Seasoned advice for growing your own herbs

April 6, 2015

Fresh herbs are everywhere these days, in recipes, restaurants and supermarket produce aisles.

But in a nation that was relatively herb-averse for decades, even lifelong gardeners may have little experience growing, say, basil and cilantro.

Garden writer Ann McCormick demystifies the process in "Homegrown Herb Garden: A Guide to Growing and Culinary Uses" (Quarry Books), the inviting new book she co-authored with chef Lisa Baker Morgan. Along with Morgan’s simple and appealing recipes that put these herbs to work (two examples: springtime vegetable stir-fry and pan-fried cantaloupe with honey-ricotta and fresh mint), you’ll find McCormick’s detailed guide to growing 15 adaptable and easy-going herbs, from classics such as dill and mint to current favorites basil and cilantro to adventurous options such as winter savory, bay laurel and lemon grass.

Homegrown herbs won’t necessarily taste better, says McCormick, a straight-talking lifetime gardener who blogs at Herb ’n Cowgirl, but they’re a wonderful addition to a garden, adding interest and aroma, and providing ready access to fresh, seasonal flavor. You may see cost savings, too.

A packet of fresh oregano costs $2 or $3 at the market. "You may pay — top dollar — $2.99 for a 4-inch pot of oregano," she says. "You can grow that in a container and ... you’re going to have access to fresh oregano (throughout your growing season)." And, of course, many perennial herbs will return year after year in the garden, depending on your growing zone.

Herbs generally need a warm, sunny place to grow; think the Greek Isles in summer with whitewashed houses and rocky hillsides, McCormick says. Some herbs, like dill, aren’t hard to grow from seed, but she recommends that gardening beginners start with the potted herbs widely available at garden centers and in supermarket produce aisles.

Start with the herb you like best or, if you’re a rookie, try McCormick’s top picks for trouble-free herb gardening. While all 15 of the herbs in her book were selected for adaptability in many growing regions, sweet marjoram, chives, basil and thyme are among the most forgiving and resilient, she says.

Herbs can be planted outdoors once daytime highs are consistently above 60 degrees and nighttime lows do not go below freezing. If you’re bringing home a potted plant to put in the garden, exercise self control before using it in the kitchen, McCormick says. You want to give it a chance to grow before using its leaves. If your basil plant comes home standing 4 inches, for instance, wait until it’s about 6 to 8 inches tall before you start harvesting.

The rules for harvesting vary, but you never want to strip a plant of all its leaves, effectively cutting off its food supply. "When you’re harvesting an herb, you don’t want to take off more than a third — at most half — of the total leaves," says McCormick. "And this assumes that you have indeed let it grow larger than when you (bought) it."

But the more you use a plant, the more you delay flowering, which represents the end of an herb’s growing cycle. Clipping your herb regularly will provide you with a longer-lasting supply.

McCormick recommends harvesting when plants are well-watered and unstressed and using sharp clippers so you don’t damage the stems.

Herbs are at their most flavorful when they’re first harvested because, over time, the essential oils that give them their fragrance and flavor escape and evaporate.

Asked to name her favorite herb, she pauses, but not for long.

"The one that draws my hand to it when I’m out in the garden, frankly, is rosemary: There’s something about the aroma," she says. "I brush my hand over the leaves and it releases that (almost piney) scent. It’s a stimulating, refreshing scent that just really gets to me."


Three great ideas

Mix it up: Many herbs are pretty enough to grow alongside flowers. Thyme makes an attractive ground cover, with delicate early-summer blooms that are popular with bees. You can plant thyme with perennial bulbs, or in the front of a flower bed.

Make a hedge: Winter savory has attractive glossy foliage and spikes of small pink or white flowers that grow on woody branches. Try trimming it to form a low hedge separating sections of your garden.

Think small: You don’t have to nurture a 4-foot dill plant to grow fresh dill. Look for dwarf varieties such as "Fernleaf" at your garden center. Dill needs space for its taproot, however, so if you’re patio gardening, choose containers that are at least 10 inches deep.

— N.S.



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