A kitchen herb garden is one of the easiest and most useful gardens you can grow. Herbs require little in the way of maintenance, and you can grow a generous supply in a surprisingly small space. Select a small patch of your yard or find a spot for a grouping of containers as close as possible to your kitchen door—choose any spot within 20 paces of the door that gets at least a half day of full sun. Herbs are less needy of nutrition than vegetables, so most soil types work well. As you plan, consider the times you will dash out to grab a handful of chives or basil when it’s raining or something on the stove needs your attention; having your herbs within easy reach of a walkway or well-placed stepping stones can make a big difference.
Your first kitchen herb garden will be successful if you start simply. Fill your garden with some of the tried-and-true favorites on our list. Start small, and you’re sure to be delighted by the fantastic flavors of your homegrown herbs.
Grow It: Plant seeds or seedlings of basil, a warm-season annual, after the last frost during a warm spell. When flowering tops appear, cut them off (toss them in salads!) to encourage new leaf production. You can sow a second planting of seeds directly in the garden in early summer. Indoors, a pot of basil repels flies.
Eat It: Basil is best fresh. Always toss it in at the end of cooking—heat damages its flavor. Preserve fresh basil by making an infused oil or freezable pesto.
Recommended Varieties: Genovese is best for cooking; ask your nursery about specific varieties for spicy flavor, compact growth habits or frilled foliage.
Grow It: A mild onion-flavored perennial, chives produce edible flowers in spring and early summer. You can grow chives from seed, but it’s faster to start with plants. Plant as soon as the last frost has passed. Trim regularly to prolong production. Every few years, divide and replant clumps to encourage new growth.
Eat It: Toss chives into almost any savory dish—add at the end of cooking or they become bitter. You can freeze excess chives; use them as you would fresh.
Recommended Varieties: Compact Grolau is great for containers; Grande features big, broad leaves; try garlic chives for bold flavor.
Grow It: A fast-growing annual, cilantro can be planted in spring and again in late summer. Cilantro is among the easiest herbs to start from seeds sown directly in the garden, but it suffers badly when transplanted. The ripe seeds are the orange-scented spice known as coriander. To harvest coriander, allow plants to flower and then collect seeds after they turn brown. Store seeds in a cool, dark spot.
Eat It: The entire cilantro plant is edible. Enjoy the leaves, the brown seeds (coriander) and the roots (in soups and stir-fries). Toss the flower heads in salads.
Recommended Varieties: Santo lasts longer than most varieties; Delfino has lacy leaves.
Grow It: Plant mint, a hardy perennial in most areas, in spring. You can start mint from seed, but plants you buy often have better flavor. Mint is a notoriously aggressive spreader, so it’s best to grow it in
containers. Clip growing tips monthly to encourage new growth.
Eat It: Mint is versatile and easy to dry. Crush it with sugar and vinegar for a wonderful mint sauce.
Recommended Varieties: Peppermints and spearmints are best for cooking; pineapple mint has beautiful variegated leaves.
Grow It: Oregano (and similar marjoram) varies in size, flavor and growth habit; all are easy to grow from seeds or rooted cuttings (see “Growth Spurt” at right). You can pot and overwinter hardy oregano in an unheated garage, even in colder climates.
Eat It: Oregano leaves’ flavor is strongest in summer. Dried oregano leaves hold their flavor well, and excess oregano can also be mashed into butter. Pick flowers as they open to add to soups, baked potatoes and roasted vegetables.
Recommended Varieties: Greek oregano has the best flavor. Italian oregano is a delicious marjoram-oregano cross. Sweet marjoram may be the only true marjoram.
Grow It: You can grow parsley from direct-sown seed, but the seeds are slow sprouters. Plant young seedlings in spring, handling roots gently.
Eat It: Parsley’s flavor is best fresh and used at the end of cooking to enliven flavors. To preserve parsley, freeze leaves or turn them into gremolata, a condiment of parsley, garlic, lemon and olive oil. In autumn, try pulling up a few plants and use the roots as you would carrots.
Recommended Varieties: Curly parsley is a lovely edging plant, but most cooks prefer the flat-leafed version, often called Italian parsley.
Grow It: Superior rosemary cultivars are best purchased as plants. A woody perennial, rosemary can be pruned back, potted up and kept indoors through winter in cold climates.
Eat It: Rosemary accentuates many foods, especially baked goods and roasted vegetables and meat. Varieties differ in size and flavor, though all produce pungent leaves and sturdy stems that can be used as skewers. The leaves dry easily for preserving. Harvest the small flowers as they appear in spring and summer to add to egg and veggie dishes.
Recommended Varieties: Arp and Hill Hardy tolerate more cold than other varieties. Try compact Blue Boy in containers.
Grow It: This 20-inch-tall woody perennial is pretty cold-hardy, but new plants should be started from rooted stem tip cuttings every other year. Or start with transplants. Variegated varieties are less cold-tolerant and more petite.
Eat It: Preserve an abundance of sage by drying it, packing it in salt, or mashing it to create a flavorful butter. The sweet flowers are an ideal accompaniment to dishes with light flavors.
Recommended Varieties: Compact Berggarten is great for tight spaces; White Dalmatian features silvery leaves; Tricolor foliage has pink and white stripes.
Grow It: Start with transplants, and French tarragon will grow to 24 inches tall with stems that tend to sprawl. If a stem rests on the soil, covering it with soil often coaxes it into developing roots. In midsummer, cut back plants by half to stimulate new growth.
Eat It: The leaves have an anise flavor that is sweeter earlier in the season. In spring, use the entire sprig, rather than just the leaves. Later in summer, the leaves benefit from long cooking, as in stews. Tarragon is easy to dry, but also makes fine vinegar. Steep leaves in white wine vinegar in a sunny windowsill for 4 weeks, then strain.
Recommended Varieties: There is but one true French tarragon, which must be purchased as a plant. Nibble a leaf before you buy—it should have a zingy licorice flavor.
Grow It: This hardy evergreen can be grown from seed, seedlings or rooted stem tip cuttings. Cut back blooming branches to increase production of leaves.
Eat It: Thyme boosts the flavor of meat and vegetables, and the oil in thyme helps to break down the fats in many foods, making them more digestible. The leaves are easy to dry, and it also makes nice vinegar. Steep leaves in white wine vinegar in a sunny windowsill for 4 weeks, then strain. The leaves have the strongest flavor before the plants flower, but you can pick the flowers when they open to sprinkle over vegetable dishes.
Recommended Varieties: Upright, green-leafed French and English thyme provide the best flavor; variegated forms are excellent in containers.
Shop for organically grown plants at local garden centers or herb farms (you may have to mail-order specialty culinary herbs). As you examine prospective adoptees, check for pots that contain several seedlings. You can divide and transplant each one, provided you shade them from the sun for a few days as they become accustomed to their new home.
You can also grow herbs from rooted cuttings—bits of the plant you encourage to grow roots. If you buy a fresh herb and want to grow it, choose a few healthy sprigs and strip all but the top three or four leaves, then snip the lower part so only a little bit of green healthy tissue remains. Plant the cutting in a pot of moist soil, then cover with a plastic bag for a few days.