Growing herbs is a snap. They’re adaptable to a wide variety of sites and conditions, and they smell great. They add flavor to food, perfume to potpourri, and fancy garnish to the plate. Also, a $5 basil plant is a much better investment than a $4 package of cut basil.
Choosing what to grow
So many herbs are available, sometimes choosing the ones for your garden can be a little overwhelming. The easiest way to choose is by asking yourself how you plan to use them.
Do you cook a lot of Greek or Italian food? You want oregano, basil, Italian parsley, sage, and even fennel.
Plan to create bath products? Choose lavender, rosemary, and thyme for their refreshing scents and antiseptic qualities.
Want to lure in bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds? Parsely is a butterfly caterpillar food, bees love lavender flowers, and the scarlet flowers of pineapple sage are a showstopper, attracting hummingbirds and butterflies.
Tips for growing herbs
Whole books have been written on growing herbs, but here are a few tips that we’ve learned for getting the most out of your herb garden.
1. Herbs like it tough. Generally, the more your herbs struggle, the more flavorful they will be. So while we plant basil next to the tomatoes in the vegetable garden (hey, they’re used together, right?), we plant most of our other herbs in less fertile soil. Don’t fertilize either; you’ll get wimpy, less flavorful herbs.
2. The Mediterranean herbs (lavender, rosemary, thyme, sage, and oregano) must have good drainage. If your herb has a slightly bluish cast, it’s drought tolerant; and wet feet will kill it. So add a little gravel to the soil when you plant these tough herbs, and consider planting your lavender and rosemary in slightly raised hills to improve the drainage further. And cut the perennial ones back by a third every spring to keep them from becoming woody and unproductive.
3. While herb flowers are pretty and often edible, try to keep your culinary herbs cut back. You want the plants’ energy going toward producing the oils that give your herbs their characteristic tastes, not setting seeds. And be sure to clip flowers off before they go to seed, or you’ll be picking chives and dill out of every bed in your garden.
4. Parsley, dill, and cilantro are easy to raise from seed, and dill and cilantro tend to go to seed quickly. Plant to plan successive waves of these herbs, especially if you want cilantro available when the tomatoes come in.
5. While many of the most common herbs prefer full sun, other, less well-known ones can handle some shade just fine. Borage (beautiful blue flowers), lovage (tastes like celery), catmint (cats love it), lemon balm (spreads like crazy), and parsley all do well in part shade. So does mint.
6. And speaking of mint: while it’s magnificent for mint juleps, mojitos, lemonade, and tea, mint will take over any bed it’s allowed in. Instead, plant mint in a pot or sink a pot with drainage holes directly into the ground and plant in that. The mint may still try to escape, so keep pruners handy.
In Indiana, mid-May is prime planting time for herbs. So add some to the garden, and keep your herb scissors handy to snip all those fantastic flavors.