Herbs for cooking are plants whose leaves, seeds, fruits, flowers, or other parts are used fresh or dried for flavoring food. (A spice–broadly speaking–denotes a flavoring derived from the seed, fruit, bark, or other parts of a plant grown in warm, tropical regions.) A “potherb” is a plant you cook in a pot.
Herbs generally grow well with little care. Plant herbs in good loose soil. A sunny spot close to your kitchen is important. Plant perennial herbs in a part of the garden set apart from annuals; they will grow there for three or more years.
Planning an Herb Garden
The best way to plan your herb garden is to make a list of the herbs you regularly use. You can do this by taking inventory of the herbs in your kitchen cabinet.
The best location for an herb garden is right outside the kitchen door–or in a bright kitchen window. Herbs do not require a lot of space; you can include them in a flower border if space is limited.
Annual herbs–which complete their life cycle in one season–are best set apart from biennial herbs which live for two seasons and perennial herbs which live for three or more years.
Plan to get your herb garden going early in the season so that you can make full use of the plants you grow. Many herbs are harvested before they flower; these herbs may be ready for the kitchen in just a month or so.
Growing herbs in the garden. Most herbs require 6 hours of sunlight per day and well-drained, moderately rich, well-cultivated soil. Be careful not to over-fertilize herbs or they will grow tall and leggy.
Herb Planting Tips
- Annual and biennial herbs are easily grown from seed but are often readily available as the plant starts at garden centers. Perennial herbs are often started from divisions or cuttings.
- Plant annual and biennial herbs as you would vegetables, in spring or summer.
- Plant perennial herbs in spring or fall.
- Be sure to give herbs room to mature so that they do not crowd their neighbors.
- Plant herbs that easily spread–such as mint–in containers.
- Keep herbs evenly moist and planting beds well-weeded.
- Growing herbs in containers. Annual herbs are easily grown indoors in a windowsill.
- Place potted herbs in a window that gets at least 5 hours of sun each day; the optimal indoor growing temperature is 65° to 70°F.
- Plant herbs in a container at least 6 to 12 inches deep.
- Use a soilless potting-mix that is light and well-drained; this will help avoid soilborne diseases.
- Water evenly and lightly. Herbs do not grow well in wet soil.
- Use a fertilizer only labeled for edibles.
- Snip or pinch plants regularly to encourage full, bushy growth. Never harvest more than one-third of the plant.
- Avoid using pesticides on herbs; spray away pests with water whenever possible.
- Harvest herbs when they are full-flavored.
More tips at How to Start an Herb Garden.
Commonly Used Herbs for Cooking
Here are 19 commonly used herbs for cooking; the annuals listed (see the note in Description) here can be grown in containers indoors. Click on herb name in red for more growing information.
ANISE. Use licorice-flavored seeds for cookies, candy, meat, soup; leaves for stews, salads, meat.
- Description: Annual. Lower leaves oval, serrated edges, small yellowish-white flowers, low-spreading plant 18-24 inches high.
- Grow: Best to sow in place, thin to 6-8 inches apart, full sun. Slow growing.
- Harvest: Harvest seed about 1 month after flowers bloom.
BASIL, Sweet. Use leaves in tomato dishes, pesto, spaghetti sauce, soups, vegetables, stews.
- Description: Annual. Leafy, light green foliage, spikelets of tiny flowers 20-24 inches high. Compact bush form to 12 inches high.
- Grow: Easy to grow. Sow seeds in place after the last frost or start inside and transplant; full sun; space 12 inches apart. Pinch tips to grow bushy.
- Harvest: Harvest leaves just before flowering begins; cut plants 4-6 inches above the ground.
BORAGE. Use cucumber-flavored leaves in salads, flowers in soups, stews.
- Description: Annual. Coarse, rough 4- to 6-inch long, gray-green leaves, light blue flowers in clusters, 12-36 inches high.
- Grow: Sow seeds in place; difficult to transplant; space 12 inches apart in sun or filtered sun.
- Harvest: Harvest young leaves before flowers open.
CARAWAY. Use seeds to flavor bread, cheese, cakes, salads, soups, stews; leaves for salads.
- Description: Biennial. Carrot-like leaves, creamy to greenish-white, carrot-like flowers, 8-20 inches high.
- Grow: Sow seeds in place, space 8 to 10 inches apart.
- Harvest: Harvest leaves when mature; seeds will form the second season, harvest a month after flowering.
CHERVIL. Use fresh or dried leaves in salads, soups, fish, poultry, vegetable dishes. Use in sauces: béarnaise, vinaigrette, rémoulade, sauce verte.
- Description: Annual. Fernlike foliage turns pink in fall, small white flowers in clusters, 18 inches high.
- Grow: Sow seeds in place or start indoors in pots, keep the soil moist, partial shade, space 6 inches apart. Easy to grow indoors, does not require direct sun.
- Harvest: Pick leaves just before flowering. Tender leaves may be dried.
CHIVES. Give an onion/garlic flavor to salads, soups, eggs, sauces, sandwiches. Make chive butter
- Description: Perennial. Onion-like leaves, lavender flowers, 10 inches high.
- Grow: Grow from seeds or divide the clumps; full sun; space 5 inches apart. Will grow in the kitchen window
- Harvest: Clip leaves close to ground.
CILANTRO – CORIANDER. Use leaves similar to parsley in fish dishes, soups, curries, Mexican dishes. Use crushed seeds in pastries, sauces, curries, shellfish platters.
- Description: Annual. Oval leaves with serrated edges, small pinkish-white flowers in clusters, 12 to 30 inches high. The odor of the plant may be offensive to some.
- Grow: Easy to grow. Sow seeds in place in early spring; full sun or filtered shade; thin to 6-10 inches apart.
- Harvest: Pick leaves when plants are 4 to 6 inches tall. Fresh leaves are called cilantro. Harvest seeds called coriander in midsummer when they begin to turn brown.
DILL. Use slightly bitter seeds in pickles, sauces, meats, salads. Dill weed (the plant’s leaves) is used as a bouquet in salads, potatoes, tartar sauce, and butter dishes.
- Description: Annual. Tall plant with light green, feather, foliage, flowers in open heads, 24-40 inches tall.
- Grow: Sow seeds in place in spring; full sun; well-drained soil; thin to 12 inches.
- Harvest: Pick fresh leaves when flowers open; gather seeds when brown.
FENNEL, Sweet or Common. Use licorice-flavored seeds in bread, cheese spreads, vegetable dishes, and potatoes. Drop a few seeds in vinegar.
- Description: Perennial. Tall plant to 5 feet. Bright-green hollow stems with feathery leaves and a flat cluster of yellow-golden flowers.
- Grow: Sow in place; full sun; thin to 12 inches apart; stake when tall.
- Harvest: Pick stems just before flowers bloom. Seeds can be dried.
MARJORAM, Sweet. Sweet-spicy leaves complement the flavor of salads, omelets, and eggs vinegar, rub on pork, veal; use like oregano.
- Description: Small, oval leaves, knot-like clusters of flowers, 12-24 inches high.
- Grow: Perennial treated as an annual. Sow seeds in place or start indoors and transplant when the danger of frost is past.
- Harvest: Harvest young at any time, mature leaves before flowers bloom.
OREGANO. Use dried or fresh leaves in tomato sauces, beans, cheese, soups, roasts, vegetable dishes such as zucchini.
- Description: Perennial. Shrub-like plant with dark, oval leaves, pale pink flowers, 24 inches high.
- Grow: Start seeds indoors or divide already established plant; full sun; thin to 10 inches apart. Grows well in containers.
- Harvest: Gather fresh leaves as needed; leaves can be dried.
PARSLEY. Use as garnish, whole leaves, or minced.
- Description: Biennial. There are several varieties: curled, plain, Italian. Dark green, curled or plan leaves, 5-6 inches high.
- Grow: Biennial. Soak seeds in warm water 24 hours before planting; plant in partial shade; thin to 6-8 inches apart.
- Harvest: Pick from first-year plants, good-sized, not yellow, leaves when needed. Leaves can be dried.
PEPPERMINT. Leaves in tea, jelly, sauces; sprigs in sauces, summer drinks.
- Description: Perennial. Bush-type plant with tiny purple flowers, 18 to 36 inches tall.
- Grow: Start from root divisions or cuttings, space 8-10 inches apart; sun or shade. Contain spreading by growing in containers. Renew every 3 to 4 years. Harvest: Cut springs or leaves frequently.
ROSEMARY. Sprinkle fresh or dried for lamb, pork, veal, sauces, and soups. Use as a rub for veal, lamb, and chicken.
- Description: Perennial. Leaves needle-like and glossy green, lavender-blue flowers, plant in a dry, sunny location; pinch often to train to 36 inches tall or lower.
- Grow: Propagate from slips or seed.
- Harvest: Gather leaves and sprigs as needed.
SAGE. Use fresh or dried leaves for stuffings, rabbits, chicken, roast turkey, baked fish, pork chops and meats, eggs, or vegetables. Slightly bitter flavor.
- Description: Perennial. Shrub-like plant with gray leaves, purple flowers, 18 inches high, or more.
- Grow: Start from seeds or stem cuttings or divide established plants; full sun; space 30 inches apart. Slow to begin growing. Renew every 3 to 4 years.
- Harvest: Harvest leaves before flowering. Cut back after blooming.
SAVORY, Summer. Use in salads, soups, eggs, dressings, poultry dishes, fish, with vegetables. Goes well with beans
- Description: Annual. Small, gray-green leaves, with purple and white flower, 18 inches high.
- Grow: Sow seeds in place after danger of frost is past; full sun; space 6-8 inches apart. Easy to grow.
- Harvest: Gather leaves before flowering.
SPEARMINT. Use as a garnish on fresh fruits, ices, summer drinks.
- • Description: Perennial. Reddish stems, crinkled and pointed leaves, lavender flowers in spikes 12-24 inches high.
- • Grow: Start from root division or cutting; sun or shade; space 8-10 inches apart. Renew every 3 to 4 years.
- • Harvest: Cut springs or leaves frequently.
TARRAGON, French. Use leaves for fish, shellfish, poultry, veal, meat, eggs, vegetables; salads, sauces, and marinades.
- Description: Perennial. Dark green leaves, very small, clustered white flower; grows to 24 inches high.
- Grow: Start from cuttings, root pieces, or seeds; can take partial shade; space 12 inches apart. Protect in cold-winter regions.
- Harvest: Gather leaves before flowering.
THYME. Use leaves in soups, gumbos, chowder, salads, omelets, vegetables, meat; it has warm, clove-like flavor.
- Description: Perennial. Common thyme has small gray-green leaves, purple flowers in spikes, 8-12 inches high. Lemon thyme has golden-green leaves and a yellow scent with pinkish flowers.
- Grow: Start from seeds indoors or in place; propagate from cuttings, space 10-12 inches apart; prefers dry soil and full sun. Renew every 3 to 4 years.
- Harvest: Clip off tops when the plant is flowering.
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