Summer, Fall or Spring, anytime is a great time to start an herb garden. Herbs grow quickly and their leaves give zest to recipes. It’s an easy project for kids and a simple alternative to a full-on vegetable garden. Plus, a few pots of herbs can be squeezed into a small space, like a windowsill.
Growing your own herbs saves money. Fresh cut herbs are pricey; for a few dollars you can buy a plant that will yield a harvest multiple times over. Because you harvest only a few leaves at a time, a few herb plants are more than enough.
What to grow:
Basil, Cilantro, Chives, Dill, Mint, Parsley, Oregano, Rosemary and Sage are good starters. Try lavender, too.
Start plants from seed or nursery starter plants:
Seeds are cheaper, already-grown nursery plants can be used immediately. Look for healthy, green starter plants. Plant directly into the soil, or 6” diameter pots, then water. Keep the herbs in a sunny area.
For seeds, use specially packed for the current growing season. In a pot filled with potting soil/growing mix, or on a prepared garden patch, scatter a thin layer of seeds about 1/2” deep, cover with potting soil/growing mix and water. Thin out when the plants get crowded.
Grow in a sunny indoor or outdoor location:
Herbs thrive on 6-8 hours of sunlight, so locate a sunny spot or windowsill for your garden. They’ll will grow in dappled light or partial shade, but might not grow as large. 6” pots give the herbs room to grow. Try combining herbs like mint, basil and thyme in a larger pot for a self-contained herb cutting garden.
“Wet feet” harms herbs, so don’t overwater—too much water can kill them. Stick a finger in the soil about 1 inch. If the soil is noticeably dry, water just enough to remoisten the soil. Make sure your pots have good drainage, such as a hole that allows excess water to escape.
Snip enough leaves or stalks for what you need and use right away. Leave alone the baby springs for regrowth. For a supply of seeds, allow some of the stalks to flower. Otherwise, snip the flower-stalks so the energy goes into producing, leaves, not flowers.
How to use:
What would salsa without cilantro, tabbouleh without parsley or mint? Tabbouleh is perfect for mid-to-late summer when tomatoes are ripe.
TABBOULEH (adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)
- 3 medium tomatoes, seeded, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
- 1/2 cup fine or medium grind bulgur (cracked wheat)
- 1/4 cup lemon juice from 2 lemons
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/8-1/4 cayenne pepper, optional
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/4-1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
- 3 scallions (green onion) chopped fine
- lemon slices & Romaine lettuce leaves
1. Toss toatoes and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Transfer to a fine mesh strainer, set strainer over bowl, and let stand for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. Meanwhile, prepare bulgur and the vegetables. Rinse bulgur in fine mesh strainer under cold water. Drain well, squeezing out the excess if necessary, and transfer to a second bowl. Stir in 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons juice from the draining tomatoes. Let stand until grains begin to soften, 30 to 40 minutes.
3. Whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, olive oil, cayenne, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Pour into large bowl and add the soaked bulgur, drained tomatoes, parsley, mint, and scallions. Stir together, cover and let stand at room temperature one hour so flavors have a chance to meld and bulgur is tender.
To serve, line a bowl with Romaine lettuce leaves, ring leaves with lemon slices, and spoon the tabbouleh into the center of the bowl. Serve immediately with pita wedges and the crisp inner romaine lettuce leaves.
Growing Fresh Basil
Types to try: “Sweet Genovese” Italian basil, “Siam Queen” Thai basil, “Aristotle” Greek basil, “Purple Ruffles” or “Green Ruffles” ornamental basil.
Use: Italian, Mediterranean,Thai and other East Asian cuisine, large-leafed basil for pesto. Fresh as pizza or a bruschetta topping. Freeze leaves whole in ice cube trays/small plastic blags for later use or before frost, harvest all the leaves and dry on baking sheets. Then store in jar and use as dry basil.
Planting: Basil is sensitive to frost and cold, so put plants out in late spring/early summer. Keep pots raised on surfaces like ledges or tabletops for extra warmth. Pinch off flower buds to keep the plant bushy. Keep soil on dry side.
Harvesting: When small, take only a few leaves. Harvest only as many leaves/springs as needed.
Types to try: Classic chives or Garlic Chives (Chinese chives).
Use: Use as green onions. Garnish for soups, salads, baked potatoes or creamy dips. Use both leaves and the flowers in salads. Harvest extra leaves in summer and freeze on a baking sheet for reuse in winter.
Planting: Chives are hardy perennials that self-seed easily. Cut down in winter and divide clumps when they outgrow their pot/location. Divide every 3 years. For pots, grow in a soil-based potting mix. Grows well in sun and partial shade.
Harvesting: Snip younger stems at the base with scissors. Don’t only snip the tips. The pretty flowers can be enjoyed in vase arrangements or sprinkled on salads.
Types to try: “Calypso”, the slow-to-bolt “Confetti” or Moroccan coriander.
Use: Mexican, Middle Eastern, Indian and Thai/Southeast Asian cuisine, seeds as coriander, leaves/stems in salads or as a garnish. Roots can be used to flavor soups and curries. Freeze leaves in batches in ice-cube trays for later use.
Planting: If sowing seeds, sow once in May and again in August. Save seeds for the next year; Cilantro is an annual in the Midwest climate. Seeds can easily be sown in a pot and kept year-round indoors on a windowsill.
Harvesting: Harvest leaves often by snipping with scissors. Collect seeds in late summer by tipping the stalks into paper bags. Store them in screw-top jars in a cool, dry place.
Types to try: “Featherleaf” or “Mammoth”
Use: In pickling, preserves and dips, as garnish. Also in salads, chicken, fish, and pork dishes. Pairs well with lemon. For later use, freeze leaves on baking sheets.
Planting: Easy to grow, Sow seeds or plants of this hardy perennial in directly in the garden or containers. Dill doesn’t like to be disturbed, self-seeds readily. Grow in full sun, keep the soil moist.
Harvesting: Cut leaves once the dill starts growing. Snip off flower stalks to preserve flavor in the leaves. Allow a few plants to flower if you want seeds. Leaves are pretty in floral arrangements.
How to grow Mint
Types to try: “Spearmint” or “Peppermint”, which has less sharp flavor than spearmint. Also fun types like “Apple Mint”, “Pineapple Mint” and “Curly Mint”.
Use: Steep dry or fresh leaves for a refreshing tea, use as dessert garnish, in sauces, drinks, salads, with chicken, pork, fish and lamb, in Italian and Mediterranean cuisine.
Planting: Give this hardy perennial its own garden bed or pot, as mint spreads. Loves moisture, so keep the soil wet or plant in a moist area. Trim off seedlings or move runners into their own pots.
Harvesting: Snip leaves all season at their peak from early summer to early fall. To keep indoors, in fall, dig up a runner and put in pot filled halfway with potting mix. Then add another layer and keep on window still. Dry mint leaves on baking sheets or freeze in plastic bags.
Types to try: Flat leaf Italian parsley or curly parsley or varieties like “Italian Oscar” or “Laura”.
Use: In salads, soups, pastas, and a multitude of vegetable or meat dishes that benefit from parsley’s bright flavor. Better fresh, skip dried. Freeze chopped parsley in ice-cube trays or freeze the stems and leaves in plastic bags.
Planting: An easy to grow, hardy biennial, parsley will reseed itself but also likes partial shade in summer and to be kept moist. In winter, keep parsley in a pot on a sunny windowsill.
Harvesting: Snip leaves as needed. The stalks, unless thin, are often too tough to eat raw but can flavor stocks.
Greek oregano (variety “Kaliteri”), Italian oregano, also sold as Sicilian oregano or Wild Sweet Marjoram, and “Aureum” a pretty golden variety. Mexican oregano is less intense than Mediterranean, but works well in Latin American dishes.
Use: Italian, Mexican, and Mediterranean cuisines, classic on pizza, good in salads, soups, , even sorbets, also Italian-inspired meat, vegetable and pasta dishes for its zest. Very flavorful when dried.
Planting Tips: Easy-to-grow semi-hardy perennial; grow in a container to overwinter inside. Loves full sun, hates excessive moisture, make sure the soil/growing matter has good drainage and has room to spread to avoid root rot. Amend the soil with organic matter if necessary.
Harvest Tips: Snip the leaves as necessary. Flavor is brightest before the plant blooms. Frequent harvests will keep the plant bushy, with a supply of tender leaves. A little goes a long way.
Types to try: Any variety of Rosemarinus officinalis.
Use: In cooking or making things smell good—use it in sachets, hair rinse, or homemade soaps and beauty products. Excellent in Italian and Mediterranen cusine, use leaves fresh or dried. Springs can be used to brush marinades on meat.
Planting: Wonderfully-fragrant, half-hardy perennial evergreen shrub that’s treated like an annual in the Northern Illinois climate, grow in a contrainer with well-drained, sandy soil in full-fun. Start with nursery-grown plants. Keep plants moist, do not overwater.
Harvesting: Snip leaf sprigs continually as the plant is growing. Strip leaves from the stem and chop. Also freezes and dries well.
Types to try: Common sage, or “Tricolor” with marbled purple, white and pink leaves, “Icterina” with variregated gold-green leaves, or purple-leafed “Purpurascens.”
Use: With Chicken and other poultry, pork, sausage, stuffing, Italian (especially Northern Italian) cuisine, creative cocktails. Also good with squash or sautéed in butter as a soup garnish. Better fresh than dried.
Planting: Shrubby perennial that can grow well in containers, plant in well-drained soil, loves full sun. Root rot can be a problem with Northern Illinois’ typical heavy clay-based soils.
Harvesting: Snip leaves before blooming begins, or cut 6”-8” long stems and dry. Leaves can be dried or frozen.
Types to try: Common thyme or Golden Lemon thyme. Creeping thyme for foot-paths.
Use: A small bit in poultry or fish dishes, egg dishes, soups, stuffing, pasta and pizza sauces, Mediterranean cuisine, mixed in an Herbs de Provence blend.
Planting: Grow this stiff, short perennial in full-sun and gritty, well-drained soil. Protect plants in the ground by covering with pine boughs, or grow in containers. Don’t cut back severely in fall.
Harvesting: Snip the stems more than once during a full growing season, after the plants flower. Strip the leaves from the springs and allow stems to dry. Then remove the dried leaves and store in an air tight container.