Growing herbs can be one of the easiest ways to bring great inspiration and flavor to your meals. Consider them the “gateway to flavor” as you explore all the culinary options that are presented as the bountiful harvests await your table. The other way to consider herbs is the kind of food you enjoy, and plant accordingly. Love Mexican food? Better have cilantro in your garden!
The simplicity of growing herbs can be summarized in a few statements that reflect preferences for the majority of herbs:
- Herbs require full sun settings – that a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight, the more the better.
- Herbs need good soil drainage – soil that isn’t highly compacted so digging in organic matter will improve drainage.
- And finally, herbs prefer to grow on the lean side of fertility so use caution in how much you fertilize your herb plantings.
Digging compost into herb beds helps improve drainage and is a very low addition of nitrogen. We advise watering new plantings in with water soluble phosphorus (Jack’s Classic Blossom Booster 10-30-20) because the phosphorus promotes rooting to get the plant off to a strong start.
Herbs don’t have to have their own space in a traditional herb garden setting, rather consider including herbs in landscape beds, vegetable gardens and containers. As long as these settings have full sun and good drainage, the herbs will thrive and add to the beauty of your landscape.
PERENNIAL HERBS – Come back every year
Much maligned for their vigor of growth, we consider this “down-side” of most mints to be a benefit for growing them in containers.
Very true, mints planted in landscape beds can become overwhelming thugs. Attempts to restrict their growth with edging (unless 12 inches deep into the soil) can be futile.
Our advice is to get large containers, fill with quality potting soil, and then the mints. Fill the containers with lush green foliage. In late fall, move the containers into a garage or shed that doesn’t go below 25 degrees, then bring them out each spring to grow again.
Its pretty hard to kill a mint – and even harder to beat the wide range of flavor options.
Greek oregano is the first choice of culinary experts, but remember all selections of oregano have some of the classic flavor. Golden and variegated oregano have good flavor along with ornamental foliage for attractive combination pots. Greek oregano is perfectly winter hardy in Nebraska while the other two do not always overwinter, so consider bringing the golden and variegated forms indoors for windowsill gardens.
Sage comes is a wide variety of forms: the old fashioned hardy favorite that might grow to 3′ in height, a dwarf form called Berggarten, and several kinds of colorful foliage types like purple, golden and tricolor. The colorful foliage forms are not reliably winter hardy, but they deliver flavor and foliage contrast all summer.
So many kinds of thyme are available and the flavor is as variable as foliage color, bloom and height.
Experimenting with different kinds in your garden is the best way to know what works best for your needs.
Thyme is often recommended as a great landscape plant, but our experience has shown it to be a challenge in extensive plantings.
Heavy clay soils that stay wet too long and the plant’s shallow roots present problems in extended periods of high temperatures and winds. Not to dissuade the use of thyme in the landscape, just use knowing its limits.
We think this is one of the most overlooked and underappreciated herbs.
Winter savory is a low growing perennial herb with dark green foliage, making it a very attractive landscape plant.
ANNUAL HERBS – Need to plant each year
There are lots of forms of basil and everyone seems to have their favorite. Since making pesto is one of our favorite uses, we like the large leaf basils like Cardinal and Genovese. Thai Basil is good for as you would guess, Thai cuisine. Pesto Perpetuo Basil is a unique form that has variegated foliage, great flavor, upright form and does not flower. These qualities make it a great choice for cooking and mixed patio planters of flowers and herbs. Basil is easy to grow from seed, and we have great results direct seeding in containers or groundbeds after May 15 when the soil is warm. Growing or buying transplants will deliver earlier harvest. Remember to pinch back at planting time to insure good branching for sturdier plants and bigger harvest.
Whether you are a fan of Italian Flat Leaf or Moss Curled, parsley is an easy to grow herb that brightens the flavor of salads, sauces and marinades. Growing from seed each spring is easy (technically a biennial so the foliage will come back the second season but quickly start to flower and not taste good). We recommend a transplant to start the season harvest.
Cilantro is a love/hate kind of herb. There is scientific evidence that some people possess a gene that makes cilantro taste soapy. For the rest of the population, cilantro is a mainstay of Mexican cooking. It can be grown from seed or transplant, but keep in mind it quickly goes to flower (called bolting) when under heat or drought stress. Successive plantings (outside the midsummer heat) will insure a continuous harvest of flavorful harvests.
TENDER PERENNIALS – Perennials that don’t overwinter in Nebraska
Here’s an herb that delivers a strong flavor, so a little goes a long way. Rosemary is not reliably winter hardy in Nebraska, although some years Arp and Madeline Hill selections can survive. We like to plant it in a terracotta container and sink the pot in the soil. The surrounding soil moderates the summer heat (and missed waterings), and makes it easy to bring the whole container inside for winter windowsill gardens.
What recipe for simmering stews or soups doesn’t call for a bay leaf? And what a difference a freshly harvest leaf makes over the packaged version found on grocery shelves! Think of bayleaf as a houseplant that enjoys a summer vacation outdoors on the patio. Prune regularly(harvesting foliage) to keep the plant to a manageable size so you can move back indoors in October. This is another tough/tender herb that we like to grow in a terracotta pot that is sunk in the soil for the summer. You’ll have plenty of leaves to share with friends and use in wonderfully fragrant herbal bouquets. The more you harvest, the better the plant will look.
Lemongrass could be mistaken for a Miscanthus, as this tender can grow to be 4 feet in height in a thick clump like many other ornamental grasses. Individual grass sections (called culms) can be split off the fast growing clump and used in Asian stir fries and marinades. It is believed that lemongrass repels mosquitos so many people like to include in patio plantings.
Makrut or Kaffir Lime
Here’s the most unusual offering of flavorful plants, and if you like Thai food you’ll want to be able to harvest your own Kaffir Lime leaves. Better referred to as Makrut Lime because Kaffir is considered an offensive term in some cultures, it is a component of Pad Thai and many curries. If you’ve ever grown a grapefruit from seed (great kids project), you’ll know just how to grow Makrut Lime. Sunny window for the winter, fertilize with acid fertilizer because of our high pH water, and move outside when frost is not a danger. Water thoroughly so excess water runs out of the drainage hole and let dry slightly in between waterings.