Herb Gardening for Beginners
An herb is a plant that is typically used for its fragrance or culinary value. Herbs offer a variety of leaf textures, shapes and scents to garden beds or can be grown indoors for continuous production. They add beauty to the landscapes and diversity to your cooking. Many are relatively easy to grow, even for a novice gardener. However, herbs vary in their life cycle and growth patterns. Annual herbs complete their life cycle (foliage, flowers and seeds) in one growing season and should be replanted each year. Biennials produce foliage in one year and flowers and seeds the next, then die back. Many herbs are perennials, which live more than two years, declining slightly each winter. They may grow slowly the first year and reach full maturity the second year. Tender perennials, such as rosemary, will need to be replanted every year if grown outdoors in our climate, as they are not frost tolerant.
Almost all herbs require a sunny location, but some herbs, such as chives, chamomile and bay, can tolerate partial shade. Herbs generally prefer loose, well-drained soil with a slightly acid pH around 6.5. If you are planning on growing your herbs in the garden, a soil test is highly recommended. WVU Soil Testing Laboratory conducts soil tests free of charge for West Virginia state residents. Organic matter, such as compost or peat, will improve drainage in clay soils. Wet, poorly-drained soils prevent oxygen from reaching plant roots, slowing growth and resulting in plant decline or even death. Lime should be added according to the soil test if pH is below 6.5. Herbs do not require high levels of fertilizer – too much nitrogen will cause excess vegetative growth and can decrease the oil production that gives most herbs their scent and flavor. Light applications of a liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion or general purpose water-soluble fertilizer, is best. Herbs should be watered deeply and the soil allowed to dry out before the next watering. Light, frequent watering will cause shallow root growth. Mulching plants will help conserve water as well as decrease weed growth around plantings.
Containers are an excellent option for most herbs, allowing year-round production if moved indoors. Decorative containers add beauty to porches, indoor areas and landscapes as well as offer portability to move containers before frost. Seedlings may be started in a small pot, then transplanted into a larger one as they grow, if preferred. Once you are ready to plant in the permanent location, choose a container based on the mature size of the plant. Plastic pots are lighter and easier to move; heavier containers can be place on casters or in a cart to easily them around. Hanging baskets, window boxes, wash tubs and wheelbarrows are also common containers. Regardless of the container choice, drainage is essential. All containers need drainage holes in the bottom. Air circulation and temperature also are important for indoor plantings to prevent disease and keep plants from drying out.
While many people choose to purchase their herbs as seedlings from a nursery, herbs can be started from seed or propagated from stem cuttings. To take a stem cutting, use sharp, disinfected pruning shears or a knife to snip off 3 to 4 inches where the stem attaches to the stalk at a 45-degree angle. In late spring after flowering, cut off a new shoot just below a new leaf. Cuttings could be taken in fall, just before the plant dies back and hardens off for winter. Dip the lower third of a cutting in rooting powder or solution and plant in moist media. Planted cuttings should be kept in a warm location that receives good sun exposure or artificial illumination. Another important step is not to allow them to dry out or to be scorched by direct sunlight. Tender herbs, such as thyme, basil, rosemary and mint, are some of the easiest to propagate from stem cuttings.
Another propagation option for full grown, non-woody perennials is division. This requires digging up the plant and its entire root system. It is best to work on a cool, cloudy day and use sterilized tools to gently cut the crown and root system into two or more parts, ensuring that each piece has at least two healthy shoots and a good portion of roots. Remove any injured or diseased tissue and cut the top growth back by half. Replant immediately and water well. Division can be used to provide plants for friends and neighbors, regenerate plants that have slowed growing or control those that are aggressively taking over landscaping beds. Some herbs that work well for division include geranium, tarragon, catnip, chamomile and yarrow. Aloe makes “pups” that have their own root system that are at or near the ground’s surface and can easily be divided from the main plant.
Savory, sage, mint and some other herbs can propagate by layering with assistance. Similar to the runners on a strawberry plant, layering is when a stem portion of the plant forms its own roots while still attached to the parent plant. To propagate your plant by layering, carefully bend a healthy creeping or flexible stem over and make a few very light cuts (about 1/3 through the stem) where the stem would touch the soil. Coat this portion in rooting medium then lightly cover with about 2 inches of loose soil. Remove all but a couple of leaves from the stem and keep the planting moist. Once the new plant forms healthy roots (it may take months), it can be cut from the parent plant, dug up and moved to a new location.
Harvesting and Storage
Herbs can be harvested on a regular basis once the oils responsible for their flavor or scent have peaked, but before flowering. Regular trimming and removal of flowers can encourage new leaf growth throughout the season, preventing over-maturity and increasing the total harvest. Annual herbs can be cut back up to one-half and recover. However, perennials shouldn’t be trimmed more than one-third at a time. If seeds are the desired product, such as fennel and mustard, allow the plants to mature to the point that the seed heads begin to turn dark and harvest the entire seed head mass. Always disinfect and sharpen shears or knives before harvest as well as any trays used for drying. Many herbs are naturally repellant to insects, but for those that are not, it is important to avoid the application of most pesticides as they aren’t suitable for leaf or stem tissue that will be directly consumed.
After harvesting, rinse plant tissue and allow to air dry in an area with low moisture and good ventilation. Herbs with stem groupings, such as rosemary and thyme, can be tied in small loose bunches. Each bunch can be hung inside a paper bag to provide protection from dust. Seed heads can be tied in paper bags as well to prevent the loss of seeds. Hang bags upside down and add a few small holes for ventilation. Individual herb leaves such as basil, sage or bay, can be laid out and air dried on a tray instead. Oven drying on the lowest temperature with the door ajar can be accomplished over a few hours, but herbs should be checked often. Microwaves can be used, but the process must be monitored closely as herbs will burn easily. Home dehydrators are possibly the most consistent method, but time and temperature setting will vary by herb and dehydrator manufacturer. Herbs harvested for roots should be rinsed, split into smaller sections, laid on a screen and turned several times a week until air dried thoroughly.
Freezing will alter the texture of herbs, but it doesn’t alter the flavor. Herbs that will be cooked can be frozen instead of dried, if preferred. After rinsing, herbs can be blanched in unsalted water for up to 50 seconds, cool dipped in ice water, then spread in a single layer and frozen in plastic bags or airtight container. Blanching helps reduce the quality loss by preserving the color, flavor and nutritional value of food before freezing. Not all herbs need blanched before freezing. If you intend to use the herbs in soup or paste, wash, chop and pack herbs into ice cube trays. Fill the spaces with water and freeze. After frozen, pop out cubes and store in an airtight container. Holes also can be filled with oil if that is preferred.
Other culinary options for preserving herbs include herb vinegars and herb butters. To make herb butter, add 1/4 cup fresh chopped herbs to 1 cup butter. Butter mixed with 1/4 cup cilantro, 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper and 1 tsp lime zest is great with meat or corn, for example. To make an herb vinegar, rinse and air dry your herbs, laying them on a paper towel. Sterilize a pint or decorative jar. Slightly crush three to four sprigs of fresh herbs and place in each jar. Crushing or bruising the plant tissue will increase the flavoring of the vinegar. Vinegar doesn’t need to be heated. It will take at least seven days for flavor to fully develop; vinegars should be used within four months for best quality. Rosemary vinegar and tarragon vinegar are common examples. Homemade herb oils are not recommended as they are not truly shelf stable and botulism is possible.
|Aloe||Perennial||Division||Up to 2 feet||Sap is used in beauty products and for burns/sunburn|
|Angelica||Perennial||Seeds, cutting or division||6 feet tall by 4 feet wide||Sweetener, candied stems, roots served like a vegetable|
|Anise||Perennial||Seeds, cutting or division
||3 feet tall by 3 feet wide||Meat, candies, breath freshener, nausea, fragrance|
|Basil||Annual or tender perennial||Seeds or cutting||2 feet tall by 1 foot wide||Italian dishes, casseroles, eggs, fish, sauces, salads, fragrance|
|Bay||Tender perennial||Cutting||20 feet tall in ground, 6 feet tall in container||Soups, stews, broth, Mediterranean and Indian dishes|
|Bee balm||Perennial||Seeds or division||4 feet tall||Lamb, fish, petals in bread, salad or vinegar|
|Borage||Annual||Seeds, cutting or division
||3 feet tall by 1 foot wide||Leaves, flower stalks in salads, yogurt, cream cheese or with fish|
|Catnip||Perennial||Seeds, cutting or division
||3 feet tall by 3 feet wide||Aromatic leaves/shoots used in salads, soups, sauces and savory dishes|
|Chamomile||Annual||Seeds, cutting or division
||2 feet tall by 2 feet wide||Tea, cocktails, smoothies, treats, such as cookies and lemon bars|
|Chives||Perennial||Seeds or division
||2 feet tall||Potatoes, casseroles, soups, salads, eggs, cheese|
|Cilantro/Coriander||Annual||Seeds||Up to 3 feet tall||Leaves are cilantro; seeds are coriander
Cilantro: pairs with fruits or cheese in pesto, rice, salads
Coriander: pairs with curry or chili peppers
|Dill||Annual||Seeds (self-seeds easily)||4 feet tall by 4 feet wide||Pickles, salads, herb blends|
|Fennel||Perennial||Seeds||Up to 6 feet (by variety)||Licorice-like flavor can be used in sausages, meats, fish|
|Horseradish||Perennial||Division||Up to 3 feet tall||Homemade sauce for sandwiches, meats, eggs, hummus|
|Hyssop||Perennial||Seeds, cutting or division
||2 feet tall||Salads, broths, soups, roast vegetables, lamb, in pasta, or with soft cheese|
||Cutting or layering||Up to 3 feet (by variety)||Paired with citrus or tart fruit in lemonade, sorbet, fruit vinaigrette|
||Seeds or division||2 feet tall by 2 feet wide||Sauces, stuffing, root vegetables, chicken, fish|
|Lemon verbena||Tender perennial
||Cutting||6 feet tall by 6 feet wide||Salad dressing, ice cream, poultry, salsa verde, jelly|
||Seeds, cutting or division
||2 feet tall by 2 feet wide||Meats, soups, stuffing, vegetables|
||Cutting, division or layering||Up to 3 feet by 3 feet||Jellies, teas, mild meats (pork or chicken), citrus or fruit salad|
||Seeds||1 foot tall by 3 feet wide||Flowers are peppery in salad, seed pods are a substitute for capers|
||Cutting or division||2 feet tall by 2 feet wide||Spanish, Mexican and Italian foods|
|Parsley||Biennial||Seeds (soaking increases germination)||Up to 2 feet by 2 feet||Light flavor as base of pesto, soups, salads, or over meats or seafood|
||Cutting||Up to 10 feet (by variety)||Hip tea or syrup is high in vitamin C, petals can be used for scent or eaten|
|Rosemary||Tender perennial||Cutting||2 feet by 3 feet (up to 6 feet)||Meats, jellies, potatoes, roast vegetables, breads, spreads, butters, vinegars|
||Cutting or layering||3 feet tall by 2 feet wide||Pork, fish, chicken, stuffing, bread, sausage, butters|
|Savory, summer||Annual||Seeds, cutting or layering||12 to 18 inches tall||Lighter flavor than winter. Use either in pork, beef, chicken, stuffing, beans, meatballs, sauces. Similar to thyme/sage/marjoram.|
||Cutting or division||6 to 12 inches tall||Use either in pork, beef, chicken, stuffing, beans, meatballs, sauces. Similar
||Cutting or division
||Up to 2 feet tall||French dishes, bernaise sauce, salad dressings, butters, chicken dishes|
||Cutting or division
||1 foot tall by 2 feet wide||Roast or sautéed vegetables, sauces or pasta, paired with citrus or cheese|
Author: Jodi Richmond, WVU Extension Agent – Mercer County
Last Reviewed: August 2021