Herbs in Your Garden

Becky Seth, Naturalist

 Pioneers Park Nature Center


Every garden, patio or windowsill should have herbs.  They are indispensable for cooking, offer wonderful fragrances, and provide a host of interesting leaf shapes and growth forms.  Most require lots of sun, many of the perennials tolerate drought. They can be tucked in with flowers or vegetables.  Making a short list of ‘must have’ culinary herbs is difficult, but here is my attempt.

Basils are annuals that are easily grown from seed.  In recent years I have been growing “Profuma di Genova” basil for making pesto, flavoring tomato sauces, and sprinkling over fresh tomatoes.  It has fleshy leaves and a somewhat compact growth habit with excellent flavor, but there are other great Genovese style basils that can be used.  Rubin basil adds a deep purple accent to your garden and makes gorgeous colored vinegar.  Thai basils such as “Siam Queen” have striking purple flowers above dark green foliage and give an authentic taste to Vietnamese and Thai cooking.  Bush basils such as Spicy Globe are a great choice for pots or borders.

A deep whiff of rosemary is sufficient to add cheer to even the gloomiest of days.  This tender perennial has needle-like leaves that add an interesting texture to the garden and its flavor is unbeatable with roasted potatoes, mixed root vegetables, or nuts.

Greek oregano is a hardy perennial and adds wonderful flavor to tomato, beef or lamb dishes.  Sweet marjoram, a tender perennial usually grown as an annual, is a relative, and is milder. Decorative oreganos, such as “Herrenhausen”, “Bristol Cross” or Dittany of Crete have lovely flowers that add color to dried arrangements.

Common thyme, a hardy perennial, can enhance a wide variety of foods including meat, vegetables and eggs.  Lemon thyme is great with fish, chicken or in tea.  Silver thyme is useful in hanging baskets or as an accent plant.  Several of the low growing varieties such as red or white--flowering creeping thyme form dense perennial groundcovers.

The gray-green, thick and puckered leaves of the hardy perennial garden sage adds yet another interesting texture to the garden and flavor to your cooking.  Purple, golden and tricolor sages are showy additions to border plantings, but may not make it through the winter.  Pineapple sage makes great tea, can be used in jams and jellies, and is easily overwintered as cuttings. Each year I also overwinter cuttings of Mexican bush sage; I am willing to wait for its gorgeous velvety lavender flowers that bloom at the very end of our growing season. A recent favorite of mine is Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’, an anise-scented sage with spectacular deep blue blossoms.  A tender perennial, I’ve found the cuttings tricky to grow.

Almost all mints must be restrained, for they are hardy perennials capable of overtaking your entire garden.  Spearmint is valuable for cooking, peppermint tea is soothing to the stomach, apple or pineapple mint and many others are decorative as well as flavorful.

I tuck both curly and flat-leaved parsley in my flowerbeds.  Both are biennials that can easily be grown from seed and have culinary uses far beyond an attractive garnish.  I have had less luck growing cilantro, and since it is easily available in grocery stores, I fall back on that source for my cooking.

Onion chives is a hardy perennial herb that is lovely placed among flowers or growing in a planter – both the tubular leaves and purple flowers are useful in the kitchen.  Perhaps you can find a friend who would share a bit as they divide their plants.

The lacey leaves and graceful flower heads of dill add a pleasant texture to the garden and a wonderful tang to cooking.  Seed it once and you will have dill in succeeding seasons.

French tarragon is a hardy perennial that will thrive season after season offering its wonderful flavor to much more than fish and vinegar, its most common uses.  It is best used lightly and not cooked too long.

Careful soil preparation is needed to grow lavender successfully, but you will be rewarded with plants of lovely fragrance and flowers that can be used in cooking or dried for spectacular wreaths or bouquets.

Many lists of common culinary herbs include lemon balm.  Personally I have avoided adding this to my home garden because it is one of those overeager plants that friends try to pawn off as they dig up ubiquitous volunteers.  I prefer to grow lemon verbena though it is a tender perennial that seems to attract whitefly when brought in for the winter.  It has a fantastic lemon scent and taste; try adding leaves to sun tea or grinding them with a little lime juice and sugar to bring out the flavor of fruit salads.

The Herb of the Year for 2011 is horseradish.  The roots are used as a spicy condiment for meats or seafood but were historically used medicinally.  It is grown from root cuttings as an annual for the best culinary quality. It spreads rapidly and can be difficult to eradicate.

A short word about scented geraniums.  There are a seemingly endless variety of these plants, valuable primarily because of their wonderful scents and stunning leaf shapes.  The flowers are delicate, not showy like those of zonal geraniums.  A few, such as rose geraniums, can be used to flavor tea or jelly.

Edible flowers could be a topic all on its own, but I must mention my favorite.  Nasturtiums brighten both your garden and your plate.  The peppery taste is addictive in salads and herbed cream cheese.  Try a few seeds this year. 

I have concentrated here on the most common culinary herbs, not delving too much into herbs for fragrance, crafts, beauty products, dyes, or medicine.  The world of herbs is a wide one.  I invite you to visit the herb garden at Pioneers Park Nature Center that has over 150 varieties.  Located at the west end of Pioneers Park, the Nature Center is open daily.  Visit or call 402-441-7895 for more information.

Copyright 2011