My first adventures of using fresh herbs were purchasing those little plastic packets of thyme and basil at the supermarket. But this was far from ideal, as I’d use all of it quickly and need more soon after, or I'd use half and the rest would wind up in the bottom of the fridge, forgotten and rotted. The expense and waste left me hesitant of buying more.
So after a lot of research, I decided to try my hand at growing herbs again. While I plant most of my herbs outside in the fresh air and sunshine, I grow my basil indoors, as I have already lost two basil plants to mice. I set them outside on my porch one day to begin hardening them off to transplant, and forgot to bring them in that night. When I went to check on them the next morning, the mice had ate them down to the stem. :(
Fresh herbs are, without a doubt, one of the easiest and most delicious ways to add flavor to almost any recipe. And no matter what your dietary restrictions may be, (gluten-free, paleo, AIP, vegan, etc...) fresh herbs fit within almost any diet. Here is a list of the herbs I have planted, as they are the ones I like using the most.
My Top 7 Herbs
- Chives: They are delicious in salads, on baked potatoes, or snipped over soups. They're a perennial plant that produces for many years. If allowed to flower (not advised for plants you plan to cook with), pink flowers will crown many of the stems. Honey bees and butterflies love chive flowers, so I have several planted outside. Some that I let flower to attract bees to my garden, and several that I keep snipped for cooking. To plant: Sprinkle seeds in loose soil, pressing them down lightly, then cover with about 1/2 inch of seed starting mix. Water and keep the seeds evenly moist until germination. Thin chives to 4-6 shoots per clump, and space clumps about 8" apart. Chives like loamy, well drained soil. Cut them back in the Fall after flowering so new shoots will come up in the Spring.
- Basil: Delicious in tomato sauces, stir-fried vegetables, salads and pesto. The mice seem to love basil, so I keep this one inside. Basil loves warm, bright sheltered spots. To plant: They should be sown thinly and covered with about a quarter-inch of seed starting mix. Keep the soil moist with a spray bottle until germination. Once the seedlings have two pairs of true leaves you can thin out the weaker seedlings. Thin the plants to be 6-12 inches apart. They like damp soil, and thrive in a larger pot. To find out what I mean by "True Leaves" check out my Gardening 101: Starting Seeds Indoors series.
- Thyme, Rosemary & Oregano: These are great in soups, stocks, meats, and Italian-themed dishes. They are perennial plants, so you won't have to replant them each year. To plant: They like soil that is light, sandy, or loamy, and well drained. Their seed germination rate can be iffy, so it is best to plant them as seedlings. Once established they are pretty hardy plants, so they do well outside. Another bonus, bees and butterflies love these plants as well, so make sure to plant a couple of extras, and let them flower to attract bees to your garden
- Cilantro: Not everyone likes this herb. You either love it or hate it. I absolutely love the stuff. It's great in salsas and Mexican or Asian themed dishes. Cilantro can be difficult to grow indoors though, so it's another herb I plant outside. The most important thing to remember when growing cilantro is that it does not like hot weather. It needs to be in a shady spot during the heat of the day. Cilantro is a short lived herb, and needs new seeds planted about every six weeks to keep a steady supply throughout the growing season. It's also a perennial plant that will flower and reseed itself if left alone. To get the most use from your cilantro, plant it in the Spring or early Fall, as cilantro loves cool weather. They will flower quickly in hotter weather. To plant: Sow seeds 1⁄2 inch deep in loose, well-drained soil, thinning the seedlings to 12 inches apart. Butterflies and bees love cilantro, so they are a must have for gardens.
- Dill: I am specifically growing this to can pickles, but it's also good with fish, vegetables, and even dips! It has a deep tap root, so they are planted outside. To plant: Sow dill seeds about 1/4-inch deep in loose, rich, well drained soil. Dill is another plant that bees and butterflies love. Caterpillars of the swallowtail butterfly are partial to dill, and can eat many of the leaves. So plant a few extra to make sure you have enough for the both of you. Also, don’t plant dill near fennel or cilantro, as they will cross-pollinate with each other.
Herb Gardening Success Tips
- Location: Herbs need at least 6 hours of bright sunlight per day. This may be difficult, especially in the winter time if you are growing them indoors. So consider using a grow light if nessasary.
- Soil: Herbs need a loose medium that drains well when first starting out. So a seed starting mix is a better choice then potting soil or garden soil. I actually use both a potting soil and a seed starting mix. I fill my container, or the hole I am planting them in outside, 3/4 full with the potting soil, then the rest of the way with the seed starting mix. That way the tiny herb seeds can sprout and come up easily through the top layer of medium. If growing indoors make sure they are planted in a container that is big enough to allow for free root growth. Becoming root-bound will equal unhealthy plants that will eventually die, no matter how well you take care of them.
- Water: Your plants need enough water to keep the soil moist without being over watered. Once plants are established, let the top of the soil dry out between watering's and check moisture levels often.
- Feed your Plants: Remember, if you are planting your herbs in containers, they will depend on you for their nutrient needs. A great organic fertilizer for them is Fish Emulsion. Those outside plants need fertilized occasionally too. Follow the directions on the bottle.
- Pick your herbs regularly during the growing season: Use sharp scissors or pruners, and don’t rip or tear the plants. Clean cuts help the plant to repair itself quicker and prevents the spread of disease. Never harvest more than 30% of your plant at a time. Chives: Grab a small clump and cut the leaves at 1/2 inch above soil level, from the outside of the clump. Basil: When your basil plant has 3 to 5 sets of leaves, cut the top off just above the second set of leaves from the ground. The single stalk will now end here, and two new branches will bud and grow from the set of leaves you left behind. Every couple of weeks, repeat the process, cutting just above the first or second set of leaves on your newest branches. This will give you a full, bushy basil plant, instead of a tall, lanky one. Once the plant is well established, continue harvesting from the top down. Thyme, Rosemary, and Oregano: Cut the stems about 1 inch above soil level. Cilantro: Cut stems off 1/2 inch above soil level. Dill: Cut dill stems off at the main stalk for use in recipes. If you will be using them in dill pickles, allow the plant to flower, and use those for the pickling process.
- Pick As Needed: Most herbs taste best freshly picked. This is because volatile oils, the stuff that gives herbs their distinctive flavor, are fragile and break down quickly. If possible wait to harvest until right before you need them. If they are an outdoor plant, make sure to harvest them in the morning, after the morning dew has dried, but before the heat of the day sets in. Sunshine and heat will dry up the herbs' oils, which is where the herbs flavor is contained.
And there you have it, a complete guide on growing your own herbs. With just a little effort you'll have fresh herbs growing before you know it, and enjoying them in your recipes. Good luck, and let me know how things work out for you in your herb growing adventures.