A kitchen herb garden is one of the easiest and most useful gardens you can grow. Herbs require little care. Find a small patch of your yard or a spot for a grouping of containers within 20 paces of the door that gets at least a half-day of full sun. Try these tried-and-true favorites that come back year after year.
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. Peppermints and spearmints are best for cooking; pineapple mint has beautiful variegated leaves.
Mild onion-flavored 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. ‘Grolau’ is a great variety for containers; ‘Grande’ features big, broad leaves; try garlic chives for bold flavor.
Oregano (and similar marjoram) varies in size, flavor and growth habit; all are easy to grow from seeds or rooted cuttings. (To try this method, strip all but the top three or four leaves from a few sprigs, 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.) Pick flowers as they open to add to soups, baked potatoes and roasted vegetables. You can pot and overwinter hardy oregano in an unheated garage, even in colder climates. Greek oregano has the best flavor. Italian oregano is a delicious marjoram-oregano cross. Sweet marjoram may be the only true marjoram.
Superior rosemary cultivars are best purchased as plants. The pungent green leaves are the prize, but you can also harvest the small flowers as they appear in spring and summer to add to egg and vegetable dishes. A woody perennial, rosemary can be pruned back, potted up and kept indoors through winter in cold climates. ‘Arp’ and ‘Hill Hardy’ tolerate more cold than other varieties. Try compact ‘Blue Boy’ in containers.
This 20-inch-tall woody perennial is pretty cold-hardy, but new plants should be started from rooted stem tip cuttings every other year. Alternatively, start with transplants. Sage’s sweet flowers make an ideal accompaniment to dishes with light flavors. Variegated varieties are less cold-tolerant and more petite. ‘Berggarten’ is a great choice for tight spaces; ‘White Dalmatian’ features silvery leaves; ‘Tricolor’ foliage has pink and white stripes.
Start with transplants, and French tarragon will grow to 2 feet 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. French tarragon can be grown as an annual or as a perennial to about Zone 4. The best bets for keeping your tarragon alive through winter are to pot it up for overwintering in a cold garage or outbuilding, or to cover it with straw or light mulch through the cold months. 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.
This hardy evergreen can be grown from seed, seedlings or rooted stem tip cuttings. Cut back blooming branches to increase production of leaves. The leaves have the strongest flavor before the plants flower, but you can pick the flowers when they open to sprinkle over vegetable dishes. Upright, green-leafed French and English thyme provide the best flavor; variegated forms grow well in containers.