
Types of Culinary Herbs
There are hundreds of culinary herbs to choose from when planning your meals. Visit our herb information section to get growing, harvesting, storing and cooking tips for some of our favorite varieties. Here are the major types of culinary herbs.
Annual herbs grow new plants each year from seed. These herbs have a distinct growing cycle. Young plants grow quickly in the spring, reaching maturity in about two months depending on the variety. At the end of the season, the plants will flower, set seed then die as winter approaches.
Annual herbs include basil, dill, coriander, savory and borage. If allowed to go to seed in your garden, many annual herbs will reseed themselves. Dill and borage are annual herbs that reseed easily.
Tender annual herbs such as basil will only begin growing once the ground has warmed up a bit. Hardy annual herbs don’t mind the cooler weather so can be planted earlier in the season and can often tolerate a bit of frost.
Biennial herbs live for two years. Parsley, celery leaf, angelica, and chervil are examples of biennial herbs. Most of the leaf growth is in the first year. The biennial herbs can be harvested at the beginning of the second year until growth slows and the herbs begin to flower, then set seed.
Many biennial herbs are grown as annuals since the flavor is generally better in the first year. Older plant plants may be left in the garden the second year and allowed to flower in order to collect seeds for future plantings.
Perennial herbs will live many years in the garden, some going dormant in winter, but coming back from the roots each spring. The hardiness of perennial herbs will vary by growing zone, so it’s good to double-check the winter hardiness of each herb before planning your herb garden. Perennial herbs that are not hardy in your zone can be grown in pots and overwintered in a greenhouse, moved indoors or grown as annuals.
Perennial herbs include Chives, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme, Mint, Fennel, and Garlic. Tender perennials may need to be replaced every few years for best results. Perennial herbs can be propagated by division, root cuttings or seed. Keep in mind growth is slower for perennial herbs and some may not produce a good harvest until their second year.
Evergreen perennials such as lavender and thyme will stay green all year. Growth will slow in the winter months, but the plants will stay green making a prettier landscape in the colder months.
Herb Garden Design – Planning your Garden
Designing your herb garden can be a very rewarding process. It’s best to sketch out a rough plan on paper first before beginning to plant. In the planning phase, consider such things as the amount of sunlight your herbs will require, the proximity to your kitchen and the size of the herbs at maturity. Read our five tips for planning your herb garden to get started.
You may consider inter-planting herbs with your flowers and vegetables. Herbs make excellent companion plants in the garden, enhancing the flavor of vegetables planted nearby. They can also attract pollinators and other beneficial inspects creating a good healthy environment for the whole garden.
During the planning stage also consider how you will irrigate the garden. Established plantings will generally only need to be watered once or twice a week. But new gardens take a bit more care. Consider how to make watering easier by setting up an automatic watering system. You may wish to include a drip irrigation system in your overall design plan or ensure there is easy access to a hose where you can set up a sprinkler with a timer.
Growing Herbs in Pots for the Home Herb Garden
Many herbs are very well suited to growing in pots. Choose low growing or dwarf varieties of the taller herbs to grow in a potted herb garden. For example, if you like basil, choose Spicy Globe or Greek basil. Both are compact varieties that will yield a good harvest. When growing dill in a potted herb garden, Fernleaf, and Bouquet Dill are good choices. Some herbs such as mint are better when grown in pots since they are fast spreaders and may over-crowding their neighbors in the garden.
Growing herbs in pots requires a bit of planning as well. Choose pots large enough to accommodate the mature size of your herbs. Drainage is another consideration. When selecting the right pots for your herb garden ensure there are adequate drainage hole and saucers to catch any spillage if you are growing indoors.
Growing Herbs Indoors – Enjoy Fresh Herbs Year Round
There are many ways to set up an indoor herb garden. Whether you want just a few herbs for the occasional garnish or plan to grow and freeze quarts of fresh basil pesto for family and friends, modern science has invented a solution for the indoor herb gardener. See our 10 tips for growing a healthy indoor herb garden.
Windowsill Herb Gardens
Windowsill herb gardens are a good choice for apartment dwellers or areas where there is no available garden space outside. If you prefer a ready-made solution, windowsill herb garden kits are available that come complete with pots, soil, and seeds. Just add water and light to watch your garden grow in a bright window.
A larger more custom window sill garden can be created with a self-watering window box. Just add soil and mix and match your favorite herbs.
Hydroponic Herb Gardening
Hydroponic herb gardens are another way to grow a large number of herbs in a smaller space. Herbs grow very well in indoor hydroponic systems. To make it easier for the home cook, there are self-contained herb garden kits such as the Smart Garden that include a sterile growing medium, light fixture, and automatic watering system. These types of mini herb gardens have it down to a science so even a beginner can easily grow plenty of fresh herbs for dinner.
Larger scale hydroponic systems are available at some of the specialty shops. There are many inventive solutions for growing hydroponic herbs, such as a vertical herb garden or full systems where you can grow 15 different types of herbs in a 4×4 area set up on a garden patio or rooftop. Read more in our article on hydroponic herb gardens.
Herb Garden Ideas
There are many ways to set up an herb garden from a small grouping of potted herbs to a lavish medicinal herb garden interwoven amongst your flower garden. You may choose an indoor garden set up on a windowsill or plan an entire food garden.
If you are just getting started or need some new herb garden ideas, take a look through these herb garden ideas to bring you some inspiration.
Cooking with Fresh Herbs
Using herbs in cooking is often one of the healthiest ways to add flavor to ordinary ingredients. A roasted chicken is good. But if you add to it a simple rub of fresh garlic, sage, thyme you can make a truly memorable meal.
Spice up a bowl of boring tomato soup with the addition of fresh basil and oregano. Toss root vegetables with finely chopped rosemary and oil or prior to roasting. With just a few basic tricks, you can add flavor to almost any dish.
Freshly picked herbs will impart a much more precious flavor to your cooking than dry herbs will. One simple tip to remember is herbs added during the beginning of the cooking cycle will lend their flavor to foods. When you add herbs to the end of the cooking process, they will retain their aroma.
Summary of Growing Culinary Herbs
Growing culinary herbs in the home garden is a treat for many aspiring chefs as well as home cooks. Explore our site to learn more about your favorite culinary herb varieties and discover new methods of growing herbs at home.