Fresh Herbs and the Garden

While cooking has always been a hobby I’ve loved, my actual education and work experience is in Horticulture.  For this reason every year around this time I get especially antsy to get planting a garden!   There is nothing I love more in the summer time than a big basket of fresh garden veggies and herbs cooked with little else and there’s something really fulfilling about growing things yourself.  I especially love it now that my boys are old enough to be excited about planting things and watching them grow.

One of my favorite things is the bounty of fresh herbs in the summer. Fresh herbs are SO delicious and add so much flavor to your food. They just can’t be matched by the dried stuff in a bottle. They can be expensive to buy in the stores, but can be grown literally for pennies so it makes sense to plant some because for a couple of bucks you can have fresh herbs from spring time all the way into the fall.

They’re also super easy. If you’re thinking that growing your own herbs will require a lot of knowledge and effort on your part, think again. You don’t need a big garden, you can just put some in pots and even grow them indoors on a window sill. Anyone can do it. My husband and I even had a great little herb garden in our first apartment where we got only a few hours of morning sun on our porch. And I promise, you don’t even need a green thumb. The most common culinary herbs don’t need any special conditions, and are very forgiving- even being able to withstand a little neglect.

I’ll have lots of fresh herbs this summer, so I’ll have a lot of recipes to help you use up yours if you plant some. So that’s your homework- go plant something, even if it’s just one!  You can plant seeds, but you need to have room to plant (and grow, and use up) a lot and you need to start them early so they have time to grow.  Some herbs grow really well from seed, but for a lot of them I honestly I think it’s easier to just spend a couple of bucks on an established little plant.  The smallest size available is great- they’ll grow fast!  Here’s some of my little cuties I got in the ground this past week:

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What to grow

I’ve planted a lot of things over the years, but now I only plant the ones I use the very most and I just plant more of them.  There’s so many to choose from, just plant what you like! My very favorite herb is rosemary, and I also love basil, thyme, and oregano for basics. Here’s a list of the most common culinary herbs; they’re all easy to grow :

Rosemary
Basil
Thyme
Oregano
Parsley
Dill 
Tarragon
Chives
Sage
Mint
Cilantro
Lavender

Where to plant

You can plant herbs directly in the ground, or in pots. Follow the instructions on the tag, but you’ll find that the majority of them do best in a place where they’ll receive 6-8 hours of sunlight each day. They will do fine in a partly sunny location as well, but they may not produce as much.
Soil

Most herbs don’t need any special soil conditions. Just normal potting soil. They obviously need to be watered, but have good drainage at the same time. Most can handle slightly dry soil.

Using the herbs

The great thing about herbs is the more you pick them, the more they grow! So use them often and they’ll keep producing. If you leave them alone, most will go to seed, meaning they’ll start to grow flowers- you don’t want that to happen, so if you see it start, snip those suckers right off.

Cutting Herbs

We get a lot of questions about the right way to cut herbs. With soft stemmed herbs like cilantro and parsley, just bunch them up and hold tight with one hand and slice with the other. With this type of herb, slice up the stems too. I’m always surprised how many people waste time plucking off every little leaf. The stems have just as much (if not more) flavor then the leaves, so just slice everything up! Start with the leafy ends and cut down until the main bulk of leaves stop and you start to see more stems than leaves.

With woody stems, like oregano or rosemary, just hold one end of the stem and slide your fingers to the other end.   All of those leaves will just pop right off.

With either type, you can also bunch them up and tie a string around them, stems and all.  Pop the little bunch into soups and stews for added flavor.

Cooking 

Remember when you’re cooking with fresh herbs, they pack the most punch when added in at the end of cooking time. The opposite is true of dried herbs, which do best when added at the beginning so they have time to let their flavors release. 
The rule of thumb to remember with fresh herbs is this:
1 Tbs fresh herb = 1 tsp dried
herb
or use 3 times fresh that you would dried.
Preserving

Fresh herbs can be either dried or frozen. This comes in handy when your plants are producing at a much faster rate than you are using them! Start preserving them and you’ll have fresh herbs all year round.  Always pick the younger, fresher sprigs for best results.
Freezer Method 1:
Make sure herbs are clean by washing and patting dry. Pick off any damaged leaves. Remove leaves from stem and place on a flat dish so they are not touching each other. Place in the freezer until leaves are frozen completely and then transfer to an air tight container or zip-top bag. Some herbs, like rosemary for example where I often use the whole sprig, stem and all, I just leave on the stem to freeze.
Freezer Method 2:
Chop or mince leaves and place a small bundle in each well of an ice cube tray. Fill the cubes 1/2 way with water. Try to push all of the leaves under the water if possible- some will insist on floating, and that’s okay. Freeze until water is frozen solid and then fill cubes up the rest of the way. (Freezing only half-way up prevents the herbs from all floating to the very top.) Once frozen, transfer herb/ice cubes to a container of zip-top bag. Toss a cubes into soups, sauces, etc.
To Dry:
Wash and dry herbs completely. Leave leaves on stems, but pick off any damaged ones and also the lower 1/3 of the sprig. Taking a few sprigs together, gather by the end of the stems. Place a small brown paper bag around the herbs so that the opening of the bag is gathered at the end of the stems and the herbs are inside the bag. Tie with a string or rubber band to secure. Cut several holes in the brown paper bag and then hang upside-down in an airy location. It will take a couple of weeks at least for them to dry completely. Once dry, remove leaves from stems and place in sealed jars.

Now to get you in the mood for herbs, here are some of my favorite recipes that are especially great with fresh ones!

53 comments

  1. I have planted herbs before, and I love them! I have so many different favorite herbs it’s hard to choose just one.

    I love fresh chives in scrambled eggs with some cheese. Heaven!

    I love oregano and cilantro too.

    I can’t wait for summer!

  2. I started my herb garden in April. I am growing cilantro, basil, thyme, rosemary, chives and parsley! They are SO easy to grow, I started them inside and wasn’t very hopeful. But if my hubby can keep them alive for the 10 days I was out of town, then ANYONE can keep them alive!

  3. I have planted herbs before, I tried doing it from seed and was not successful at all and the plants I planted kept getting eaten by the bugs, but I wanted to do organic so I didn’t want to spray them. Maybe this year I’ll try them inside, any suggestions? I would love to know how to store extras as well.

  4. Okay, I kill all plants, but I really want to try this. If I keep them on my back deck in little pots, I would need to take them out of the pot they come in and put them in a bigger pot, right? Is it okay to buy a big (wide) pot and plant a few different herbs in the same pot side by side? Or is that a no no?

  5. no corn…the guy who leases our back 40 acres and the front 25 acres is NOT doing sweet corn, so we didn’t want to run the risk of it ruining ours.

  6. Nat- Yes, you’ll need to take them out of the little pots they come in. And by all means, get a larger pot and put a bunch of different plants in it. That’s how I do mine.

    Heidi- Seeds can be a pain, so just try a little plant that’s already established and pop it in a larger pot. As long as it’s on a window sill that gets a lot of light, it should do great!

  7. Sara, I love to garden. This year the herbs I planted are basil, rosemary and cilantro. I also did tomatoes, corn, green beans, zucchini, cucumbers, strawberries and raspberries. I hope that everyone is getting exciting about gardening. Also don’t feel silly, my husband and I also loved to garden so much we had one while we were in college.

  8. I would actually suggest growing herbs from seeds. It's just as easy and for my favorites you end up with TONS. Chives is super-duper easy to grow from seeds & comes up very fast so that you know your successful (which is a wonderful feeling). You also end up with more basil if you grow from seed (my aunt grew from plant and I grew from seed and we compared).

    Rosemary grows slow so buying plants there makes sense. I didn't have good luck with some of my experiments last year due to bad weather & neglect so I can't tell you about all the others.

    I grow a whole vegetable garden and most of it I buy plants for (its a small garden I should say). But my herbs I just plant from seed.

  9. I started my first "herb garden" this year and I am crossing my fingers they won't all die on me! Where do you snip the herbs when picking them to use?

  10. I love fresh mint, but didn't realize that it is like kudzu and will take over your whole yard if you are not careful…and do this for many, many years!

  11. I love my herb garden! This is (I think) the third year I've had it. Besides the usual suspects, I have room for maybe 4 more herbs . . . I'm thinking mint (It doesn't seem to love being in a pot), lavender, and . . .??? Savory? Chervil?

  12. I totally forgot to plant rosemary and mint! I guess it is not too late to add them to my herb garden… so far I have oregano, cilantro, basil, thyme, parsley, dill and chives!

  13. I've never planted my own herb garden before, but I love cooking with fresh herbs! This might just be the spring I do it :). I have a relatively large bay windowsill in my kitchen that gets a decent amount of light – that should do the trick :).

    Thanks for the How-To!

  14. Jen T- yes, mint WILL go crazy! That's a good one to put in a pot for that very reason!

    Taylor- where to cut depends on the type of herb. For broadleaf herbs (think basil) the newer, younger leaves will be the most flavorful, but you'll want to keep the plant itself well snipped to help it grow the best, so you can cut further down a stem. For woody stemmed herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc) snip the whole little sprig. What you want to avoid is only cutting off the very tippy tops (even if that's the only part you'll be eating). If you do that, your plants will get tall and leggy.

  15. Great post! We just built a garden and will be panting the seeds this weekend. WE've got the usual… carrots, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions. I also have a separate herb garden that I did last year and it consists of basil, thyme, mint, lavender and oregano.

  16. We have thigh high dill, knee high basil, rosemary, thyme, mint, and parsley right now. Our lavender, cilantro, oregano, and sage are smaller- ranging from a 3-8 inches. We grew all from seed in January except the lavender.

    I never can get a great cilantro plant but I keep trying. I wonder what I could be doing wrong? I'm also in Louisiana so you'd think we'd have the right conditions!

  17. Oh boy do I ever love fresh herbs too! My only problem is that I get aphids that want to devour things like cilantro and dill. So frustrating.. and spider mites on my mint.

  18. Thank you for the info. I have been wanting to try planting some herbs for a while now. I have a condo, so I might try doing them by my front door in a pot. Thanks for the tips. I am excited…I love fresh herbs, but they are SOOO expensive at the store.

  19. YEA! I just started a mini (really mini) herb "garden" (box) this year! And now I have chives coming out my ears and have no idea what to do with them! And I love cilantro and fresh salsa, but a person can only eat so much of that, right? So I would love ANY ideas. Thanks!

  20. Lisa- if it makes you feel any better, I have NEVER been able to grow cilantro! I've tried it in 3 different states and for whatever reason, it just stinks! So I quit trying and I just buy it at the store, lol.

  21. I'm so glad somebody else mentioned cilantro. That one drives me nuts. It goes to seed right when I'm ready to use it and tons of little baby cilantro plants come in, but never enough to actually use. I'm glad there's a consensus so I can quit trying to grow it.

    I agree that chives are easy to grow from seed- and sometimes basil if you get lucky.

  22. We have designated a little spot right next to the door for an herb garden this summer and I am so excited to try it. We're planning peppermint (I LOVE peppermint tea), basil and parsley at least. I know I need more, but I'm not sure what.

  23. LOL… just went outside to check our garden and our dill had a "little" growth spurt. It is now up to my chest. Time to make dill butter for everyone I know again! 🙂

    I use a LOT of cilantro so I'm always hoping. But it doesn't work for me. At least it is only 49c a bunch at the produce market.

  24. I have basil, rosemary, marjoram and parsley planted. I am going to add oregano and thyme. I love fresh herbs. Thanks for the tips on preserving them.

  25. I just want to say that I love your blog so much.You have no ideia how much you help me. I am from Brazil and been a foreigner cooker is not easy. I used to read the cooking book all scared cause I never knew what most of the ingredients were or what they looked like. I always had to ask someone to read and explain it to me. With you guys it so much fun. Posting the pics of the ingredients has made my life so much easier and it gave me back confidence.Thanks so much!!!Ariane Egbert Utah

  26. LOVE LOVE love to garden and cook what I grow. I live in Arkansas and we've had a really warm spring so I've already got great looking tomato plants, potatoes, lettuce, onions, radishes, carrots, beets, peppers, corn popping up, beans sprouting, peas, and herbs of course! Always happy to read about someone else's gardening experiences.

  27. I like to garden and tried to grow a herb garden on my apartment porch but possums continually tried to eat the suckers and I eventually had to give up the war 🙁

    I have been thinking of buying one of those Aerogarden contraptions for growing indoors, or something similar.

  28. I'm so excited to start my first container garden this year! I started basil seeds a couple weeks ago and will be growing them on my deck. They're growing like crazy sitting on my window sill. My cherry tomato seeds just sprouted yesterday too!

  29. I love love looooovvvveeee to garden. In MN we can't really put anything in the ground until around mid May (just the cooler weather plants – peas, lettuce, spinach, etc.). This year I will be planting a salsa garden – tomatoes, jalepeno peppers, green, yellow, red peppers, maybe some banana peppers (my mouth is watering thinking of this delish garden) etc. We always plant sunflowers and harvest the seeds and this year, I am going to try the beautiful and yummy artichoke plant. Can't wait! Great post!

  30. I just planted my first window sill basil last month and they are looking beautiful right now. My question is when can I start snipping and using? They are only about 2 inches tall right now, but they already smell flavorful, so I'm anxious to start trimming! Thanks!

  31. MommaBean- be patient! If your plants are only about 2 inches tall then they probably need to keep growing. You certainly *can* use them at any point, and plucking a little won't hurt, but if you start snipping too much now you'll be left with very little! I would let them grow at least to the size that you see in the picture I posted and then you should be safe to pluck away.

  32. I am grateful for your post, but I wish it came with piece of mind and a green thumb too. Its not that I'm afraid of growing herbs…I think I can do that. Its just that I'm having severe anxiety over the garden I planted a week ago. I'm just SURE nothing is going to grow! This will be my first really dedicated garden (though I've had a couple before) and I'm just praying it will work. Do you have any sage advice (no pun intended!)? I've planted peas, onions, lettuce, carrots, parsley…and tomatoes, basil, peppers, and beans will go in for the summer. We also have raspberries and wild grapes.

    Anyway, enough about me. For those having their cilantro go to seed, at least they can rest assured that they just grew coriander. Now, if only I knew what to do with coriander… Thanks for the great post! Good timing, as always.

  33. Cheri, don't fret! I am SURE something will grow for you 🙂 And honestly, sometimes gardens are hit and miss too. I've planted lots of things over the years that just haven't really done well (or done anything!) and that's okay too. Each year you'll learn what grows best where you are and what you enjoy eating the most. Enjoy your garden!

  34. Thanks so much for the great herb advice, I just put in my garden this morning. Any suggestions on planting/harvesting leaf lettuce? I saw some at a farmer's market and want to try it in a container on my balcony. Thanks!

  35. Hey Anna- ya lettuce is great because you can harvest it for a long time by just picking off the ripe leaves and leaving the rest to grow. Actually, if you just google it, you'll find tons of great tutorials about growing and harvesting it in a container. I'd write stuff out here, but it would be super long! Let me know if you have any specific questions after looking it up. And enjoy some yummy salads!

  36. Do you have to plant the herbs at a certain time of the year? Could we buy an herb plant now and keep it indoors on a windowsill? Thanks 🙂

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