Gourmet Herbs You Can Grow At Home

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Growing your own herbs offers a simple way to add exciting flavor to your meals without adding calories, carbs or fat. Fresh herbs clipped from the garden will create an easy-to-use accent to almost any dish, and even improve packaged meals or canned ingredients.

Start Small

Pick four basic and versatile herbs to begin. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme will make a great gourmet starter garden. They are actually a much older combination of herbs used as a popular pagan love charm dating back to the 13th Century and earlier in England. Pagan lore believed in parsley for lust, sage for wisdom, rosemary for remembrance, and thyme for love.

  • Parsley: the essential ingredient in tabouleh.
  • Sage: for turkey stuffing, roasted chicken or stew.
  • Rosemary: a great ingredient for roast pork tenderloin, steak or grilled vegetables.
  • Thyme: for roasted potatoes, salads and more.

Beyond charms and potions, these four herbs offer diverse uses in Italian, French and American gourmet cooking. Mixed together fresh or dried, they make a terrific herb seasoning similar in flavor to commercial Italian seasoning.

Planting

  • Buy healthy plants at your local nursery that are vividly green and well rounded.
  • Avoid scraggly plants that show evidence of poor care.
  • Herbs will usually be available in three or four inch pots and one gallon containers.
  • Larger plants will provide a greater harvest your first summer.
  • If you are buying smaller plants, they should receive additional water and care in the garden until they are well established.

Soil

Herbs are low maintenance, but not "no maintenance". Herbs like other plants need good soil, water, sun and nutrients to prosper whether in your garden or in containers. The best soil for herbs should be rich in organic matter to hold water and have enough sand or vermiculite to allow good drainage. Most culinary herbs will die in soggy soil.

Potting soil and planting soil mixes are much higher in organic matter and much lower in sand than what is needed for herbs. Adding sand will increase the ease of adequately watering your herbs and improve the soil drainage.

  • Herbs are low maintenance
  • Water only as needed
  • Soil should be rich and well drained

Fertilizers

All herbs require nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium for growth. As herbs grow, they remove these nutrients from the soil and use them throughout the growing season. With periodically feeding you are replacing the nutrients removed from the soil. Nutrients are needed most during spring and summer.

Commercial fertilizers list their ingredients as a percentage of each nutrient. They will be listed in the order of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Therefore, a 20-10-10 fertilizer would be 20 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphorus and 10 percent potassium. Nitrogen is the most consumed nutrient in herb growth. So, choose a fertilizer with a high percentage of nitrogen.

Fertilizers come in both dry and liquid forms. For herbs, organic fertilizers like fish emulsion liquid will supply adequate nutrients for container plants or herbs in the ground.

  • Fertilize several times during spring and summer
  • Use high nitrogen fertilizer
  • Liquid fertilizer works best

Sun and Shade

Most herbs prefer full-on sunlight. Most modern herbs you will find today came out of Mediterranean climates with direct sunlight and dry rocky soil. Most are very hardy plants and are happy in most climate zones from Arizona to Vermont. Varieties like parsley and thyme can still thrive in partial sun.

Beyond Green

If you're looking for color in your culinary garden, there a lot of options even within the four starter herbs of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

  • Parsley: Parsley is available in a flat leaf, Italian variety, (P. c. neapolitanum) which is considered the most flavorful. Favorites include: dark green Italian, Giant Italian, and Single Italian. The curly leaf French varieties (Petroselinum crispum) make the most attractive garnish. Look for Moss Curled or Forest Green.
  • Sage: Sage likewise offers a number of choices. Berggarten sometimes called Mountain Garden with denser growth and rounder but longer lived leaves. Compacta or Nana Minimus, a half size version of the species, has narrower, close set leaves. Holt's Mammoth has excellent flavor and is used in making condiments. Icterina offers a variegated gray-green leaf with golden border, but does not flower. Purpurascens or Red Sage has leaves flushed with red-violet when new and slowly matures to gray-green. Tricolor, as the name suggests, provides gray-green leaves with irregular cream borders. The new foliage is flushed with purplish-pink.
  • Rosemary: Rosemary or Rosmarinus means "dew of the sea," a reference to the plant's native habitat on seaside cliffs in the Mediterranean region of Europe. Popular varieties include several types. Barbecue grows with stiff stems, perfect for skewers or kebabs. Blue Boy grows in a dense symmetrical mound with pleasant fragrance and flavor. Blue Spires is a strong vertical grower useful for landscape hedges and seasoning. Goriza offers a sweet gingery fragrance. Huntington Carpet is best for ground cover. Irene is the most cold-hardy, prostrate variety. Prostratus will trail down over a wall or edge of a raised bed-also a great choice for hanging containers.
  • Thyme: Thyme offers color choices as well. Look for Caraway-scented thyme (Thymus herba-barona), lance-shaped dark green leaves with a caraway fragrance. Caraway offers clusters of rose-pink flowers in midsummer. Common thyme (T. vulgaris) is narrow to oval grey-green leaves with white to lilac flowers in late spring and early summer, and makes a good container plant with several sub-varieties available. Italian Oregano thyme has a strong oregano flavor. Orange Balsam has narrow orange-scented leaves. Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus) offers lance-shaped medium green leaves with a lemon fragrance and pale lilac flowers in summer.

As you can see, getting started on your own gourmet herbs is surprisingly easy with many interesting choices for your garden. Here are some more simple tips that will help make your garden a success:

  • Buy healthy plants
  • Use rich, well-drained soil
  • Direct sunlight is best for most herbs
  • Water herbs well when needed
  • Feed or fertilize several times during the growing season
Last Updated: July 22, 2011
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About Bill Washburn William "Bill" Washburn has a BA in advertising from the Art Center College of Design and has taught at the University of Southern California and Northrup University. Writing from a well-connected studio in the rural foothills of the west coast, he is a frequent speaker at local art associations and has published numerous articles discussing periods of art history and the fundamentals of drawing and painting. William is a master gardener who grows his own culinary herbs, organic heirloom vegetables and a variety of fruits. He writes frequently about his gardening experiences on his website Pioneer Dad. He is an accomplished advertising writer, fine art painter, and art director with more than 20 years' experience. 

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