It’s almost impossible to imagine cooking without fresh herbs, and all herbs taste best when grown and harvested from your own garden. Fortunately, herbs are relatively easy to grow with six to eight hours of daily sun, well-drained soil, and compost.
Before you begin growing herbs, it helps to know that the great majority of them fall into two major categories: perennials, herbs that live for more than two seasons; and annuals, those herbs that live for only one season.
When you begin, it’s also helpful to choose herbs that are generally easy to grow. In California, these include the sun-loving perennials: rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, summer savory, French tarragon, and chives. All originated in Europe, and with the exception of chives, require relatively small amounts of water and need little compost unless grown in sandy soils. These perennials are widely available at most local nurseries from spring through early fall.
Annual herbs, such as basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley, are also easily grown, but will need to be planted every spring in rich soil; most of these can easily be sown from seed.
Gardeners in cold-winter areas will do best to plant in the spring or early summer; here in Northern California, you are able to plant all but basil and other tender plants through the fall. Choosing the right location is the most important requirement for growing herbs. Most prefer full sun as long as regular summer temperatures don’t rise above 90 degrees farenheit. If you have very warm summers, consider planting in an area that gets morning sun and afternoon shade, or where the plants will receive filtered light (such as under a tree that allows some light to pass through). Before planting, check the area several times during the day to make sure that there are at least six hours of sun.
Preparing the Soil
Good drainage is key to growing healthy herbs. If your site is compacted, use a large garden fork to loosen the soil; this allows water to drain and creates space for plant roots to reach down. Depending on your soil, you might add an inch or more compost, mixing it into the top six inches of soil, to help prevent drainage problems and add fertility to the garden.
Select healthy, strong plants and provide approximately one to four feet in diameter of space for each plant to grow, depending on the plant. Here are some general guidelines for plant sizes:
• 3-4 feet – rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram
• 2 feet – basils, thyme, tarragon, savory
• 1 foot – cilantro, chives, dill, parsley
Keep the new plants moist for the first week or so. Slowly start letting the plants get a little drier between waterings. Use your judgment: If it’s very hot or windy, or if the plants start to wilt, water more often.
After a few weeks when your herbs have taken root, a watering schedule will become established. Most herbs like to be watered as soon as the soil located a couple of inches below the surface is dry to the touch. Since temperatures and humidity cause drying times to vary every week, you must check the soil often. Do not over-water. More water is not better and can lead to diseases or just poor growing conditions for your herbs, which will result in reduced growth.
For harvesting, you simply cut off about one-third of the branches when the plant reaches at least 6-8″ tall. By cutting close to a leaf intersection, your plants will re-grow very quickly. Some plants, such as parsley, grow new leaves from their center. In this case, the oldest branches need to be completely removed, leaving the new tiny branches growing from the center. This becomes clearer as you watch your plants grow and mature.
Fresh herbs are best in many cases, but since most herbs are not available year around, cooks have learned ways to preserve the flavor. The best way to preserve them depends on the herb. As a rule, the dense, small-leafed, woody herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and savory dry best, while the fleshy, larger leaves — such as basils, tarragon, and sage — can be made into pestos or chopped into butters and frozen. Most herbs are suitable for preserving in vinegar or oil.
References: A very useful book for beginners who want to learn about growing and cooking with herbs is Rosalind Creasy’s The Edible Herb Garden.