The leaves of French tarragon have a fresh rich flavor which is sometimes compared to anise and licorice. This sprawling hardy perennial plant can produce for many years if it is regularly dug up and divided.
French tarragon is smaller and harder to grow than its relative Russian tarragon, but it also has a superior flavor. This article will focus on growing French tarragon.
Growing French Tarragon Plants in the Garden
Plants grown in nutrient-poor soil will have a more intense flavor, so it’s best not to fertilize heavily when you set your tarragon out. Sarah Garland says in her Complete Book of Herbs and Spices that plants grown in poorer soil will grow more slowly. This may not sound like a good thing, but she says it makes them more winter-hardy. However, tarragon will grow best in soil with plenty of organic matter, which can improve both water retention and drainage.
To grow tarragon in the garden, choose a spot where your tarragon will get a full day of sunlight. Tarragon needs well-drained soil and won’t grow well in soggy spots. Leave 2 feet of space between tarragon plants, or between tarragon and other herbs.
The top of the tarragon plant will die back in autumn. You can choose whether or not to cut back the dried stems or leave them in place. The Illinois Extension recommends leaving the dead tops in place over winter and cutting them back in spring. Sarah Garland and the University of Florida recommend cutting the tops back in autumn. I’ve always cut mine off in autumn and haven’t tried spring cutting.
Mulch the roots with grass clippings, hay, or other organic material.
When and How to Plant French Tarragon
French tarragon has sterile flowers and is generally not grown from seed. Commercially sold tarragon seeds are for the coarser-flavored Russian tarragon. Start by buying French tarragon seedlings or by taking cuttings or root divisions from an established plant. Set seedlings out in spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Maintaining Your French Tarragon
Go lightly on feeding and watering your tarragon. Too much water can weaken the plant, and too much fertilizer weakens its flavor.
Once your tarragon plants are established, dig them up and divide them every 2-4 years. Do this in spring. Garland says that the plant’s flavor will deteriorate if it is left undivided for too many years. I’ve found that undivided tarragon tends to die out.
Tarragon doesn’t always survive winters well. Sarah Garland says it grows well in zones 5-8. I’m in zone 4/5 and struggle with overwintering. To improve your tarragon’s chances over the winter, plant it in a well-drained spot (roots in soggy frozen soil are more likely to die) and mulch it well.
Wet soil during the growing season can cause root rot. Make sure your French tarragon is set in well-drained soil. Tarragon can also be susceptible to mildew. Well-drained soil and an airy, sunny location reduce this risk.
Propagation: Starting New Plants
You can propagate tarragon in two ways: by root divisions or by cuttings.
I’ve only used root divisions. These require less careful maintenance than new cuttings. Anyway, as noted above, tarragon has to be dug up and divided every 2-4 years in order to stay healthy.
But if you want more tarragon plants before your first one is old enough to divide, cuttings may be the better approach. Cut 6-inch tips in late spring or in summer. Strip the leaves from the lower part of the cutting and set them in sand or some other growing medium. Once they have rooted, set them out in the garden—this is best done in early- to mid-summer so the roots are well established before frost.
Growing French Tarragon in Pots
Tarragon can be grown indoors in pots, though it will not develop the same full flavor as tarragon that is grown out in the garden. Pots should be kept in bright sunlight and watered only lightly.
Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver says that tarragon can be brought inside and forced to grow through the winter. They recommend 10” pots. Pot up a large division in late summer and cut the stem off at the base. Wrap the potted roots in plastic and place the pot in the refrigerator until fall. Then unwrap the pot and set it in a sunny window.
Companion Planting with French Tarragon
Tarragon makes a good companion plant and will improve the growth of most vegetables and many other plants. Select herbs and vegetables that have similar growing conditions. Basil, parsley, and cilantro are good choices for complimentary herb companions.
Harvesting French Tarragon
Pick fresh leaves during the summer, before autumn flowering. I have to exercise self-restraint in spring when the tarragon is still tender and small.
Picking too much off at the very early stages can stunt its growth during the season that follows. Pluck tips approximately 1/3 of the length of the stem.
Storing Fresh Tarragon
According to Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver, fresh tarragon will keep in the refrigerator for several days. Put it in a jar of water and cover it with a plastic bag.
For longer-term storage, tarragon’s flavor can be best preserved in vinegar. Rodale’s recommends white vinegar, while the University of Kentucky suggests wine vinegar. One cup of crushed or bruised tarragon leaves will flavor one quart of vinegar. See full instructions at Harvesting, Preserving, and Storing Herbs. Rodale’s says that herbal vinegar will keep for a year, but Kentucky says only six weeks. I haven’t tested this myself.
Tarragon can also be dried, though its flavor grows much weaker during the process and its bright green color turns brown. Bundle tips and hang them in a dry airy place out of direct sunlight. When the leaves are dry and brittle, strip them from the stems and store them in airtight containers. Dried tarragon will keep for a year.
If you take care to protect your tarragon plants through the winter, you can enjoy their fresh distinctive flavor year after year. Since the plants need to be divided regularly to stay healthy, in a few years you can have all the plants you want and some to share with friends.