4 Must Have Herbs

I really enjoy growing herbs for a few reasons. I like to cook, and no matter how you slice it fresh herbs generally knock the pants off of store varieties. I like to save money, and herbs are pretty expensive in the store, especially fresh ones. They also make unique and interesting plants, at home in the vegetable garden or the ornamental garden. If you only grow four herbs, these are the four I recommend.

1. Mint

Mint is awesome, I personally love mint flavored deserts, shakes, chocolate, etc. In the summer I like to make a cool cucumber salad with a little mint and cukes from the garden. Mint also comes in a wide variety of flavors. Spearmint and peppermint are standard, but gardeners have hybridized a whole variety of other cultivars with hints of various flavors like pineapple, apple, even chocolate. Plant them all.

Kids like mint too. My son, who is almost three now, spent all last summer eating mint out of hand when he was outside. He would take a little chair over to the mint container, put it right in front, sit down, and spend 20 minutes picking and eating leaves. He really likes it, and like most herbs it is healthy for you.

Mint is versatile and very easy to use in the kitchen, it is also really easy to grow in the garden. It is hardy in most places and so you only need to buy it once and it will keep coming back. It is such a good grower is can be invasive, so most people plant it in large containers. Dig and divide your plants as the containers will up, using the divisions to start new pots, or give to friends and family so they can enjoy fresh mint too. Like most herbs, mint likes sun, and well drained soil.

More on how to grow mint.

2. Thyme

Thyme also comes in many varieties and flavors, and just to confuse you more, there are many non-culinary varieties as well, though I’m not sure eating them would hurt you, they’re just not typically eaten.

Thyme, like mint, is also a perennial ground cover that spreads, however, it isn’t as vigorous and is not invasive, so you can safely plant it in and among your garden. It does like well drained soil, and seems to do well in rocky areas, between cracks and crevices. It can even take some foot traffic.

My favorite is lemon thyme, which is hardier than some of the others and has a nice lemony hint to it. I use it in the kitchen either by chopping it up fine and adding it to dishes, or sometimes I’ll just tie a bundle of sprigs and let it simmer in a pot (soup usually), removing it as I would a bay leaf prior to serving.

Thyme, in my opinion, does not provide as much bang for the buck as other herbs. Dried time is still pretty expensive at the store, on a per pound basis, but it at least works decently well. Thyme is one of the few herbs that doesn’t lose too much flavor from drying or aging. Recipes also rarely specifically call for fresh thyme, though I enjoy having it on hand. I also enjoy the ability to grow more varieties than can be bought at your local super market.

Even if you do not plan to use it in the kitchen, it makes a durable and attractive ground cover, and some variety of thyme should exist in almost every garden.

More on how to grow thyme.

3. Basil

Basil is perhaps the ultimate chameleon in the garden. Mint varieties still taste minty, thyme varieties still taste, well, thymey, but basil varieties can taste like almost anything. There are almost too many types to mention, but I find pineapple basil particularly good, as is cinnamon basil. The most common basil is usually labeled just basil or Italian basil. When a recipe calls for it, this is the one they mean.

Basil is an herbaceous annual with small leaves the consistency of young spinach. It likes moist well drained soil and full sun. Basil is not bothered by many pests, and indeed supposedly wards off some insects. It can get leggy and so you should pinch, cut, or eat terminal growth regularly to promote a more bushy plant.

It is an annual, so you do need to plant it every year. However it can grow well inside. It is what I grow in my aerogarden, and when I have a greenhouse some day I plan to make big use of it. When grown outside it will last until cold sets in, when grown inside it can last much much longer so long as you keep it fertilized and give it lots of sun. I’ve had it last almost a full year before, and I think it merely outgrew my aerogarden or it would have lasted longer.

I do prefer growing perennials because I feel they give you a nice bang for your buck, having to only buy them once. However basil is very very very easy to grow from seed, and seeds are cheap. Also, basil is ridiculously expensive at the store. A couple bucks for a few sprigs. It has a really short shelf life so you pay a premium for it. Anyone who has ever made pesto at home and thought to buy the basil at the store probably knows what I’m talking about. Most pesto recipes will call for one or two cups of packed basil leaves, you might as well be buying lobster and tenderloin for what that can cost.

As for dried basil? I never touch the stuff, I find it disgusting. The essential oils in basil must go rancid really fast or something because dried basil both does not taste good, nor does it taste like fresh basil. I like fresh basil.

Basil is very healthy for you with a bunch of antioxidants and everything else, and it goes well in many foods. Most Italian dishes can take it from pastas to casseroles to pizzas. It goes well with fish. It goes well with roasted potatoes, it goes well with anything you would add garlic to. Pesto, is a very heart healthy condiment that you can easily make with basil. I also happen to like basil in scrambled eggs. When I grill steaks I like to put basil leaves on top, and then parmigiana cheese on top of the basil.

There are also some very attractive varieties of basil with interesting leaf colors that would be stand out plants in an ornamental garden, and you can still eat them too. It is a nice dual purpose plant, even if you do need to start it from seed again after every winter.

More on how to grow basil.

4. Parsley

No, I do not mean the curly leaf parsley used as a garish in so many restaurants. I mean flat leaf Italian parsley which is a great addition to many dishes. To my knowledge, parsley does not have many flavors as the other herbs I mentioned above, there is pretty much just the standard variety, and yes flat leaf italian parsley does have a taste similar to the curly leaf parsley, but they’re not quite the same.

I like parsley because it is a biennial, which means it lives for two years. Not quite an annual, not quite a perennial, but it can survive outdoors in a pot in my zone 5 garden. Like the other herbs it likes sun and well drained moist soil, and it grows pretty vigorously once established, to the point where you can harvest it heavily and it’ll keep growing back.

Parsley, like basil, is used in many many Italian dishes, but it has a particular affinity for potatoes. Almost any potato dish is improved with the addition of chopped parsley. This includes soups, mashed potatoes, fries, roasted potatoes, scalloped potatoes, and potato casseroles. During summer when I am growing it I will add it to anything that has potatoes in it. Parsley is in the carrot family and it also compliments carrot dishes very well.

Like basil it is easy to grow and easy to start from seed. I usually take a large container, 18-24 inches across at the top, and just sprinkle parsley seeds randomly on it, then sprinkle a handful of potting mix on top of the seeds, and water well. Soon enough the entire container is full of parsley.

Also like basil it does not store well. Now you can store fresh basil and fresh parsley via freezing, but it is very expensive when bought fresh at the supermarket and the dried stuff is horrible. Parsley suffers from the same taste failure as basil does when dry. I would not ever recommend buying it.

Parsley is significantly more hardy than basil, it dies after two years but not because it got too cold. You can often harvest it still in the winter when snow is on the ground, I often find it still green, and frozen, buried beneath some snow. Other times it will die back to the roots, like a perennial, only to come back in Spring.

More on how to grow parsley.

Honorable Mention: Rosemary

I like Rosemary, I do, but it isn’t as hard to grow as the above, nor is it as expensive. Like thyme, rosemary takes well to drying, so you can reasonably buy it dried, unlike thyme it is not as fast a grower, or hardy for much of the country. Someday, when I move to zone 7, I will grow rosemary year round outside and be happy with it, but in zone 5 I need to buy it every year. I can’t even start it from seed because it is a woody shrub and so grows slowly at first. For me to get the volume I need for cooking during the Summer I have to buy an established plant every Spring.

Rosemary does not come in a variety of flavors, but it has a very strong and recognizable scent and flavor and certainly is attractive in the garden both from the silver-green evergreen foliage, as for the scent which is strong enough for you to pick up without sticking your face right down into the plant. It does very well in the kitchen in many meat dishes, stews, and it also likes potatoes (is there anything better than herb crusted potatoes roasted with salt and olive oil and garlic?). You can take a little rosemary, a little garlic, and a little olive oil and mash it up into a paste in a mortar and rub it on practically anything as a flavor booster. I sometimes like to season the oil in our deep frying with some rosemary just to add some hints of that flavor to everything I might fry.

It can grow into a very large shrub if you live in a warmer climate, but for us northerners it will not do that well. Some people do take it in the house or in a greenhouse during the winter, and if you have one, and you keep it water, and you keep humidity up, and it gets enough sun (it needs a lot of sun) it can survive the winter indoors, but you really need the right setup. If you don’t have a humidifier and a big southern facing window to put it in though, it tends to suffer and die.

So Rosemary didn’t make the list because it is too slow to start from seed, doesn’t last through the winter for many people, and is able to be used in dried form from the supermarket. However, I do give it an honorable mention and I do recommend it for gardeners in the South.

More on how to grow rosemary.

I received a review copy of this book called Herbs, The Complete Gardener’s Guide and I do think it would be a useful purchase if you wanted to learn more. It isn’t perfect, it is written by a Canadian who seems to have written for a Canadian audience which means he often assumes you’re in Ontario like him and doesn’t address the variety of climates in North America that much. It is, however, comprehensive, covering all aspects of herb gardening, and includes many large photographs and illustrations….More at Four Herbs Everyone Should Grow

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