The Best Herbs to Grow: A Guide for Budding Gardeners
Hi, if you’re reading these articles in order, it’s Lynda back again.
If this is the first one you’ve looked at check out my other article to find out about me, why you should grow herbs and the tools I suggest you begin with.
Now, let’s discover the best herbs to grow at home.
Before you start buying any seeds, plug plants or even compost, it’s good to think about the herbs you want to grow. Some will appear more than once - for example, a herb can be a perennial and hardy, or annual and tender, or even perennial and tender.
There might appear to be a large number of categories, but it’s worth thinking about them to get the plants best suited for your garden and even your lifestyle. How busy you are may have an influence on the herbs you want to grow. The first category refers to their use.
Culinary or Pot Herbs
Used primarily to flavour food during cooking or added after food is cooked. Historically they were called pot herbs, meaning they were destined for the cooking pot. However, they differ from vegetables as they are usually only used in small amounts. They can also be used in larger quantities as part of a meal, such as herb leaves in salads. For example, basil, coriander and parsley.
Herbs can also help our health and wellbeing. Many, such as garlic, mint and thyme, cross over both culinary and medicinal. Others, like feverfew, aren’t quite so pleasant to eat. Some herbs also have many uses in beauty and around the house.
Lavender is a prime example. Its oil has been proved to have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, this means it may help heal minor burns and insect bites. Research shows that it may also be useful for cases of anxiety, insomnia and depression as well as the ability to lessen acne, improve health, hair and even reduce wrinkles!
Lavender can grow quite big, so it might not be best in a pot, but I do have lots of it in the garden, particularly edging each of the raised vegetable and soft fruit beds. The bees love it!
Herbs can also be described as how robust they are. These are delicate plants, they need care and attention when growing, and are usually only added to dishes at the end of the cooking process, or simply folded through salads, so as not to ruin their structure and subtle flavours. These include basil, chives, coriander and marjoram. Depending on where you live, this category often needs protection from bad weather.
Herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme are much stronger, their stems have a woody appearance, and their leaves are much firmer to touch. Woody herbs can be added right at the beginning of the cooking time, although it’s you may want to remove them before serving as they can be a little tough.
Then are classifications for how long they are expected to grow:
Perennials are probably the best herbs to grow if you are a busy person and don’t want to spend a lot of time sowing seed and transplanting. With just a little care and attention, a perennial herb should be with you for a few years, or even a lifetime!
Some perennials can also be classified as a shrub (a small to medium sized plant with woody stems), these are plants like bay, lavender and rosemary. In my garden I have a bay that is about 2 metres high - it forms a hedge to give my garden some privacy from the side entrance from the street, and birds are making their nests there. These herbs can also be trimmed into shapes, known as topiary.
Plants like lemon balm and mint may die back in the autumn, however, just to reassure you, although it may look as though they have died, their roots survive, and you will be rewarded by new shoots in the spring.
Some perennials like bay, rosemary and sage are evergreen, which means the herbs will keep their leaves over winter, giving you green in the garden, and your cooking pot, in the darkest of days.
More about this when we come to how to look after your herbs in winter.
These grow easily from seed; they usually, but not always, produce a flower followed by their own seeds and then die. All taking place within the space of one year. You could almost call them disposable herbs, although you can take cuttings from most of them to have a continuous supply of herbs.
Annuals are plants like basil, coriander and dill. They are usually cheaper to buy and easily available from supermarkets and garden centres.
If a plant is a biennial, it means that it takes two seasons to complete the growing cycle. It produces foliage in the first year, the plant may go dormant (asleep), but it then flowers and dies in the second.
These include angelica, caraway and parsley. Although, parsley is a bit of an odd one out as it may grow for two or three years, with the flavour being best in year one. However, just because a herb is labelled an annual or biennial, don’t bin it after the first year. Rather, wait and see what it does. My parsley has been going for four years and my angelica for even longer.
Hardy or Tender Herbs
Yet another classification shows how your herbs will react to the weather and their surroundings:
The colder your climate, the more your plants run the risk of not surviving the winter. Some herbs are very well adapted. Hardy herbs can cope with frost, again often going dormant in the winter and coming back with new growth in the spring.
These include chives, oregano, mint, sage and thyme. Even so, if it is a particularly bad winter you might want to bring some of them into an unheated greenhouse or cold frame (a small wood and glass structure that gives protection) or cover them with fleece.
There are two types of tender herbs. Tender for cooking, when you add them at the end of cooking, similar to soft herbs, and tender when you have to take the plants in before the first frosts. Both are important to know and not always the same.
If you grow tender herbs such as lemon balm, lemon verbena or scented-leaf pelargoniums, you will need to protect them from the worst of winter. Just bring them into the protection of a greenhouse, conservatory, or a bright windowsill in your house, during the coldest weather. Wait until you are sure there is no chance of frost before you put them out in the garden again.
I find it helps to mark the labels of tender herbs with a red-letter T, this reminds me to bring them in before the first frosts.
It’s also important to know whether your plants are sun or shade-loving. The location of your herbs may be the secret to their success!
Most herbs grow best in full sun for around four to six hours of the day to give the best flavour and fragrance. A poor summer means that although they will still grow, they may be a little straggly and susceptible to disease and you will need to keep a close watch on them.
Herbs that prefer sun include basil, chives, dill, oregano, rosemary, tarragon and thyme. As you may have guessed, these are mostly plants that originated in the Mediterranean.
A few herbs are happy with partial shade, including chervil, coriander and mint. Very few herbs are happy in full shade, but you could try angelica, bay and lemon balm – but they will suffer if they are kept too moist as well as shaded. Which brings us on to...
Moist or Dry?
You will also need to know how often you need to water your herbs, and ensure they are well-drained during rainy periods. Comfrey, mint and parsley are all happy in moist soil whilst borage, fennel, scented geraniums, sage, thyme and winter savory all like to be kept fairly dry. Back to that Mediterranean theme again!
And there is also the term for those herbs that may wander where they are not wanted.
Some herbs can take over the garden. Herbs like fennel and parsley freely scatter their seeds - they seem to sprout with ease even in the most inhospitable conditions. Others send out rhizomes (root-like stems) that make their way just under the soil's surface; sprouting new plants as they go. I had a mint that escaped a pot and popped up in between the paving slabs on the patio more than a metre away!
Other invasive plants include lemon balm and pansies (yes, pansies can be classified as herbs, giving colour rather than flavour to a dish). Although they can be left to run wild, filling in the gaps in garden paths, if you want to keep them under control, the containers can either be left above ground, or you can dig a hole in the garden and sink them into the ground, leaving an inch or two of the pot's rim above the soil line to try to stop them creeping away.
Other plant descriptions on a seed packet or plant label can give you more information, with words such as 'carefree', 'vigorous', 'establishes quickly', or 'grows anywhere' providing big clues as to their growth.
Best Herbs to Grow for Beginners
That’s a lot of categories - so if you are new to herb gardening, my advice is to start with a group of hardy perennials that can be bought as established plants, such as chives, mint, rosemary, sage or thyme.
I would also look at growing herbs in pots as I think this is the easiest way for new gardeners, even for those without a garden!
Bay Leaf Chicken
I developed this dish after having a particularly good harvest of bay leaves. With a delicate flavour, it makes a pleasant change from the traditional roast chicken. Serves four.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium-sized chicken or 4 chicken joints
- 2 cups of chicken broth (or hot water and chicken stock cube)
- 8 fresh bay leaves
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- A few leaves of oregano and parsley chopped
- Sea salt flakes and ground black pepper to taste.
- Heat oven to 180ºc (gas mark 4).
- Salt and pepper the chicken well.
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and brown all over.
- Move the chicken to a casserole dish, add broth and herbs, cover and cook for an hour, or until cooked right through. The juices from the chicken should run clear when a knife is inserted.
- Serve with pasta, rice or mashed potatoes and some fresh green vegetables.
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