For millions of cooks and gardeners, herbs and summer are synonymous. Warm temperatures, sunny days and well-drained soil are the basic requirements for growing these flavorful and aromatic plants. Almost all herbs can be grown in the garden or in pots in a spot with six or more hours of sun per day.
Herbs are tough plants, growing best in average soil without a lot of fertilizer. They prefer soil that is allowed to go slightly dry between watering. Too much water can cause herbs to rot and too much fertilizer can cause weak stems. Read and follow the label instructions of the fertilizer you use.
Most herbs can be harvested throughout the growing season by snipping leaves or stems as needed for the menu. Many herbs have great value as ornamental plants, too. Think of them as beauty you can eat. However, herb experts say the best flavor comes from herbs that are kept from blooming by having their flowers pinched.
Here are some tips for three popular and easy-to-grow herbs:
'Siam Queen' Thai basil
Photo courtesy All-America Selections
Basil (Ocimum basilicum), sometimes called sweet basil, comes from a Greek word for king. Even today, basil holds a high place in its realm, valued for its flavor especially in Mediterranean dishes.
Basil has beautiful flowers and foliage that is green, variegated or purple, depending on the cultivar. The size of the plants and their leaves also varies from cultivar to cultivar. Basil also comes in several flavors, such as lemon or cinnamon. To harvest, snip off leaves or branches as needed. Pinching out the center of the plant will keep it from flowering and encourage more branching. The more branches, the more to harvest.
Basil is grown as an annual in most of the country because it is extremely sensitive to cool temperatures, making it one of the first plants to be killed by fall frosts. You can prolong the harvest by growing a plant in a pot and bringing it indoors at night when cold temperatures are predicted. Move it back outdoors during the day. When killed by frost, compost the plants or toss them. If you have a bright sunny window, you can try growing basil indoors.
Flat-leaf, Italian parsley
Parsley is probably the one herb most people recognize. Cooks generally agree, however, that flat-leaf or Italian parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) is much more flavorful than the curly-leaf type (P. crispum). There’s no difference in how to grow them.
Parsley is a biennial. To harvest, snip or pinch off a few leaves at a time as the plant grows. Parsley can be used as a summer border in flower beds or as a foliage plant in a container mixed with flowers.
Eastern black swallowtail caterpillars munch on parsley.
Parsley is a food plant for creatures other than humans, so don’t be concerned if you see caterpillars. The parsley family is a critical piece in the lifecycle of the swallowtail butterfly. The caterpillar of the swallowtail dines on the leaves. Most gardeners willingly sacrifice the plant for the beauty of the butterfly.
Thymus praecox 'Ruby Glow'
© Walters Gardens
Thyme (Thymus) is an aromatic perennial that is as useful as a ground cover as it is a culinary delight. This low-growing, slightly woody plant requires good drainage. Many gardeners grow thyme along pathways, between stepping-stones or in rock gardens because of its creeping habit, where a gentle brush of a footstep releases the herb’s fresh aroma. Thyme also does well in pots, where it can cascade over a rim.
Harvest thyme by snipping or pinching off a stem. Gently run your fingers from the cut end of the stem to the tip to remove the leaves. The stems are edible, but can be a little woody unless chopped very small. Thyme comes in several flavors, including citrus, and it can have fuzzy or variegated foliage. It has tiny white or pink flowers in spring and early summer. Most thyme is winter hardy to USDA Zone 4 or 5.
Each of these herbs is easy to grow, but experiment with others that have flavors you might like, such as oregano, dill or sage. To keep weeds out of the herb garden, apply natural Preen Natural Vegetable Garden Weed Preventer when plants are at least 3 inches tall. Always read and follow the label directions.