By Jolie Donohue, The Gardening Goddess
Herbs have a variety of uses including culinary, medicinal and spiritual. Generally herbs are defined as any plant used for flavoring, food, medicine or perfume.
Culinary use typically distinguishes herbs from spices based on the part of the plant that is used. An herb refers to plants used for their green leafy parts—either fresh or dried.
A spice is a culinary product from another part of the plant such as seeds, berries, bark, roots and fruits. Some plants are used both as herbs and spices, such as dill weed and dill seed or cilantro leaves and coriander seeds.
Many herbs are beautiful as ornamental plants in the garden. In addition to their fragrance, herbs have a wide variety of colors, textures and shapes to delight all the senses.
Growth habits of some common culinary herbs are:
- Evergreen woody perennials: bay laurel, lavender, rosemary, and lemon verbena
- Evergreen perennials: thyme
- Herbaceous perennials: bee balm, chives, fennel, lovage, mints, oregano, roman chamomile, sage, tarragon.
- Biennials: angelica and parsley
- Annuals: basil, chervil, cilantro, dill, and German chamomile
Most herbs prefer well-drained soil and need full sun, 6-8 hours a day. Direct sunlight is needed to achieve maximum flavor and fragrance. Herbs grown in the shade become leggy and lack intense flavor. Some herbs that can be grown in partial shade are mints, lemon balm, chervil and wintergreen. Some herbs that can be grown in full shade are angelica, sweet woodruff and yerba buena.
Notorious for thriving in poor soil, most herbs do not need much fertilizer. Watering depends on the season, the location, and the type of herb. In the warm dry weather of summer, herbs grown in containers dry out more quickly than herbs grown in the ground. Once established, most herbs are quite drought tolerant.
Pinching back new growth as it emerges will develop a bushier growth habit and a fuller appearance for basil, and most other herbs. Herbs that develop into a woody shrub, like rosemary or lavender, can be pruned after flowering. Herbaceous perennials like mints, bee balm, and sage can be cut back to a few inches above the soil during the winter.
Harvest fresh herbs as needed for cooking. Morning is the best time to harvest herbs, as that’s when they have the most flavors. Leaves have the highest levels of oils when the blooms just begin to appear.
To dry herbs, hang small bunches from the ceiling in a dry, dark location with good ventilation for one to two weeks. Store dried herbs in a clean sealed glass jar in a cool dark place. Consider making herbal pesto and freezing in an ice cube tray. These make great winter additions to soups, stews, sauces, and salad dressing.