Culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners, having a wide range of uses in cooking. These herbs, because of their strong flavors, are generally used in small quantities to add flavor. Parsley is the most popular herb. Other popular culinary herbs include chives, thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, mint and basil.
Ornamental herbs have brightly colored flowers and foliage. Some herbs such as artemesia, thyme, mint and sage produce variegated foliage. Others have both fragrant foliage as well as fragrant flowers.
Medicinal herbs have long been thought to have curative powers. But while present medical knowledge recognizes some herbs as having healing properties, others are highly overrated. Medicinal herbs should be used carefully. Some herbs are harmless while others can be dangerous if consumed.
Herbs also can be classified as annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annuals bloom one season and then die. These include basil, chervil, cilantro/coriander, dill, summer savory, sweet marjoram. Biennials live for two seasons, blooming the second season only – parsley,caraway, parcel. Because biennial herbs become tough after they bloom, they should be planted every year. Perennial herbs overwinter and bloom each season. These include chives, bronze fennel, lovage, mint, tarragon, most thymes, and winter savory.
Most herbs prefer to receive at least 6 hours of sun daily. Bee balm, catnip, chamomile, cilantro/coriander, dill, feverfew, lemon balm, lovage, mints, parsley, sorrel and tarragon will tolerate some shade. A few, such as sweet woodruff and chervil, prefer more shade, preferably in the afternoon. Choose a site that drains well. With the exception of watercress, most herbs will not grow in wet soils. If your soil contains lots of clay, you will need to amend it with compost and peat moss. If your soil is especially wet, you can even add some sand to improve drainage. The soil does not have to be especially fertile, so little fertilizer should be used. Generally, highly fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage with poor flavor.
A few herbs, such as mints, need to be contained or they will overtake a garden. Plant them in a large pot or bucket with drainage holes. Sink these into the ground; this should confine the plants for several years.
Herbs can also be grown in containers, window boxes or hanging baskets. These methods will require more care, especially watering.
Herb leaves should be cut when the plant’s stock of essential oils is at its highest. In the leafy herbs (basil, chervil, marjoram and savory) this occurs just before blossoming time. Basil, lemon balm, parsley, rosemary, sage and similar herbs can be cut many times during the growing season. Pinch off flower buds as they appear and harvest regularly to keep plants in leaf production mode. Cutting should be done in the morning after the dew has dried. It’s also best to harvest herbs when the soil is slightly dry; the flavors will be more concentrated.
Place leaves or seeds on a cookie sheet or shallow pan not more than 1 inch deep in an open oven at low heat less than 180ºF (82.2ºC) for about 2 to 4 hours.
Bunch drying is an easy way to dry long-stemmed herbs such as marjoram, sage, savory, mint, parsley, basil, dill and rosemary. If the leaves are clean, it is not necessary to wash them; some of the oils may be lost during rinsing. However, if the leaves are dusty, rinse them briefly under cold water. Shake off any excess water. Discard any dead or yellowed leaves. Tie the herbs tightly in small bunches and hang them leafy ends down in a warm, dry place which is well ventilated and not exposed to direct sunlight. To prevent dust from collecting on the drying leaves, place each bunch inside a paper bag before hanging. Gather the top of the bag and tie the herb stems so the leaves hang freely inside the bag. For ventilation, cut out the bottom of the bag or punch air holes in the sides. Leaves will usually dry in 1 to 2 weeks.
To dry leaves:
Remove leaves from their stems or leave them attached. Spread only one layer of leaves on a tray covered with cheesecloth to ensure good air circulation and quick drying. Place the tray in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area that is not exposed to direct sunlight. Every few days, stir or turn the leaves gently to assure even drying. Depending on the temperature and humidity, it takes approximately a week or so for herbs to dry completely.
To dry seeds:
Spread seeds on trays in a thin layer. Dry as for leaves. Once dry, carefully hand rub the seed capsules and gently blow away chaff. Store in an airtight container.
When completely dry, the leaves should be stored whole in airtight containers. Crumble when ready to use.
Leaves retain their oil and flavor if stored whole and crushed just before use. Seeds should be stored whole and ground as needed. For a few days, it is important to examine daily the jars in which you have stored dried herbs. If you see any moisture in the jars, remove the herbs and repeat the drying process. Herbs will mold quickly in closed jars if not completely dry. Once you are sure the herbs are completely dry, store them in a cool, dry place away from light.
Freezing is an excellent way to preserve tender herbs such as dill, chives, basil, parsley and tarragon. It is very easy to freeze herbs and it takes much less time than drying. While it is possible to place herbs right out of the garden into the freezer, the quality in terms of taste and color will not be quite like fresh herbs; slightly bitter flavors and drab grayish-green colors are common. Frozen herbs can be improved by blanching before freezing. They still will not taste and look quite like fresh herbs, but they will come very close. They are best used frozen, but frozen herbs can be thawed in the refrigerator; they will keep approximately one week.
To freeze fresh herbs:
Rinse freshly picked herbs. Blanch for a few seconds using the following method:
Hold the herbs by their stems with tongs. Dip them in boiling water about 5 seconds or until their color brightens. Remove them from water and immediately plunge them into an ice bath. Blot or spin dry. Remove stems, chop or leave whole as desired.
Freeze in one of several ways:
Place in small plastic freezer bags in amounts that will be used at one time. To make it easier to separate frozen herbs, lay the blotted herbs out in a single layer on wax paper. Roll or fold the paper so that there is a layer of paper separating each layer of herb. Then, pack paper and all in freezer bags. To use, break off as much as needed and chop if it wasn’t chopped earlier. Or place in ice cube trays and cover with water; repackage into freezer bags when frozen. Washed fresh dill, chives and basil can be frozen without blanching.
Herbs can also be grown indoors for year-round enjoyment. Indoor plants will need essentially the same conditions as herbs grown outdoors — sunlight and a well-drained soil mix that is not too rich. Select a south or west window. ‘Grow lamps’ are helpful in supplementing light. When planting, be sure the pots have drainage holes. Use a professional mix potting soil. Plants grown in clay pots will need more frequent watering than those grown in plastic. Water the soil well and then allow soil to dry before watering again. Never let plants sit in water. Avoid getting the foliage wet.
Annual herbs can spend their full life cycle in a pot indoors. Perennial herbs, however, will do better if you move them outdoors during the summer. Plunge the pot in soil up to its rim or you can keep it as a potted plant in a sunny spot on the porch or patio (you will probably need to transplant it into a larger pot). Bring herbs back indoors before frost.