There is no doubt that fresh herbs can help turn an ordinary meal into an extraordinary culinary experience. Fresh herbs can be hard to find, and if the local supermarket does offer fresh herbs for sale, they are often expensive and of dubious quality. But you can easily grow herbs at home, even if you have limited space for plants.
You can grow herbs in the vegetable garden, alongside perennials in a flowerbed, in their own kitchen-garden bed, in pots on a balcony, or indoors in pots beside a sunny window. Herbs generally are not fussy plants and they are rarely attacked by insects or diseases.
Most herbs prefer to grow in a sunny location in well-drained soil. Few herbs will grow well in compacted or soggy soil. If your garden has soil that is hard, compacted clay or if it retains standing water after rainfall, you may wish to grow herbs in a raised bed or in pots. Heavy, compacted soil can also be amended with organic matter to make it more hospitable for growing herbs.
Some herbs are annuals, such as basil and cilantro, while a few others, including parsley, are biennials. Annual herbs produce their leaves, flowers and seeds all the same year the seeds were planted, and after producing their own seeds, annual herbs die. Biennial herbs produce leaves during their first year of growth, and during their second year they produce flowers and seeds before dying. But a perennial herb plant will grow for at least two years and often much longer. Most perennial herbs will die back to the ground over winter but sprout again from the roots in the spring. Perennial herbs with woody stems, such as lavender, will survive and produce new growth from their stems year after year.
If you must grow herbs in pots, make sure that the pots provide ample drainage, and use a good quality potting soil. Herbs in pots will need to be watered more than herbs growing in the ground, but be careful to not allow the soil to remain soggy. If herbs grown in pots are placed where they can receive some afternoon shade, this will make the plants very happy.
Herbs are not heavy feeders and generally don’t need a lot of fertilizer in order to perform well. To successfully grow herbs in containers, they will need more fertilizer than those grown in the ground, but don’t get carried away with fertilizer even for container-grown herbs. If the potting soil includes a slow-release fertilizer, that will provide ample nutrition for the plants. If the potting soil does not include fertilizer pellets, you can add your own to the mix or simply give the plants a drink of water-soluble fertilizer after planting and once a month throughout the growing season.
Basil is a popular culinary herb that is easy to grow if it is given the proper growing conditions. Basil loves heat and should be planted in the garden only after the soil has warmed up to summer temperatures. It also needs to be planted where it will receive lots of sunlight. Basil won’t be happy at all if it is planted in a spot that receives shade. This sun lover will thrive in a spot that receives at least ten hours of sunlight each day.
A basil plant that is not pinched regularly will become tall and lanky, produce just a few leaves and will quickly go to seed. To keep a basil plant growing productively all season, the growing tips must be pinched frequently. This will encourage the plant to produce more branches, and thus more leaves. Rather than harvesting individual leaves from a basil plant, instead cut off lengths of a branch with many leaves.
Fresh basil leaves or cut stems should not be stored in the refrigerator. The leaves of basil plants will turn brown at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If basil leaves will not be used immediately, they should be stored in a cool place, but not refrigerated. To preserve basil leaves for long-term storage, individual leaves can be dropped into bottles of vinegar or frozen individually in ice cubes. Basil loses both its color and much of its flavor when dried and it does not freeze well unless it is frozen within a liquid.
Most other herbs do dry very well. If you grow herbs in quantity, you might consider drying them for later use. Bundles of homegrown dried herbs also make wonderful gifts for friends who like to cook.
To dry herbs, harvest several stems from an herb plant and gather them together in a small bundle. A few of the leaves near the base of the stems should be removed to make the stems easier to bundle, then the bundle can be held together with a small rubber band. A rubber band is preferable to using string to tie the bundle together because the stems will shrink a bit as they dry. A rubber band will contract along with the stems, but a string would become too loose as the stems shrink. Use that string instead to tie the bundle of herbs to a rafter where it can hang and dry in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
Individual herb leaves can also be spread out on a screen in an airy room out of direct sunlight. Turn the leaves daily so they dry evenly, and once dry, they can be stored in an airtight jar.
Some herbs freeze well for storage, and will retain their flavor and bright color better than dried herbs. Parsley and chives freeze particularly well. To freeze chives or parsley, gather the herbs and snip or chop them to the size you generally use in recipes. Spread out the chopped herbs on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place the sheet in the freezer for a few hours or overnight. Once frozen, the chopped herbs can be stored within freezer bags. The frozen herbs will remain fairly loose within the bag and you can easily remove just the amount needed for a particular recipe.
If you grow herbs you can also make gifts of herbed salt or herbed butter. To make herb-flavored salt, pour a shallow layer of table salt or sea salt in a dish, then layer stems of thyme, rosemary, tarragon or another favorite herb on top of the salt. Continue alternating layers of salt with the herbs, ending with a layer of salt on top. Keep the layered salt at room temperature and check it often. Once the herbs have completely dried between the layers of salt, the herbs can be discarded and the flavored salt can be stored in pretty airtight jars.
To make herb-flavored butter, soften butter to room temperature before mixing in fresh chopped herbs. The herb butter can then be pressed into molds or spread onto waxed paper and rolled into logs. Store the wrapped herb butter in the freezer for later use.
Whether you grow herbs only for fresh harvest or if you preserve them for later use, the ideal time to harvest any herb is in the morning just as the dew has dried from the leaves. The essential oils in herbs are what give them their delightful flavors and scents. Fewer essential oils are produced by the plant on wet, rainy or foggy days, and the essential oils are quickly dispersed by wind and heat. Most herbs will have the most flavor and scent on a dry, calm morning. Herb plants also have their highest essential oil content just prior to flowering. Watch the plants closely, and do your harvesting just before the plants begin to flower.
To ensure an ample harvest when you grow herbs, do not harvest more than one third of the plant at one time. The plant needs to retain plenty of foliage so it can photosynthesize and continue to produce more of its deliciously-scented foliage.