Culinary Herb Growing 102

Madeline Wajda
Adams County Master Gardener

For those of you who have planted your dill, cilantro, rosemary, basil (just the green Genovese or sweet basil, thank you), parsley, thyme, lemon balm (admittedly invasive but nature’s best mosquito repellent as well as wonderful in tea), oregano, sage, and chives, don’t stop now! There is a whole world of unusual culinary herbs out there—most no more difficult than the common herbs to grow and whole new flavors to add to your cooking.

Basils—In addition to the common basils mentioned above, there is a host of other flavors, shapes, and colors. There are purple basils, such as ‘Rubin,’ ‘Osmin Purple,’ ‘Dark Opal,’ and ‘Purple Ruffles,’ all of which taste like the common basil but add color to your cooking (and especially good herbal vinegar). They make beautiful landscape additions as well. There are small basils such as ‘Bush Basil’ or ‘Spicy Globe’ which are a little spicier but nice to use whole in salads. My favorite lemon basil, called ‘Mrs. Burns,’ is larger, stronger, and more flavorful than the common lemon basil or any of the other named lemon basils in the nursery.

Cinnamon basil is a beautiful plant by mid-summer when the stems have turned red as have the veins in the leaves. It adds a cinnamony flavor to whatever it is added to, especially snicker doodles! Thai basil adds an oriental note to foods and is a very pretty plant and flower. All of the above basils are annuals, like temperatures above 40 degrees, and need to be pinched back when beginning to flower. There is a tender perennial basil, ‘Greek Columnar Basil,’ which must be kept at a temperature at 40 degrees or above to grow indoors year-round. We have found that a variegated form of Columnar Basil, ‘Pesto Perpetua,’ while a beautiful plant, is not as strongly flavored or as hardy. ‘African Blue Basil,’ with its balsam-camphor scent, is a perennial but better used in the landscape than as a culinary plant.

Borage deters Japanese beetles and tomato
hornworms.  Its beautiful blue star-shaped flowers
 attract bees and can be eaten.

Borage grows from seed sown in the garden, as it does not transplant well. While I find its fuzzy, cucumber-flavored leaves not terribly nice to eat, it is a useful plant to deter Japanese beetles and tomato hornworms; moreover, the bees enjoy its beautiful blue star-shaped flowers which can be plucked from the plant and used as an edible flower. While it is an annual, it will do some self-seeding. It appreciates full sun and well-drained, moist soil.

There are two types of fennel, herb fennel and Florence fennel. With the herb fennel, a perennial, one eats the fronds or the seeds. It must be kept under control for it will reseed everywhere in the garden. Florence fennel produces a bulb which can be eaten in salads or cooked as a vegetable. Both have a licorice flavor. The herb fennel is hardier in our area and must not be planted near dill plants for they will cross-pollinate.

Lavender (the angustifolias) is useful as well as decorative. These varieties are hardy, needing only full sun, good drainage, and an alkaline soil (pH of 7 or above). The flowers can be eaten fresh or dried; the leaves are somewhat medicinal-tasting.

Lemon Verbena is a wonderful cooking herb, but it is not frost hardy. Grown outside for the summer in a pot, it likes full sun and good drainage. After being brought in for the winter, it will drop its fragrant leaves around the holidays; but if left in a sunny window and watered when dry, it will come back around mid-February. It also propagates easily from its woody stems.

Lemongrass is an oriental herb which is also frost-tender and can be grown in a pot. It will increase just like a clump of grass and can be divided in the spring for a larger crop. The leaves can be used for tea; the stalk is what is used in cooking. The stalk is usually removed from the dish before eating, as it is extremely woody.

Lovage has a wonderful strong celery flavor (start with about half the amount of celery you would use in a recipe), but it is a big plant (3 to 5’ tall) and needs a lot of room. It is a perennial and needs no special care.

Salad burnet is a cucumber-flavored herb (and burpless!) that is perennial and will often be green under the snow. It self-seeds a little but requires little care. The smaller leaves are usually the best flavored, and it is a tasty addition to salads.

There are two types of savory, a hardy annual form and a perennial form. They are very similar in flavor with the winter variety being a little more pungent. Both do well in our climate with little attention.

Sweet marjoram is a cousin of the oregano and used more frequently in French cuisine. It has a milder flavor than oregano. When buying either, be sure you are getting the culinary forms. There is a wild oregano or marjoram that flowers pink and makes beautiful dried flowers but does not have a great flavor. Marjoram is theoretically perennial here but we usually end up planting it every year as it usually does not survive the winter, although it might in a more protected situation.

Surprisingly, there are some 350 species of thyme. Most common culinary thymes are English (with slightly larger, rounded leaves) and French (with smaller, pointed leaves). English is the hardier, but I like cooking with the French because it is easier to strip the leaves from the woodier stems. There are also lemon thymes, lime thyme, lavender thyme, caraway thyme, and orange thyme. All are perennial here, although sometimes they heave from the winter’s frost or just get water-logged and die off. A layer of gravel under the plant will help keep the leaves dry. There is a bevy of creeping thymes; including dwarf thyme, wooly thyme, and elfin thyme, all of which are lovely ground covers but often require replanting. There are also many hybrids with variegated or golden leaves. Thymes prefer well-drained neutral to alkaline soil in full sun; deadheading after bloom encourages bushiness.

Vegetable gardens are very popular this year; try planting a new herb or two in amongst the vegetables or even among your flowers to enhance the beauty and usefulness of your garden.

Read other articles on growing herbs or vegetables

Read other gardening articles by Madeline Wajda