So long as there is no snow on the ground, you can harvest herbs in your garden. There is nothing more satisfying and simple than snipping off just what you need and enjoying the garden fresh flavor without having to fork out a few bucks per bunch at the market.
Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. If you have a piece of land to plant them, great, but many actually do better in a container because their prolific nature can be contained. You can also place them right near your kitchen for quick cooking access.
Here is my list of my top ten "can't live without" garden herbs.
1. Rosemary: Use it fresh or dried — the flavor is fantastic either way. If you grow it in a pot, it will happily move inside when the weather gets too cold. Also, since it likes to dry out between waterings, it likes its own space, as there aren't too many other plants that prefer the same treatment.
Favorite uses: Holiday Gifts (the piney smell is perfect for the season) and chopped and sprinkled atop store bought pizza dough, baked and drizzled with olive oil and Parmesan cheese.
2. Thyme: I use this for two main types of cooking: wintery stews and summery meat grilling marinades. Thyme is a low growing plant and my favorite, lemon thyme, is really a ground cover. It is perfect for edging beds or placing in the front of a mixed container planting. The plant is very hardy; if you can see it (for lack of snow cover), you can harvest it.
Favorite Uses: Ina Garten's recipe for beef bourguignon is my favorite, but when I make it, I substitute lemon thyme and I triple the amount the recipe calls for.
3. Sage: At nearly 5 years old, my sage plant is quite expansive (about 3 feet in diameter) and woody. Planting it in a container and cutting it back more regularly would control this. My baby is due for some TLC and tough love and I plan to donate the cuttings to some yogi friends who want to make smudge sticks.
Favorite uses: Infuse white beans with sage by adding leaves to the cooking water then douse bean in olive oil infused with even more sage. Also — this list of 45 things to do with sage has some other great recipes and ideas.
4. Lemon Balm: Until about 2 weeks ago, when I took a teas and tinctures class, I had really only grown lemon balm for a few reasons. It's easy, has a nice shape and fresh green leaf color (and sometimes that's all I want in a garden plant), and my whole family enjoys walking by it and pinching off a leaf and giving it a good sniff.....ahhhh so relaxing.
Favorite uses: Trim leaves, and use either fresh or dried, (dry leaves in a paper bag and store in a dark place) steep in hot water. Strain with a tea strainer and serve the best cuppa afternoon tea.
5. Parsley: I happily discovered last year that parsley, which is normally grown as an annual, can overwinter. This spring, the seeds I put in the ground in 2009 are once again growing and one of my plants is actually big enough that I clipped sprigs for dinner last night.
Favorite uses: Parsley is ones of those super foods that do more good things for a body than seems possible for such a little leafy green plant. Among other things, it contains more vitamin C than than bascially anything else you can eat. You can make lots of things with it, but I pretty much chop and sprinkle it on most every dish that comes out of my kitchen.
6. Chives: Another perennial favorite. I have two plants, timed differently. One stays outside planted in the ground and its natural calendar supplies me with snips this time of year. The other is at the base of a potted orange tree that I haul in and out of the house seasonally. It shoots up tasty green stems in the dead of winter. It's worth having both so that my harvesting season is longer.
Favorite uses: I add it to salads (along with other other leafy herbs like basil) to give what would appear to be a boring lettuce mix a hidden kick.
7. Mint: I strongly recommend growing this in a container; it will fill whatever space you give it. It's a lovely plant to have around, but don't say I didn't warn you.
Favorite uses: Mint Juleps, mojitos, lemonade (add fresh sprigs to your favorite recipe), tea (dried and used just like the lemon balm) and it is one of the key secret ingredients in my favorite involtini (recipe by Nigella Lawson).
8. Oregano: This plant also acts like a ground cover but it is generally polite and doesn't spread too aggressively. I prefer the 'Greek' variety as this is more like the organo flavor you expect.
Favorite uses: Sprinkle liberally (fresh or dried) over fresh homemade pizza, add to the pot when making sauce from abundant garden fresh tomatoes.
9. Tarragon: I now have two of these plants (which provides way more of this pungent herb than I know how to use). The first plant came mail order and was about the most pathetic piece of barely alive root thing I have ever seen. Thinking it was dead, I bought another, but yesterday I discovered that the first, after a year of seeming non-existant, has decided to become a happy plant afterall. I love these kind of garden surprises. So often there is life where there seems to be none.
Favorite uses: I LOVE Chicken Tarragon served over rice. I'm a one trick pony with this herb — but to me chicken tarragon is that good. Anyone else have a favorite tarragon recipe to suggest?
10. Cilantro: I usually give the plant a good sniff to make sure I have cilantro and not its very similar looking friend, parsley. Cilantro is easy to grow from seed and I start planting it around May every spring. I find that it bolts easily so it's handy to plant a few seeds now and then a few more every few weeks for the next month. This way, you will have a ready supply through out the summer.
Favorite uses: While there are many other ingredients you could add to make a great guacamole, I think that can get away with only two: cilantro and avocado.
And how can I not include Basil? It is the plus one, #11 herb that you must grow. I have considered planting it in multiple places around my garden just for the smell of it when I walk by (heaven). I generally buy starts of this annual and then harvest leaves all season. Make sure you keep pinching off the flower heads so that the plant will keep throwing out new leaves all season. I've tried planting from seed (straight in the ground) and while I have had some success, I've had better luck transplanting baby plants.
Favorite uses: Everything - Salads, pesto, pizza, sauces, and with summer's treat, tomatoes and fresh mozzarella.
Did I miss any of your favorites? Do share.
-Re-edited from a post originally published May 11, 2011 - DF