Culinary herbs are among the easiest plants you can grow. They only need sunlight, water, and well-draining soil with a neutral pH.
You don’t even need a garden. Many herbs, such as rosemary, basil, cilantro, lemon balm, oregano and mint will grow well in containers. In fact, mints should only be grown in containers, unless you don’t mind a garden takeover.
To get started, test your soil. Buy a pH test kit online or at your local garden center and follow the instructions. A reading of 7.0 is ideal, but anything between 6.0 and 7.5 is generally acceptable for growing herbs. If the soil tests lower, add garden lime to raise it. If it’s too high, add elemental sulfur to lower it. Follow package directions for dosages and instructions.
If growing herbs in containers, use a potting mix intended for edibles. The package label should include information about its pH level.
Select a site that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight daily. If your garden has sandy or heavy clay soil, incorporate a moderate amount of compost into the top 6-8 inches to stabilize drainage. If the soil is perpetually soggy, remove the top 12-15 inches of soil, then add a 3” layer of crushed stone to the bottom of the hole. Mix some compost with the soil you removed and use the combined medium to refill the hole, creating a mound at the top (it will settle in time).
If you’re using seedlings, whether started indoors or purchased at the nursery, plant them according to the spacing recommendations on their plant tags or seed packet. Some herbs are well-suited for direct sowing into the garden; check seed packs for guidance.
Herbs will not grow well in wet conditions, so allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings.
They also taste better when grown without fertilizer. For this reason, don’t overdo the compost when amending the soil to improve drainage. Chervil, summer savory, fennel and lovage are exceptions, as they do benefit from modest fertilizer applications.
Annual herbs complete their life cycles – from seed to senescence, or death – in a single growing season. They include basil, cilantro, dill, chamomile and marjoram.
Perennial herbs, which return for multiple growing seasons, include rosemary, thyme, sage, tarragon and oregano.
Biennials, like caraway and parsley, live for two growing seasons, producing only foliage during their first year, then flowers and seeds in their second before dying.
However, if they aren’t hardy enough to survive your winters, you may have to treat some listed perennials as annuals. In my New York garden, that’s usually rosemary, although I have gotten lucky after a few mild winters. Your results may vary.
For the most potent aroma, harvest herbs in the morning, after the dew has dried but before the sun gets intense.
Use fragrant basil as an ingredient in tomato dishes. Add rosemary to poultry, pork and lamb recipes. Make tea with the tiny daisylike flowers of chamomile. Add chives to salads and dishes calling for onions. Dill shines in Greek recipes, sour cream dips and with cucumbers. Sage elevates poultry, sausages and stuffings. Thyme complements meat and fish dishes. And parsley will freshen your breath when you chew it.
There are some interesting varieties to seek out, too. Pineapple sage carries the aroma of its namesake fruit, as do cinnamon and lemon basil, and strawberry and apple mint. There’s even a chocolate mint, which is lovely when added to milkshakes or cocktails.