Spring is the optimal time of year to turn one’s attention to growing herbs. While it is possible to grow them indoors year-round, annual and biennials often do well when planted from seed every year between March and August. Most will successfully sow from early spring until early fall. However, planting conditions may vary by location.
Herbs are a category of plants that are savory and aromatic. They are widely used in cooking by home chefs and culinary artists alike. Not only do herbs make food look and taste better, but they are also nutritious. Herbs, often consumed in moderate portions, contain healthy compounds that do amazing things such as fight inflammation and reduce damage to the body’s cells. The medicinal properties in herbs may also help to prevent and manage heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Planting herbs is a lot of fun. These mighty greens may easily be grown indoors in pots, outdoors in raised container beds, or be planted directly in the earth. Deciding where, when, and which herbs to plant is subject to variable conditions such as the weather, climate, time of year, and the zone in which you live. Herbs are not all the same. Some are annual, such as basil and cilantro, which need to be planted every year. Others, like mint and oregano are perennial, meaning they can last multiple years. A few belong to a third category called biennials, such as parsley, having a two-year life cycle.
Once you get your garden going, herbs are generally easy to tend to. Since they are pricey to buy at the grocery store, growing your own can save you money. Extra herbs can be cleaned, dried, and stored in spice jars for use year-round. Herbs are divided into four basic categories to include medicinal, aromatic, ornamental and culinary. Each variety of herb possesses unique requirements related to water, drainage, sunlight, soil, compost, and care.
Herbs generally perform well with companion plants; plants that succeed in production when grown together. Companion planting historically harkens to Native tribes in America, who planted squash, beans, and corn together with positive outcomes about 8-10,000 years ago. The grouping of these vegetables was given the name, the “Three Sisters.” Since then, farmers and gardeners use companion planting to deter pests, attract beneficial insects, and stimulate growth.
Basil, chives, cilantro, dill, oregano, parsley, rosemary, mint, tarragon, and thyme are examples of easy herbs to grow and to incorporate into one’s diet. Sometimes, as with dill, the seeds, flowers, and ferny foliage can all be used as food seasoning. The leaves may be harvested as needed, the flowers as they open, and the seeds as they ripen. Those seeds which ripen on the plant allow volunteer seedlings to come up in the garden the following year. Lavender is widely grown as a shrubbery herb. The flowers can be purple, pink, or white. While most often used in potpourri, some lavender flowers are edible and offer a perfumed-to-spicy taste for foodies to enjoy. Thus, every kind of herb is unique and special.
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While we do categorize herbs as annuals, biennials, or perennials, the USDA plant hardiness zone we live in will determine whether they’ll survive a cold winter. This past winter, in northern North Carolina (zone 7), we had an extreme drop in temperature and high winds on December 23, which killed all the rosemary, even though it was hardy through zone 7. When I lived in a colder area, rosemary never survived the winter outdoors.
My favorite marjoram, ‘Compactum’, is hardy to zone 8, so it will die outside in winter. I always overwinter a pot in a sunny window indoors because this variety is harder to find.
Cilantro can be perplexing. Although it usually shows up in garden centers at the same time basil does, it’s already too warm for this herb. Cilantro likes cool to cold weather, and here, it will grow in fall, winter, and spring. During warm weather, it’s much shorter-lived, lasting maybe 2 months or a little longer. Variety selection is important; ‘Calypso’ and ‘Cruiser’ look better in the warm months and won’t succumb to heat as early as other varieties, but they won’t last all summer. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, but I do grow it for sale at farmers’ markets.