Growing herbs

Article by: Nadia Hassani  |  Picture by: Ted Rosen
Growing herbs
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Herbs from your own garden are a wonderful way to add 'secret' ingredients to your cuisine. They are also very forgiving growers and rarely affected by diseases and pests, making them excellent plants for new gardeners. This article lists twelve popular culinary herbs and tells you how to seed, plant, grow and harvest them.
Growing herbs at a glance
Culinary herbs are either annuals, biennials or perennials.
Annual herbs complete their entire life cycle from seed in one season and then die.
Biennial herbs flower in their second year after seeding and then die.
Perennial herbs will live for several years.

Herbs like full sun and well-drained soil with a moderate amount of fertiliser, and a pH around 6.5 (see soil for more information about pH). Perennial herbs die down in the winter and emerge again in the spring.

Hardiness: Some herbs can withstand winters with sub-zero temperatures, others cannot. Even hardy herbs benefit from mulching in the winter to protect them from winter damage, especially when there is no snow cover and the plant is exposed to wind. Non-hardy herbs can be grown in containers and moved to a cool but bright indoor place for overwintering.

Plants or seeds? Many herbs have minuscule seeds, and the emerging seedlings are difficult to identify in the garden and tricky to thin out. With a few exceptions, it is therefore recommended to start herbs in seed pots instead of sowing them directly.

Also, some herbs are erratic in their germination and take several weeks to germinate, so starting them indoors in seed pots gives you a head start on the growing season. Indoor seed starting also allows you to make sure your basil is ready when your tomatoes ripen.

If you only occasionally need a few leaves or sprigs of an herb, it is easier and more economical to purchase a plant. However, if you want large amounts, for example basil to make pesto, it is better to start your own plants from a seed package.

Growing in containers: Unless otherwise noted, all of the herbs listed below can be grown in containers.

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Basil is an annual, cold-sensitive herb that must be grown in full sun. A single plant will produce about 120g (about 3 mugfuls) of leaves in a season. If you need more than that, instead of buying plants it is much more economical to grow basil from seed.
Sow basil indoors two months before the last frost in your area. Move the seedlings outdoors when all danger of frost is past. Cold weather blackens the leaves. If there is a chance of frost at the end of the season, you can cover it overnight with a piece of light cloth. If you want to have a constant supply of basil until late in the summer, sow again in late spring/early summer. You can also grow basil in containers. Every plant should have a space of about 15cm in diameter.
Because basil has thin leaves it must be watered more frequently than most other herbs, especially during dry spells.
You can harvest basil cutting the leaves two to three times per plant during the season. Pinching out the flowers when they appear encourages leaf growth. Basil can be dried. Freezing is not recommended unless it is processed as pesto.
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Chives are a long-lived perennial that withstands cold and snowy winters. Chives need a sunny location. The blades can be harvested repeatedly, and its blossoms are edible.
Chives should be bought as plants because growing chives from seeds takes about one year, and one to two plants is usually enough for a family. The roots of established plants must be divided every two to three years. When the plant shows signs of weakening, such as poor growth or yellowing leaves, apply liquid soil according to the instructions. Other than that, chives require very little care. Chives can be grown in containers, where unlike in garden soil it will need regular watering (see containers).
Chive blades may be dried or frozen after chopping but they lose much of their flavour so they are best used fresh.
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Coriander is an annual cold-sensitive herb that needs full sun. Unless you regularly use a whole bunch of coriander, buying a potted plant or two will serve your needs. If you want to grow coriander from seed, sow after all danger of frost has passed. If you grow coriander in a container, water it every day or two (see containers).
Both the leaves and the seeds can be harvested. If you grow coriander for the leaves, remove the flowers to prevent seeds forming and to encourage leaf growth.
Overwintering tender herbs indoors
The best location for overwintering herbs indoors are cool rooms with plenty of daylight. If you place the pots in a heated room, make sure to water amply and frequently, as the pots will dry out considerably.
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Dill is an annual herb that should be grown in a sunny location. It is best sown directly outdoors in early spring, because it does not transplant well. The seedlings must be thinned out to 20cm apart. With its long, carrot-like taproot, it is one of the few herbs not suitable for container growing.
After cutting, dill does not grow back. To ensure a constant supply over the summer sow dill successively about one month apart. Dill should not be grown next to fennel, as the two plants will likely interbreed and the result unusable. Dill grows taller in moist, well-drained but not soggy soil. It needs extra water in dry weather.
Dill fronds can be dried or frozen after chopping. Dried dill seeds are used in pickling.
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Marjoram is a perennial but because in most areas it does not survive the winter, it is usually grown as an annual. Plant it in a sunny spot in your garden, or in a container. As one plant supplies enough for a family of four, and marjoram seeds are tiny and difficult to establish, it is easier to buy a plant. If grown in a container marjoram needs regular watering.
The leaves from an established plant can be harvested any time and used fresh or dried. If you plan to dry marjoram you can get the fullest flavour by taking cuttings just before the flowers fully develop.
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Mint is a hardy perennial with many varieties. It is invasive. To prevent it from spreading into other areas of the garden, deeply cut into the soil with a shovel around the plant to sever the matted roots and remove them. The safe alternative is to grow mint in pots in or out of the ground. Mint needs full sun.
Growing mint from root cuttings is easy. Place a freshly cut twig about 5 cm deep in garden soil or in a container with potting soil and water it regularly until you see new leaves forming. Mint quickly establishes new roots. Once mint is established in the garden, it does not require any watering. Mint in containers dries out quickly and needs extra water.
Mint can be cut at any time. It is ideal for drying.
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Oregano is a perennial hardy herb with many varieties. True Greek oregano (Origanum heracleoticum) is the preferred choice for culinary purposes. One plant supplies enough for a family of four. Rather than buying a packet with dozens of seeds it is easier and just as economical to purchase an oregano plant. Oregano can be grown in a container. Unlike oregano in the garden, container-grown oregano needs regular watering (see our article on gardening in containers).
Oregano grows in full sun. If forms a tall mound up to 50cm high and can spread vigorously. Be sure to leave enough space around it so it does not crowd out other herbs. Removing the flower spikes encourages new leaf growth.
Oregano is ideal for drying.
Planting herb pots
You can 'plant' a potted non-hardy perennial herb. Keep it in the ground for the warm season and dig it out in the fall to bring indoors for the winter. In your garden, the surrounding soil keeps the pot cool and slows evaporation. Heated rooms in winter will draw out moisture. Be sure they stay moist. You cannot transplant an established herb from the garden to a pot at the end of the season because the root system is severed leaving much of it in the ground.
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Parsley is a hardy biennial herb which means it blooms in its second year, then dies. Flat-leaf parsley (Italian parsley) is the preferred variety for culinary use because it is more flavourful. Curly parsley is mainly used for garnish.
Germination of the seeds is slow so buying parsley as a plant is easier. Or, buy several plants and plant them 20cm apart. A location in full sun is preferable, although parsley tolerates light shade. The leaves are tastiest in the first year of the plant, but second year growth is usually quite acceptable, too. Parsley can be grown in a container, which requires regular watering (see containers).
Parsley leaves and sprigs can be frozen whole for use in soups and stews.
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Rosemary is a non-hardy perennial herb for sunny locations that must be brought indoors for the winter. Because it is a shrub-type herb, it should be located in the back of an herb garden, so it won’t block access. Rosemary needs full sun. Unlike in garden soil, rosemary in containers needs regular watering (see containers).
After flowering in midwinter, the plant often gets leggy. The spindly new growth and dead stems should be pruned. Every few years it may be necessary to transplant it into to a larger pot.
Rosemary can be harvested any time but the best time to cut mature sprigs for drying is in late summer.
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Sage is a hardy perennial herb that requires full sun. After 4 to 5 years it becomes woody and needs to be replaced. One plant yields enough leaves for a family of four. Buying a plant is easier and economical.
After the winter, cut back with bypass pruners last year's dead stems to encourage new growth. Frequent cuttings during the growing season will keep sage bushy and healthy. It can be grown in a container, where it needs regular watering (see containers).
Sage can be dried, or the leaves can be frozen whole.
Winter mulch for herbs
Even hardy herbs benefit from mulching in the winter to protect them from winter damage, especially when there is no snow cover and the plant is exposed to wind.
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Tarragon is a hardy perennial herb that can tolerate both full sun and partial shade.
Tarragon is usually added to dishes in small amounts. It is easier and economical to buy a plant. Tarragon must be divided and replanted every three years. If grown in a container tarragon should be watered on a regular basis.
Not more than one-third of the sprigs should be harvested in one cutting in order not to weaken the plant. Cutting for drying is best done just before it blooms. Tarragon is suitable for freezing as whole sprigs or stripped leaves.
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Thyme is a hardy perennial herb that prefers full sun.
The plant is slow to establish so buying a plant is easier than growing from seed. Thyme should be divided every three to four years, when it becomes woody. Thyme can be grown in a container, in which case it needs frequent watering.
Thyme can be dried, and the sprigs can also be frozen.
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