Those are some of the basics–but there are so many other herbs to use in seasoning your food. For growing your own, start with the basics–don’t overwhelm yourself at your first attempt at growing. Better to get a few going well and gradually add to them as you get more comfortable taking care of your growing collection. Each cook will have favorite herbs (or blends) to add or to substitute to make up you kitchen basics, but I’m going to talk about growing some of the very common herbs first, and then we’ll go on to some less common, but delightful herbs. Harvesting and cooking with these fresh herbs will come just a bit later.
I am going to include botanical names so that when (or if) you go looking through catalogs you will be able to relate to those.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
is a member of the carrot family that we (all too frequently) think of as a garnish. Parsley is grown as an herb, but also as a spice and a vegetable (root). It’s native to the Mediterranean region–along with the sage, and thyme. Here we’re considering the use as an herb. (The vegetable part will come later; seeds are reputedly useful medicinally, but that is not considered here either).
It’s a wonderful herb in its own right–adding freshness and “green-ness” to lots of dishes. There are two kinds of parsley: curly (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) and “flat-leaf” or Italian parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum). There is a “gourmet” tendency toward the “flat-leaf” or Italian variety, but either can be used. The essential oils that provide the herbal flavor are the same in either the curly or the flat-leaf; there is a bit of variation in when these flavors peak. The flavor of parsley is usually described as “fresh”, “woody”, but there is also a flavor of anise (very common in herbs). It is frequently use with other herbs to provide a rounded out background flavor. Parsley can also be used as a “salad” green–e.g. tabbouleh.
Parsley is easy to grow–it likes basking in the sun, with evenly moist roots. It’s a biennial plant so it will not “bolt” (go to seed) until the second year, but you’ll want to re-seed then to be sure that you have a constant crop.
Swallow-tail and Monarch butterflies love parsley (and other carrot-family herbs–so if the caterpillars descend on it, they can munch it down to bare stems in a very short time. If you note lots of swallowtail butterflies around, you might want to buy some extra parsley seed and throw it out in the hedgerows and edges of the garden for them–maybe they’ll leave your herbs alone.
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sage is the “poultry” herb to many people, but it has so many more uses than just poultry. I think it has to be described as a rather “dry, austere” herb. (If that sounds like wine-speak, it really is, but the terms lend themselves well to describing you basic culinary sage. There are many varieties of sage available. One of the chief differences between the culinary varieties is the ease with which they bloom, and to some degree, the concentration of essential oils which give the flavor to sage.
Plain Salvia officinalis (regular “garden sage”) will bloom quite readily bloom in the spring; other varieties such as the Berggarten or Extrakta tend to bloom less readily. (While the blossoms of many herbs are beautiful, they will affect the lifespan and the flavor.)
Personally I grow these two varieties as they do not bloom readily and are high in essential oils. The Berggarten seems to be especially well suited to containers as it is less gangly, leggy or sprawling. The flavor of both is excellent. Both are usually hardy throughout cold winters. You can see the difference in the openness of these two. For your first attempt at growing sage, you certainly do not need to find anything exotic–just get plain “garden sage” which is what you’ll find in most garden centers.
Sage is one of the “Mediterranean herbs”–hot, dry, drought tolerant group. So long as sage has lots of sun and well-drained soil, you should not have any problem growing it, and getting it to come back the following year. If you have problems with it, most likely its feet are wet–and that makes the roots rot, and the plant dies. Sage tolerates drought well, so don’t plant it in the same container with your basil (which likes more moisture). You can see that I’ve planted these in larger individual pots. While some sources say that sages may not survive the heat and the humidity of the Southeast United States, I have not had any problem keeping them going for several years. These plants are both several years old. In the heat (and humidity) of the North Carolina summer, I do not put these in all-day sun. The sage gets put where it has afternoon sun. Since the deck is mostly shaded, the sage pots are set along the stairs.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
I’m sure this woody, evergreen (but tender) shrub well know to all for its resinous, pine-y scent from stews and grilled foods. It’s native to the Mediterranean coast and will not likely survive winters with sustained temperatures below about 10 ° F. If you live where winters are moderate enough for it to survive, it can be a lovely shrub. (With a little pruning and shaping I bring mine in briefly to use as a Christmas tree.) If winters are very cold, it will need some protection in the wintertime–if it is in a container, put is indoors where it is partially protected; mulch it heavily, et cetera. Mine (potted) has survived several winters of quite cold spells (short) with some protection like moving it to the back porch where it is warmer and protected from wind and frost (but not heated).
Rosemary is usually grown from cuttings rather than seed–we tried seeds last year on the farm, and the germination was very slow and very poor; you’ll be best off buying a plant that is already started. One of the hardiest varieties is “Arp” which can withstand lower temperatures if given some protection. When buying your plant, crush a few leaves and smell it–if it does not have good strong scent, then try another plant. The intensity of the flavor will vary rather markedly with the season (weaker in the winter; stronger in the summer).
This is another herb which does not like “wet feet”; it needs well-drained soil. Potted it does best when slightly rootbound or potbound; keep the pot to a size that you can move into shelter in the winter–about 12 inches. Rosemary also needs good air circulation around it, especially in the humid Southeastern United States. I would not plant rosemary with other herbs because of this. Harvesting and cooking with rosemary will follow shortly.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme is another Mediterranean herb that loves well-drained soil, and lots of sun. There are many varieties of thyme. For now I’m excluding the “flavored” ones like lemon, or caraway. The basic culinary thyme is Thymus vulgaris. Look at an herb catalogue and you’ll find winter and summer thyme, French, German, and English thyme.
Most commonly the thyme found at your garden center is likely to be winter or English thyme. This is called winter thyme because it is quite hardy and will very likely winter over without much fuss. This is a woody herb so that you have to remove the tiny leaves from the stems, and it’s likely to get straggly and rather ratty looking despite trimming and pinching.
My particular favorite is “summer” or French thyme since the stems are not nearly as woody. The down side of the summer thyme is that it does not tolerate cold winters and may not winter over. So far I’ve been lucky here in North Carolina; my French, summer thyme as wintered well without my doing more that putting the pot somewhere a bit sheltered (screened back porch). It’s a pleasant surprise when it comes back in the spring.
Regardless of which variety you’re growing, keep in mind that it is another herb which needs well-drained soil and sun. You may well want several plants in order to have a good supply as you need to strip the leaves, which are small, from the stems unless you are going to remove the stems after cooking.
If you look at the characteristics of the herbs discussed above, you see that they all need well-drained soil and sunshine to thrive. With the exception of rosemary, it would be possible to do a container of sage and thyme together; they sage is a more upright plant while thyme is lower growing, and will hang over the edges of the pot. We’ll discuss some other herbs which might go into a planter with the sage and the thyme.