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.