Growing basil is a snap with our expert guide on how to grow kitchen herbs.
By Ann Wied
Waukesha County, Wisconsin
Imagine making a recipe that calls for fresh basil, mint or dill. It just doesn’t get any fresher than stepping outside your kitchen to pluck the leaves right off your growing plant! If you’ve never tried growing your own herbs, it’s easier than you might think.
A successful herb garden doesn’t have to be large or formal—you could put it by a back step, along a walkway or near a patio or terrace. It could be as small as one or two plants integrated into a larger flower or vegetable garden, or it could be in a small area dedicated solely to herbs. You might also plant annual herbs in window boxes, hanging baskets or containers.
One big challenge, especially for those new to herb gardening, is deciding which of the many varieties to plant. Herbs that you use regularly in cooking are a natural choice. Some popular easy-to-grow herbs are sweet basil, chives, rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme, sweet marjoram and mint. Herb plants are often sold in combination packs or ready-made herb gardens with an assortment of four to six plants, often tied to a particular type of cooking. An Italian herb mix, for example, might contain sweet basil, oregano and flat-leaf parsley.
Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. But buying small plants to transplant into your garden gives you the opportunity to start harvesting small amounts of the herb sooner. Find them at a local greenhouse, nursery or farmers market.
When buying herbs, read labels carefully. There are several varieties of oregano, for instance, and many varieties of parsley and mint. Be sure to check growing instructions for each plant, though, as recommendations vary.
You can group plants according to growing requirements. Most herbs enjoy full sun. Many require six to eight hours of direct sun or more, since intense light enhances development of the oils that give the herb its flavor and fragrance. A few herbs—like mint, lemon balm, chives and chervil—tolerate some shade.
You can also group herbs by life cycle. Annuals bloom one season and then die; biennials live for two, blooming the second season; perennials, properly cared for, come back year after year. Whichever you choose, it’s important not to overplant your space. Herbs need room to grow their best. One or two plants of each variety should be enough for most cooks’ needs.
Herbs usually aren’t high maintenance. As long as there’s good drainage, herbs thrive in any soil suitable for growing vegetables—even in containers. Most herbs develop better flavor when kept on the dry side. Container-grown herbs, however, need frequent watering. Placing a container where there’s afternoon shade will prevent the soil from drying out too quickly. You shouldn’t need to apply fertilizer for most herbs, unless you want frequent, heavy harvests. For container gardens, use a quality potting mix that contains a slow-release, pellet-type fertilizer, or apply a water-soluble fertilizer just after planting.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest recommendations can vary. Sweet basil requires regular pruning to produce a bushy, leafy plant instead of a tall, leggy one. Mint and lemon balm do well in containers because they spread very quickly.
For highest oil content and maximum flavor, harvest herbs in mid-morning, just after the dew has dried, but before the sun becomes too hot. Avoid harvesting on rainy days, when lower oil content means less flavor.
Snip stems and leaves as needed throughout the growing season. Make a cut a few inches down the stem, just above a set of leaves, to promote new growth and a bushier plant. Never remove more than a third of the plant’s foliage at one time. You’ll pick leaves from some plants, but not all. For dill and certain other herbs, you’ll pick both leaves and seeds. With cilantro, you ‘ll harvest the leaves, but if you leave some to flower and seed, you’ll harvest those dry fruits—which are known as coriander seeds.
Herbs taste best right after harvest. If you’re not using them immediately, protect the oil content by keeping them out of bright light.
Growing and using your own kitchen herbs can be habit-forming! To learn how to grow herbs then freeze them to savor all year, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at nchfp.uga.edu, or check with your local extension office.
About our Expert: Ann Wied is consumer horticulture educator for the UW-Extension in Waukesha County, Wisconsin.