Tips on Growing Your Favorite Herbs

basil Herbs have been cultivated for thousands of years for both culinary and medicinal purposes. Today, these fragrant and flavorful plants still play an important role in every kitchen garden. In fact, even a tiny plot can provide you with enough herbs to use fresh, frozen or dried.

Herbs are easy to raise, even if you've never gardened before. Spring is the time to plant herbs. If you have the space, you can plant a formal herb garden that is as attractive as it is plentiful. Formal herb gardens use design techniques that are centuries old. Knot gardens, for example, where herbs are grown in a knot-like design, have been popular since medieval times.

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If you are short on space you can tuck in your favorite herbs amid other plantings in your vegetable or flower garden. Many low-growing herbs, such as creeping rosemary and thyme, make lovely edging plants for vegetable or flower gardens. One favorite is to edge rose borders with lavender or variegated sage and vegetable beds with parsley.

Herb Basics
There are both annual and perennial herbs. The perennial herbs return year after year and can form the structure of your herb garden. Annuals can be snipped heavily all summer and completely cleared of leaves before frost kills them.

Annual Herbs

basil BASIL
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is an essential ingredient in many Mediterranean foods. Although basil grows easily from seed, you should plant seedlings if you're eager for herbs in early summer. To increase leaf yield, pinch back and use the leaves in cooking -- the leaves near the top are the sweetest. When the plant flowers, remove the bloom to increase leaf production. Space plants about one foot apart. Most varieties grow to about two feet tall.

Cilantro is used in Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese foods as an herb and garnish. Snip leaves to increase yield. Space cilantro plants about 10 inches apart. Plants grow about 15 inches tall. If cilantro matures, its seeds are called coriander.

Parsley is nearly ubiquitous in all cuisines. Although parsley is a biennial, most gardeners treat it as an annual. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum neopolitanum) is flavorful, and it adds a deep green color to soups and salads. Used as a garnish, parsley tastes best when harvested young.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a fragrant and flavorful herb that supplies cooks with both leaves and seeds for culinary use. Harvest fresh leaves for use in salads and soups, or with grilled fish. The seed heads of 'Mammoth' dill can be harvested when the seeds turn light brown. Allow a few seeds to self-sow to ensure harvest the following year.

Perennial Herbs

Every kitchen garden needs a little thyme (Thymus vulgaris). These low-growing, extremely furry little plants have very small leaves. Thyme can be used to season meats, fish and soups, as well as sauces. Thyme dries very well; snip leafy stems when the plants are flowering for best flavor.

rosemary ROSEMARY
If you raise only one herb in your garden, let it be rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). This pungent, green herb adds exotic flavor to meats, potatoes, soups and pizzas. Rosemary also dries well and retains its flavor if sealed in an airtight container. Harvest sprigs before the plant flowers. Young stems produce the most tender leaves. Since rosemary is a tender perennial, you'll need to pot them up and move them indoors if you live in the North.

Mint is used to flavor teas and other drinks. There are many mint varieties to try, all which have their own subtle flavor and scent. For best flavor, harvest mint leaves before the plant flowers. Mint plants respond to pinching back by sending out more robust growth.

Chives are standard fare in summer salads and soups and as a snappy addition to any food. Their long, cylindrical leaves have an onion-like flavor, and you can even use the purple flowers (which bloom in the early spring) as a colorful edible addition to salads. Garlic chives (Allium tubersosum) have straplike leaves and white flowers in the late summer.

Both oregano (Origanum vulgare) and its sweeter cousin, marjoram (Origanum majorana), add a pungent flavor to meat, fish, and tomato sauces. Leaves are most flavorful when harvested before the plants flower. Another great reason to add oregano to the garden: Its purple blooms are great additions to cut flower bouquets.

Tip: Crushing fresh herbs before you use them helps release their flavors.

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