Spice Up Your Life with Herbs

Many herbs are easy to grow, add flavor to food, and make food more nutritious. I suggest starting a first culinary herb garden with basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and parsley.

These “starter” herbs can be planted in the ground or in containers and are easy to grow. Thyme and oregano are perennials and will usually come back each year. Although a perennial, rosemary is not hardy here and seldom survives our winters. Most successful rosemary growers in this climate plant their rosemary in pots and bring it inside for the winter, or they purchase new plants each year. Basil is a very tender annual and should not be planted out until there is no chance of frost. Parsley is a biennial and goes to seed the second year, so I grow it as an annual.

A culinary herb garden should be planted near the kitchen so that when herbs are needed in the middle of meal preparation they are close at hand. A few herbs in pots on a sunny deck make a good first herb garden. Most herbs do best in a sunny location in well-drained soil. Some, however, can tolerate or even prefer part shade.

Although basil is available in many varieties, I have found that I am happy with just two: sweet basil or a Genovese type (used to flavor Italian dishes and to make pesto) and Asian basil, also known as Thai or Siam basil (used to flavor Asian dishes). Basil is easy to grow from seed and should be started indoors in April and then planted out in late May. Basil benefits from pinching the terminal bud, which encourages the plant to branch out and get bushy. Pinch off blossoms so that basil plants keep producing leaves. Basil is usually added to a dish at the end of cooking since heat diminishes its flavor.

golden lemon thymeThyme, also, comes in many varieties. I always have some of the plain thymes (winter, German, English) in my garden, but also love lemon thyme, especially variegated lemon thyme. Thyme is a perennial, and under the right conditions (well-drained soil and full sun) can be long-lived. I use thyme in vegetables, soups, and stews, and lemon thyme in salad dressings, herbal teas, and lemonade.







golden and Greek oreganoOregano comes in several varieties, but not as many as basil and thyme. Plain Greek oregano smells and tastes like Italian seasoning. I also love to grow golden oregano, which seems to have a slightly milder flavor, because it is really pretty in the herb garden. Both grow best in full sun and welldrained soil, although they consistently come back for me in my part-sun herb garden. I use oregano in any tomato sauce or Italian salad dressing I am preparing and dry some to use in the winter.






rosemaryRosemary is one of my favorite herbs. It smells wonderful and tastes great. I have not noticed flavor differences in the different varieties and believe that the differences are in the growing habits and shapes. I grow rosemary in pots that I bring in for the winter, where they like cool temperatures, plenty of light, and a humid environment. In the summer grow them outside in full to part sun in well-drained soil, but do not allow them to completely dry out. Rosemary can be grown from seed or cuttings. It enhances a number of different foods: dry beans, vegetables, tomato sauces, meat dishes, and Italian food.



new and second year parsleyIn general, parsley comes in two varieties: flat-leaf Italian and curly-leaf. I prefer the curly-leaf because it is prettier and easier to chop. (Many cooks prefer the traditional flat-leaf parsley.) I usually start parsley from seed indoors, planting 3-4 seeds per cell and grouping 2-4 cells in each hole when transplanting outside. While parsley prefers full sun, it will do quite well in part shade. Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars feed on parsley leaves, so take care when harvesting. (Plant extra to share.) Parsley enhances many dishes—all my soups and stews, potatoes, salad dressings, pesto, Middle Eastern food, pasta, and bean salads. It can be a substitute for cilantro in salsa.


Herbs, especially parsley, are loaded with vitamins and minerals and pack a nutritious punch. Another good reason to give herb gardening a try.

--Susan Sivey, Master Gardener Volunteer