13 Must-have Herbs
Image by Terry Guscott
Most herbs prefer full sun and well-drained, organically enhanced soil. After the last frost, give perennial herbs a yearly application of slow-release all-purpose organic fertilizer. Start annuals off by adding granular organic fertilizer to the planting hole, and provide the extra energy they need throughout the growing season by applying an organic liquid kelp or fish fertilizer every two weeks. Herbs receive their pruning every time they are harvested. They can be harvested lightly at any time of the year: a sprig here and there, a leaf plucked randomly. Those with woody stems, such as sage, lavender or rosemary, benefit from a more aggressive pruning. When in need of rejuvenating, cut them back to about 15 cm (6 in.) in early spring, just after your projected last frost or when you notice new buds on the plants. Herbs do wonderfully in containers; the minimum size is 30 cm (12 in.) across and 7.5 cm (3 in.) deep, but a larger container is better. Be sure to use sterilized soil and ensure good drainage. Come late fall, bring tender perennial herbs indoors to a sunny window, or put them in the greenhouse or shed for a winter’s sleep. There are many herbs to choose from. Here is a list that will inspire you to get both cooking and landscaping with these versatile plants.
Evergreen Herbs Aloe vera: Enjoy it outdoors in summer and overwinter it indoors as a houseplant. When split, the succulent leaf oozes juice commonly used to treat wounds and burns and believed to aid in the regeneration of skin tissue. Try it when you next have sunburn. Aloe vera is hardy to zone 8. Bay tree (Laurus nobilis): The leaf of sweet bay is a staple in the kitchen. A few leaves, fresh or dried, add excellent flavour to stews, soups and casseroles. Evergreen and hardy to zone 8, in warm coastal areas this is a plant that will thrive in a large container or half oak barrel; in other areas be prepared to bring your container into a more protected area. It requires full sun and is slow growing. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): Evergreen, with aromatic tasty foliage and attractive blossoms of blue or pink, it forms a neat, upright shrub. Hardy to zone 8, it has a lifespan of about 25 years when care is taken to protect it through the winter. Clippings can be used fresh or dried and are an excellent flavouring for chicken, turkey and lamb. Rosemary is also nice baked into fresh breads and biscuits. Silver thyme (Thymus ‘Silver Posie’): A superb groundcover, this easy-to-grow herb forms an evergreen mat of silver green. The leaves are tasty in stews, poultry or pasta sauces and larger sprigs are a fragrant addition to small flower arrangements. Other culinary thymes include Thymus x citriodorus and Thymus ‘Orange Balsam’. Perennial Favourites French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa): Hardy to zone 3, this is a multiple-stemmed perennial with soft, needle-like leaves. It has a unique taste and fragrance reminiscent of anise with a hint of rosemary that pairs well with fish, chicken, eggs and seafood. Mixed with sour cream or mayonnaise, tarragon also makes a great dip for fresh veggies. Be sure to buy the true French tarragon, which is grown from cuttings, rather than the less flavourful, seed-grown Russian tarragon. Lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus): This tender perennial is a scented grass with a wonderful, lemon taste used widely in Thai and Malaysian cooking. Hardy only to 10°C/50°F, it is worth the trouble of bringing it indoors in winter. Harvest from the outside shoots to encourage growth. This clumping plant reaches a height of 60 cm (2 ft.). Winter savory (Satureja montana): Hardy to zone 5, this herb bears decorative white blooms and grows to 40 cm (16 in.) The small, aromatic leaves pair nicely with vegetables, beans, dressings and poultry. Annual Herbs Basil (Ocimum basilicum): This heat-loving annual is used in salads, pasta and chicken dishes and is a staple for pesto. Although the sweet green basil (O. basilicum) is most popular, there are many others, such as the Thai basil ‘Siam Queen’, lemon basil ‘Sweet Dani’, ornamental ‘Red Rubin’ and tasty ‘Cinnamon’. Give basil plenty of sunshine and keep the flowers picked to encourage new leaf growth. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium): Somewhat resembling Italian parsley, chervil is favoured in fine French cooking, and has a delicate, sweet, licorice-type taste used for flavouring and garnishing. For best results, sow seeds in a cool season where plants are to grow. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum): Sometimes referred to as Mexican or Chinese parsley, this cilantro is a staple of Mexican, Vietnamese and Asian cooking. Let the pale mauve to white flowers go to seed (called coriander) and harvest them for use in baking. Dill (Anethum graveolens): This semi-hardy annual is grown for its ferny, aromatic foliage, perfect for flavouring fish, and its seeds, which are used in pickling. Use the leaves fresh or dried. It’s easy to grow from seed or transplants and is known to self-sow in the garden, so plant where you won’t mind it popping up season after season. Lemon bergamot (Monarda citriodora): Easily started from seed, this vigorous annual bee balm is grown for its lemon taste and aroma as well as its ornamental value. Its pinkish-purple blossoms appear in late summer and continue until frost. Plant Plenty of Parsley! Parsley is well-known for its flavour and esteemed as a rich source of minerals and vitamins. It comes as a pleasant surprise, though, to learn that it is also useful in the garden: many beneficial insects seek out its lush ferny foliage, and some pests are repelled by it. Easy to grow and ornamental, parsley nestles anywhere in the vegetable, herb or perennial garden. Black swallowtails and ladybugs lay their eggs on the foliage; swallowtail larvae hatch into beautiful pollinating butterflies, while ladybug offspring consume the aphid population. Parsley planted among roses protects them from both aphids and the rose beetle. Planted in the carrot bed, parsley masks the carrot smell and confuses the carrot rust fly, helping to protect the carrots from its larvae. The pungent aroma of parsley is also said to repel ants. Parsley is believed to give vigour to asparagus beds, add flavour to tomatoes and increase the yield of corn crops. It is such a naturally wonderful pesticide and friendly companion that every gardener should be sure to plant plenty!