Growing herbs in containers

From Gardener to Go (Sharyn Caudell) some pointers on growing herbs in containers.  For other gardening information you’ll find “Tip of the Month” at her website.

Herbs are wonderful addition to any garden.  They are beautiful plants and everyone knows that fresh herbs add so much to cooking.   Many of our herbs are Mediterranean in origin.  This means they grow in thin, often rocky soils in a hot summer climate with no rain in the summers.   Central North Carolina has the hot summers and one of the best ways to provide the other conditions is to grow them in containers.   Herbs will languish with ‘wet feet’ so good drainage is essential.

If you have sandy, well-drained soils in your garden, you can probably grow them directly in the ground.   For the rest of us, choose a large container. Some folks use flue tiles which are made of terra cotta. These are available from building supply stores.  Place the tiles upright on the ground and fill with a good soilless mix such as a high-quality potting mix. You want a potting soil that does not compress to a wet mix.   Several good brands are Fafard, MetroMix, Pro-Mix, Sunshine Mix and others (these are professional mixes).  If you can’t find those, look for a potting soil that does not contain moisture-retaining granules; this type is great for hanging baskets that you don’t want to water constantly but not herbs.  Try lifting the bag. It should feel light for its size.  Some potting soils are very heavy in the bag and will be too dense and wet for herbs.   You can mix perlite with the soil to improve the drainage. (Perlite improves aeration and drainage; vermiculite holds water so read the bags carefully!)   Do not add Styrofoam peanuts or pebbles or anything in the bottom of the pot to improve the drainage; it doesn’t work.  Soils drain by capillary action between the small pieces of the soil (think of a very thin straw).   Adding items in the bottom of the pot shortens the capillary ‘straw’ and holds more moisture in the pot.  To keep the soil from washing out of the pot, line with a sheet of newspaper, window screening, landscape fabric or several coffee filters. These will hold the soil in place while the roots form.   It is a good idea to mix in some dolomitic limestone with potting soil.

Herbs need 4 to 6 hours or more of sun per day.  Try to pick a spot that is easily accessible from the kitchen so you will use your herbs.   Herbs require moderate water so you don’t have to tend these daily.    Some good herbs to start with are parsley, chives, basil, thyme,  oregano, rosemary and sage.   Parsley is a biennial  plant—it sets seed its second year and then dies. Basil in an annual that needs replanted every year.   Chives, thyme, oregano and sage are perennials.   Rosemary is a shrub with lovely small blue flowers in the spring.  There are small varieties that will do better in a container.  Dill and cilantro will grow well in the spring and fall but will bolt, flower, set seed and die in our summer heat.   Pruning off the flowers or dead-heading will keep your herbs growing longer.   Herbs require little fertilizing.  It is better to be very sparing of fertilizer than to have lush growth that may be damaged in the winter.  You can always add a bit more fertilizer if you need it.   Most herbs will be fine with no fertilizer for the first year.

IMG_4073You can grow chives and parsley in a vegetable garden easily.    French tarragon is a wonderful herb that doesn’t do well in our summers.  You can substitute Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) instead. This is actually a marigold that grows to 3-plus feet and has yellow flowers. Use the leaves as you would tarragon.   It is an annual.   There is a substitute for celery that is a perennial: cutting celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum). It grows 12-15 inches and has a wonderful celery flavor but not the long stalks of regular celery.  It is an evergreen and will self seed.

In general, deer don’t like herbs because of their strong flavors or smells but a really hungry white-tail will eat almost anything.  Don’t use pesticides on your herbs.  The black and yellow caterpillars of the pipevine swallowtail butterfly will devour your parsley, dill and fennel plants but the leaves will grow back.

There are many other herbs that have been used medicinally or for dyes that are grown in our gardens for their beauty.   Browse the herb section at your garden center or find a book on the subject. You will enhance your garden and your table by growing herbs.

More on growing herbs

For those just starting gardening, and growing herbs is a great place to start, here’s an article from The Herb Companion that addresses the joys of having a kitchen garden of herbs (in containers), and how easy it can be.  You’ll probably find that it’s addictive!  Once you know how easily you can grow them almost any where, and how useful they are, you’ll not want to be without fresh herbs in season.

Chervil & Savory

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)

Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is a wonderful herb, but unless you grow it yourself, you’re unlikely to every taste it.  It’s too delicate to be found in the grocery store in the little plastic boxes or in bunches.  I’ve not see it at the farmers’ market as a cut herb either.

As the plant is delicate, the flavor is too:  hints of anise/tarragon and parsley but subtle–which is not something you’d say about French tarragon.

Chervil seed is easy to germinate but the plant is difficult to transplant as it has a taproot. It likes rich, moist soil that is well drained, and would like to be in partial shade. You can sow outside several weeks before the last frost.  It is another herb that like cooler weather, but it may be prolonged by providing some shade, e.g. planting it under other plants. Like cilantro, it is a fast-growing annual that will flower quickly.  If you cut off the flowers you can prolong the foliage to some extent, but the old leaves will change color (from the lovely greet to yellow and purple) and become tough and lose flavor.  If it becomes one of your must-have herbs, you can sow successively (as with cilantro) throughout the growing season.

To harvest, cut sprigs about two inches above the ground, taking the older leaves from the outside of the plant, but be sure to leave the new center leaves as this is where the new growth is occurring.  As with most other herbs, you should not harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time since it needs the leaves for photosynthesis.

In cooking, use it where you want delicate flavors e.g. with mild fish or seafood.  It would do well with young poultry that has more delicate flavor than the older bird.  Chervil would be good with young vegetables–e.g. baby carrots, or fresh baby peas.   The leaves are mild enough to add to salads, and to use as a garnish in place of parsley.  It could be used with many of the same foods as tarragon, only where you’d like a more delicate touch–e.g. with eggs. It’s so mild that you will want to use lots of it–quite in contrast to tarragon.

I am not a fan of dried chervil–it seems to lose a lot of flavor and come across somewhat hay-like, even when I’m sure I’ve obtained it from a supplier with good turnover of their dried herbs.  So for me, it’s one of the signs of spring, right along with the new peas.


Image from Mountain Valley Growers

Winter savory (Satureja montana)

Savory is not going to be found in the grocery store shelves either.  Two savories, summer (Satureja hortensis) and winter savory (Satureja montana) have very distinctly different growth and appearance.

Summer savory is an annual about 12 to 18 inches tall that tends to be rather sparse, lanky looking with grayish green leaves that will last only until frost.  Winter savory is a perennial, evergreen or semi-evergreen, shrub with a bushy habit, usually not taller than about 12 inches.  It’s leaves are glossy, dark green and closely spaced.

While both have are spicy, rather than sweet flavor (like tarragon or chervil), the winter savory is spicier and hotter than the summer, but they can generally be used interchangeably, though the milder summer savory is best with fresh summer veggies.  I think that the savories are most commonly associated with northern European cooking than with American cooking.

Both winter and summer savory are sometimes known as the “bean herb” as they are particularly used with dishes made with dried beans;  the somewhat milder summer savory is great with fresh beans as well (fava, lima, or green beans).  Other uses include with cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and with summer squash, and roasted potatoes.  It’s potent enough to use in marinades for beef, lamb, as well as chicken and pork.

The summer savory is easily started from seed.  Summer savory is not fond of being transplanted (if starting indoors use peat pots so that you do not have to disturb its roots).  It does will is average soil that is well drained, but well watered.   It will want plenty of sun and does need to be well fertilized.  Blooms will appear between the leaves on the upper portion of the plant.  At that point you should cut the plant back by about one-third in order to prolong its culinary use by encouraging more foliage.

Winter savory can tolerate poorer soil than the summer, but it also must be well drained. It also wants plenty of sun.  It is hardy to about zone 5,  if the roots are not wet during the cold weather.  Wet roots in the winter may well mean no savory in the spring–really true of most perennial herbs!    After or as it blooms (I prefer not to let my herbs bloom), it should also be cut back to encourage it to be bushy and increase foliage, which is what you want for cooking.

Both are harvested by cutting springs from the plant–remember not to cut more than one-third of the plant at a time so that it can keep growing and producing.  If you need to store savory,  wrap in a slightly damp paper towel and place in a zipper-lock back.  Summer savory should hold for about a week, and winter for about two weeks.

USDA hardiness zones

I’ve talked about growing your own herbs, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned that certain perennials are hardy in some zones and not in others.  If you are unfamiliar with these, here is a link  from the National Gardening Association which will answer some questions about hardiness zones, and will let you check out your zone.  Remember that drainage can affect hardiness, and it will make a difference if the plants are in pots, rather than in the ground.

It’s not only cold that affects your plants:  It’s thought that plants begin to suffer physiological damage at temperatures above 86 ° F.  From the American Horticultural Society, here is a link to a downloadable heat zone map; online this map may be viewed at the Southern Gardening website.  This gives the average number of days when the temperature is above 86 ° F

In using either of these (cold hardiness or heat zones) you have to consider where your plants are being grown–in the ground, in pots, the soil drainage, and water availability, among other things.

Harvesting & using herbs

Now that you have all those lovely herbs growing in your kitchen garden (or just in containers) you need to get them into the kitchen and use them.  There are some general things that apply to harvesting and using almost all herbs in order to get the best flavor in your dishes.

Even though there are “classic” combinations (e.g. basil and tomatoes) don’t be afraid to experiment…that’s the point of having this selection available at your kitchen door!  Smell and taste the leaves of your herbs.  Think about the dish you’re cooking, how you feel today….

Try something different–fresh oregano or marjoram with the pasta sauce today; or maybe even tarragon or fennel with tomatoes.  (Yes, the leaves of that Florence/bulb fennel can be used as seasoning too.)   Experiment!  Taste!  Smell!  That’s what herbs are all about.

In reading through cookbooks, you’ll find may different opinions about when to harvest, whether or not you want herbs to bloom.  Here are a few generalizations about growing, harvesting, and using those wonderful plants that come from my experience:

  • For best flavor you want to keep most of your herbs from blooming; once the plant starts blooming and making seed it is less flavorful.  (You can find all sorts of articles pro and con; this is my opinion.)  To do this you will want to pinch out forming flowers at the tips.  This is particularly true for basils.
  • You generally need to keep herbs trimmed or they can get very unruly, lanky and leggy and straggly.  If you’re not using enough to keep them bushy, and retard blooming, then give them a “butch” every once in a while to keep them bushy and full.
  • Rosemary is an exception it’s not “pinchable” as it blooms along the stems themselves.
  • If you have several plants or if you want to use the flowers (they are edible) then you may want to let part of them bloom–they are lovely, but you sacrifice flavor in exchange for the blooms.
  • Don’t harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time–the herb needs enough leaves to keep growing since it depends on the leaves for photosynthesis and growth.
  • Fresh herbs are best when harvested as needed–not to be stored in the refrigerator for days. That is the whole point of having those pots on the deck.  When I need to trim, I either find something to do with the trimmings (make an herb vinaigrette or put the leaves in salads), or give them to friends…I won’t store them in the fridge.
  •  You’ll be cutting springs rather than picking individual leaves for most herbs (e.g. thyme, tarragon, sage), and then stripping the leaves from the stems (if the stems are woody or tough).
  • Bay is an exception: harvest by picking individual leaves, not sprigs, and not the newest leaves on the plant.  To harvest bay leaves, take the individual leaf and pull downward sharply.
  • You may want to add herbs at several times during cooking:  early to allow flavors to “meld”, but also again near the end in order to have the fresh flavor as many herbs lose some flavor with heating; you can give you dish a “fresh” boost by adding a bit more of the fresh herbs at the end of cooking.
  • If your recipe calls for dried herbs and you are substituting fresh herbs, you’ll need to use about three or four times as much of the fresh as the dried:  e.g. one teaspoon of dried thyme = one tablespoon of fresh thyme.
  • The way that an herb is cut can affect the flavor of a dish.  The more finely it is cut, the more rapidly the essential oils will diffuse into your dish, and the faster the essential oils may dissipate with heating.  Coarsely chopped herbs will release flavor more slowly and “hang around” longer.
  • You can preserve herbs for off season use by freezing but just throwing them into the freezer in a bag doesn’t do well. You can freeze them in ice by coarsely chopping them, packing them in ice-cube trays, and then cover with cold water and freeze. Color may suffer, but flavor is preserved  though you have to consider the effect that the extra water will have on adding to a dish.
  • My favorite way of freezing is to make a “pesto”–an herb and oil purée–of the herbs and pack into zipper-lock freezer bags.  You can cut off what you need.  This has the advantage of not adding additional water, and I think that it keeps flavor better than water and is more versatile.  The approximate proportions for this would be 1/4 cup oil for each gently packed cup of fresh herbs.  This works with basil, tarragon, marjoram, oregano, dill and cilantro.

Cilantro & coriander

Cilantro image

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)

Cilantro and coriander (Coriandrum sativum) are the same plant–just different parts used at different times–cilantro (herb) and the seeds (coriander–the spice).  I think cilantro (the herb) may be a love-it-or-hate-it flavor.  I like it, and even make a cilantro soup (no kidding).  It’s readily available in most grocery stores, but that large bunch does not keep well once you’ve used that little bit you need for single-serving cooking.  It’s a must-have for salsa, with chili, and Mexican and Asian dishes.

One way to have a continuing supply of cilantro when you want it is to grow your own, but that has its own problems, too.  It likes rich soil, plenty of  even moisture, and sun. Coriander seeds germinate easily. It can be direct sown in the garden or in a container and the foliage cut as you need it. It does best in spring and fall when the weather is cooler (even though it is a tropical plant).  Having a supply all summer (during tomato season) is going to take a bit of effort.

The difficulty with growing cilantro is that it’s not like  perennial herbs or parsley (a biennial) that just lasts all summer. Cilantro is a very quick-growing annual–it’s going to bloom and go to seed (bolt) as soon as it gets hot, perhaps even before it can develop a good crop of foliage, which is what you really want.  If you cut off the flower/seed head you can have the foliage for a bit longer. You can try giving it some shade in the hottest part of the day and perhaps prolong it a bit.

You can do succession planting…a little every two or three weeks depending on how much you use in conjunction with the above suggestions.  If you really love the stuff, then successive planting may help you keep a supply.

There is a benefit of growing your own: you can allow it to go to seed and you have coriander. The seeds, when not dried have some of the flavor of  cilantro and some of the flavor of coriander–so it’s fun to try using them in different ways too.

Frankly, I don’t think that even succession plantings works well  in the hot, humid, North Carolina summers–the small plants can bolt even before there is enough foliage for a single serving of something, and certainly NOT enough for cilantro soup. (This is a potato-based soup that I’ve made hot, but I think I’d like to try it as a cold summer soup too, garnished with some chopped tomatoes….that’s the fun of cooking for one.)

Culantro (Eryngium foetidum)

Another possible solution to get the cilantro flavor is to grow a substitute for it, such as culantro (Eryngium foetidum) sometimes found under the names of saw-tooth herb, or Mexican coriander, among many other names as well.  It is a native of South America and Mexico.  This is an herb which is widely used in Caribbean cooking, and in India, and East Asia as well.  It has the flavor of cilantro–but is a perennial plant (grown as annual in many climates).  The disadvantage of this herb is that the leaves are tough–not at all soft like cilantro leaves.  An advantage is that it’s tolerant of hot, humid climate.  Purportedly, it is increasing in use in industrial herb production as its leaves hold flavor when dried much better than Coriandrum sativum.  I’m trying a pot of it on my deck this summer.  Last summer I tried to germinate seeds and it was a total flop.  I was fortunate enough to find a plant at Stone Brothers & Byrd here in Durham this year so I’m going to try it again.

Vietnamese cilantro (Polygonum odoratum)

There is a second alternative for cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) flavor is  Vietnamese coriander or Polygonum odoratum. I have not been fortunate enough to find this one locally this year–it’s another that I want to explore the possibility of growing for the farmers’ market.  This herb is frequently used in Vietnamese cooking.  It has some “cilantro” flavor so is a possibile substitute.  The big advantage here is that it’s easy to grow.  It likes afternoon shade or even dappled shade all day, but needs to be evenly moist.  It’s fast enough growing that you may need to divide or transplant to a larger pot several times a season.  If it becomes root bound it will quit producing leaves.  It is a tropical plant that will die back at freezing (32 ° F/ 0 ° C).  Not all bad, as it can be kept indoors over the winter in a bright spot.  I had this on the deck last summer and was very pleased with it.  I just did not have enough light to maintain it indoors during the winter.   Now I need to find another plant.

(This image is from Mountain Valley Growers.  For some additional discussion of these herbs you can go to their website.  I’ve ordered from this supplier before and been very pleased with the quality and condition of the plants when they’ve arrived.  They also have some great recipes on that site too. There’s a lot of information on herbs and their use at this website.)

All things considered, I expect that I’ll buy cilantro from the grocery store when I need large quantities for the soup, but for single-serving amounts, I’ll  keep trying succession planting, culantro leaves, and hope to find Vietnamese cilantro locally rather than have to special order it.  (The problem with ordering for herb suppliers is that there is frequently a minimum order which needs to be met…I really don’t need six new herbs on my deck now–but I’m certainly considering it because I’d really like to have this one again.)  I’ll be letting some cilantro go to seed to try more of the green seeds as seasoning, too.

One additional solution to help you through the hot weather is to make “pesto” (leaving out the cheese and nuts) from cilantro leaves and keep it covered with a thin film of oil.  That holds remarkably well in the refrigerator (just like pesto)–about a week.   I’ve not tried freezing this as you can pesto, but I have used a frozen product during the winter.

There frozen cilantro available in the  Dorot (a company in Israel) line of frozen, chopped herbs.  I’ve used their cilantro/coriander during the winter when I need small quantities for things like adding fresh cilantro flavor to chili con carne, and been very pleased with it.  If you go to the Website you can find a store near you that carries the products.  (Image from Dorot.)

Bay, basil & oregano

Turkish (sweet) bay (Laurus nobilis)

New leaves on Laurus nobilis plant

Bay (Laurus nobilis)

This may be an herb that is associated more with winter cuisine because it is so frequently used in soups, stews, and braises which are typical of cool weather cooking.  Once you have used the fresh rather than dried leaves, it will be an all-season herb.

Culinary bay (Laurus nobilis) is often called bay laurel, sweet bay or Turkish bay.  The botanical name is important for this herb as there is another, California bay (Umbellularia californica), that is often found as “bay”.   The flavor of the California bay is more medicinal with a strong camphor smell that is much different from the complex flavors of  true bay laurel.   There is a whole new experience waiting when you use fresh bay laurel leaves in cooking.

This herb is “picky” to grow, but well worth the effort.  To grow bay laurel, you will need to buy a plant from a reputable source so that you can be sure that you are getting Laurus nobilis since the California bay lacks the “sweetness” of true bay.  True bay  is more expensive than most herbs because it’s difficult to propagate and is slow-growing.  You’ll likely (depending on climate where you live) want to grow your bay in a container in order to move it inside in the wintertime, at least until it is about 24 inches tall when the stems will be somewhat woody and better able to withstand cold.

Bay needs sun, but too intense sunlight will burn the leaves–so having it in a pot will let you move it around and discover the best site for it.   It also needs fertile soil, evenly moist but well-drained.  It should never be allowed to dry out completely or it’s likely to die. This is an herb that will need a container all to itself.  If you need to bring it indoors to winter over, you’ll need to put it where there is plenty of light and where it is well ventilated–best in a cooler area.  While indoors bay is susceptible to some pests like mealy bugs, scale, and aphids so you must watch it closely.

Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)

If there is a summer herb, as dried bay might be considered a winter herb,  it is most likely basil (Ocimum basilicum), especially the sweet, large-leaf, Italian basil.  Say tomato, and I’m sure a lot of  “foodies” would immediately say basil.  It is a tender annual that will not winter over–so it’s a spring event when you can plant basil and anxiously await that first harvest.   I suspect that basil would be at the top of a list of herbs grown by home gardeners–especially as it is so strongly associated with tomatoes.  There are many varieties of basil (purple, Thai, holy, cinnamon, lemon, and lime, globe for just a few) but we’ll start with the most common: sweet or Genovase basil.

To grow basil, you can start with seed or buy plants.  It is a heat-loving herb so you need to wait for warm weather to plant it outdoors (generally night-time temperatures need to stay above 50 ° F).  You can get a head start if you plant seeds indoors.  Once the weather is warm, you can gradually get your plants used to the outdoors, and finally plant them out. For your first time of growing basil, you should probably just buy plants.  Even so, if you plant your basil outdoors while the temperatures are too cool, you’re likely to have stunted plants that will never do really well.

Basil can be grown in the vegetable garden, herb garden, or in containers.  It needs average soil (so it will do well in that potting soil that you got from the garden center) but needs plenty of water (even moisture, not allowed to dry out between waterings) but must be well-drained.  It needs lots of  sun, but it does not like the drier, poorer soil conditions that some of the Mediterranean herbs will tolerate; however, basil will not do well in soil that is too rich either (don’t fertilize too much)–that will make it less fragrant since it will contain less of the essential oils.  This means that you should not plant basil in the same container as other Mediterranean herbs like sage.

As you start your basil plants, you want to pinch the growing tips so that the plants will branch sideways and be full and bushy.  Basil flowers readily, but after flowering the flavor declines so be rigorous in pinching the flowering tips.

There is one serious fungus disease (fusarium wilt) that can affect basil–it turns the leaves black and will kill plants in a short time.  This is a disease that is carried by seeds–so if you are starting your basil from seed, buy seeds that have been tested and are known to be disease free.  Should you get this disease in your plants, the only thing you can do is (literally) trash them–don’t throw the diseased plants in the compost or that will be contaminated too, and the disease can be transmitted to tomatoes and basil plants on which that compost is used.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum

Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare, subsp. hirtum)

There are many types of oregano which vary markedly in the intensity of flavor.  Likely the one most commonly found in the supermarket or in the garden center is common or wild oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare).  I like to grow the true Greek oregano (subspecies hirtum) for my use as it is very spicy and has an intense flavor.  It is a less vigorous growing plant than the common, but still easy to grow.   While you can start oregano from seed, it takes a long time to germinate and is slow-growing so unless you have lots of patience, buy a plant to start your herb garden.   The best way to tell what you’re getting it to smell and/or taste a leaf from the plant that you’re going to buy.  If you have never tasted Greek oregano, you are in for a wonderful treat–it’s much more flavorful and more peppery than the common oregano (which is what is most likely in those supermarket packs and in the garden center).

The two basics for growing oregano are sun and well-drained soil; given these it is a vigorous grower.  It is a perennial so once you get it started, it will stay with you for quite some time and generally be quite carefree to grow.   As with most herbs, it benefits from being used frequently or having the growing tips pinched occasionally to encourage it to branch and be a bushy, rather than a leggy, lanky plant.

A word of warning:  if you are also growing common oregano (see also Marjoram), don’t put it near your other species of oregano–it spreads by underground off-shoots (stolons) and by seeding itself, and it can (and likely will) replace your prized Greek (or other) oregano.   You might plant your Greek oregano in a container with sage, but not with other species of oregano or with marjoram.

◊ ♦ ◊

These three herbs would have to be part of absolute bare necessities, along with parsley, sage, thyme, and rosemary, for my cooking.  The longer I cook, the more herbs I want to have available for spontaneous use:  I’ve added tarragon, epazote and shiso (perilla), and lavender to what I’ve come to consider the “necessities”.  Every growing season is likely to find me adding another herb–this year it’s lime basil.  I’m waiting rather impatiently for the plant to be large enough to harvest some leaves and do something more than nibble on a leaf and contemplate where I’ll use it!

Parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme…

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)

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)

Salvia officinalis var. Berggarten

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.)

Salvia officinalis (Extrakta)

 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)

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)

Winter 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.

French (summer) thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

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.

Growing your own herbs

Whether you have a huge garden, or just a deck with some pots, you can grow herbs.  For me having fresh herbs makes cooking for one easy and exciting.  Just having the herbs around where you smell them when you brush against them can be inspirational.

Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'

Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'

Herbs pretty unfussy plants to grow–generally they like sun, and want the soil to be well drained.  Some are more drought-tolerant than others and some are more sun-tolerant than other; a few even like a bit of shade.

You can use a wide variety of containers–plastic, ceramic, wood…just be sure that there are holes in the bottom for good drainage.  Herbs really do not like wet feet.  I prefer to put my herbs in fairly large plastic containers since it reduces the need for watering in hot weather–a six-inch pot is about the smallest that I will use. Smaller than that and you’ll spend a lot of time watering in hot weather.

Though not glamorous, my favorite device for keeping herbs happy in hot weather is a spike that screws onto a one-liter (or two-liter) soft-drink bottle which is then stuck into the pot.  It delivers water slowly to the roots where it’s needed.   I catch rainwater in a five-gallon bucket to fill the bottles rather than using tap water.  You’ll see these in use in some of the pictures.  Locally, I can find these at Stone Bros. & Byrd.  They are also available in garden supply catalogs and seed catalogs.

We usually hear herbs characterized as “full sun” plants–that really means that most of them need at least six hours of sun a day; many are happy sitting around in the sun all day–but you have to take your climate into account.  An herb that might be wonderfully happy in all-day sun in the Pacific Northwest might not survive all-day sun in the southern U.S.  As you grow herbs you will learn to look at them and know if they are happy or not.

Herb-Gallium Odorata IMG_3834-1

Sweet Woodruff (Gallium odorata)

Some herbs such as sorrel, chervil, sweet cecily, sweet woodruff, and lemon balm would rather have some shade.  If you are planting them in the garden, you need to consider the position of the sun in all seasons of the year, and the presence (or absence) of trees that will leaf out in the summer.  One of the advantages of growing herbs in containers is that you can move them around to give them optimal sun and shade. No matter what the soil you use, if the sun is not there you’ll have spindly, leggy herbs without much flavor and  they will be prone to disease.

Soil is next in importance to sun for growing herbs.  An additional advantage of growing herbs in containers is that you control the soil. Herbs must have good drainage whether in the garden or in containers. (I suspect that many of us who cook for one will be growing them in containers, so that will be my focus.) I use potting soil from a reputable garden supply center.  I know that it’s not going to have diseases carried in it, and I know that it’s formulated to drain well as long as I put it in a  pot with appropriate drain holes, and that it will also hold water in an appropriate manner as well.  It’s a happy medium that I don’t have to fuss with–I can just plant herbs and cook with them.

Many of the herbs that we grow are perennials, so they won’t be moved and may not even be repotted every year, so it’s important to have good soil.  If they are planted in a large pot they may need only top dressing between times when they become root-bound and need to be divided or repotted.  I may fertilize more in the second year that they are in the same pot if it looks as if it is needed.

For many herbs I plant several in a much bigger pot–12 to 14 inches.  It looks great and watering frequency is reduced.  You do need to consider what herbs to plant together because of the differences in their likes for soil moisture and feeding.  Many of the Mediterranean  herbs (oregano, marjoram, thyme, rosemary, lavender) are very drought tolerant once established and need less water. Not so with basils:  basil likes sun, but likes evenly moist soil; I might plant several varieties of basil together in a large pot, or even have a basil plant share a large pot with a tomato plant, but I’d not mix basil with oregano and marjoram because of the differences in watering needs.

Basil (a fast-growing annual herb) is, in contrast to perennials (sage, oregano) is a heavy feeder as well; it will need to be “fed” more often–perhaps a dilute (quarter-strength) solution of all-purpose plant food or fish emulsion monthly. You need to consider the appetites of your herbs, as well as their proclivity for sitting in the sun, before you put them all together in a big pot.  Once you get perennials established they will provide much enjoyment with very little effort.

Some herbs which can be very invasive should be kept in separate pots: lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and mints, for example.  Other herbs simply do not do well in pots because they develop deep taproots, e.g. dill–and you cannot provide depth enough in a reasonable sized pot for them to do  well.  Others are simply too big for planting in containers (e.g.  angelica and borage) that we’d use here.  More varieties are being developed that are “dwarf” and are suited to containers.  While many dills (such as Anethum graveolens ‘Mammoth’)  do not do well in containers, there are some dwarf varieties (Delikat and Fernleaf) that are suitable for containers.

You’ve got containers, and soil.  Do you start with seeds or with plants?  Many garden centers will have herb plants, but they may not have a large selection of different varieties–you may only be able to get a generic “sage” or “thyme”.  One of the joys of herbs is seeking out different flavors and those that are especially  aromatic, with high levels of essential oils.  The “tarragon” that you find in the big-box garden center may not be French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus, var. sativa) which is what you want.  The oregano that you find there may not be Greek oregano, but Italian oregano, which is really sweet marjoram (Origanum marjorana).  You’ll want to find a good garden center, or try farmers’ markets in the spring.  Those growers will likely know more about the varieties of herbs that they have.

Buying plants is probably the best way to start growing herbs.  Starting from seeds gives you more possibilities, but you have extra seeds, the difficulties of getting them to germinate; some are slow growing, so you won’t be able to use them as quickly.  It can literally take weeks for some to germinate, the germination rate may be poor (e.g. Stevia), and then many more weeks before you can harvest for use in cooking, and that is really the point of growing your own herbs.  You want to smell and taste them, and season your food with them.

I’m addicted to having fresh herbs at my doorstep…I’m also picky about what varieties I have, so I usually start with seeds.  It also means that I wait impatiently to see if the seeds are going to germinate, and for the tiny  plants to get big enough to transplant, and then to harvest.  It’s always fun to try new varieties.  You do find out that all plants labeled “sage” are not the same.  Starting from seeds, there is always variability in the plants so some may be more aromatic than others.  When you are purchasing a plant, you should crush a leaf and smell it to be sure that it’s what you want–fragrant and potent.  Only plants taken from cuttings will be exactly the same.  Some herbs can only be propagated by cuttings (French tarragon, for example) so you want to be sure that is what you get. (That’s why I’m giving you the botanical names with the common names of the herbs.)

If you get to the point where you hanker to try a new variety of mint, or basil, there are suppliers from whom you can order plants that you cannot find locally.   Just for fun you might want to browse Richters Herbs , Johnny’s Selected Seeds, or Mountain Valley Growers just to get an idea of the wonderful variety that is available.  (Mountain Valley Growers has some wonderful recipes on their website for herbs too.)

There will be more on selecting plants and growing specific herbs coming soon.

Herbal joys of spring

Chives with blossom

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Even though we’ve had the occasional chilly day, it does feel as if spring is close.  I felt that especially going out on my deck and seeing that green was showing amongst my pots of herbs.   For some herbs, I take their hardiness for granted–sage, rosemary, lavender, mint, oregano, marjoram, chives.

There are others that make me breathe a sigh of relief when I see the green shoots coming up in the spring.  Even for the hardy ones, it is such a pleasure to see them return each spring: it means more freedom to improvise with seasonings.  I don’t try to winter-over in the house.  There is not enough room, or light to have really flavorful herbs.  During the coldest parts of the year, I depend on good quality dried herbs, or purchase fresh ones from the grocers.  The problem with having to depend on buying fresh ones is that it really dampens spontaneity in the seasoning process.  So the green shoots of spring are especially welcome.

Several weeks ago I was able to pick a few sorrel (Rumex acetosa) leaves to make sorrel butter to add some sparkle to my griddled salmon.  I had to be careful not to get greedy as there were so few leaves there at the time.  Now it’s  a lovely


Garden sorrel (Rumex acetosa)

clump of bright green foliage.  Sorrel sauce for salmon is in the offing.  While discussing herbs with a customer at the Durham Farmers’ market last week, it was mentioned as something to be added to white bean soup.  I’d not thought of that, but my mouth says that might be really interesting, given the bright, tart,  somewhat citrus-like  flavor of sorrel.  That got me to thinking that I might try it in the lentil soup that I like so much (instead of the lemon–definitely not with the lemon juice).   Sorrel leaves are very delicate and will cook down and almost literally melt into a sauce.

Greek oregano

Greek oregano (Origanium vulgare hirtum)

Another herb that I’m always happy to see showing new green in the spring is oregano–it’s one of my favorites.  I grow the Greek, and usually the Italian (or marjoram), and Syrian as well.  In addition to all the things like pizza and pasta sauces, I like to toss haricots verts (grown in a pot on my deck) with just a little extra-virgin olive oil that has been carefully infused with some fresh oregano (Greek or Italian, depending on my mood at the time I’m cooking them).  While oregano and marjoram do well as dried herbs, there is nothing like the flavor of the fresh herb to wake up your taste buds and say that the season has changed.  Spring is on the way!