Growing culinary herbs is the easiest way to start a kitchen garden, as herbs are undemanding and produce continuous harvests throughout the season. Even if you have no room for a garden — as long as you have sun — you can grow herbs in containers. If you want to grow herbs, here’s what you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Herbs? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Herbs offer so much return on investment, in terms of enhancing the meals you make and for wildlife. When herbs are allowed to go to flower, they are about the best plants you can grow for attracting pollinators to your garden. Plus, many are host plants for stunning butterflies.
Where, When and How to Plant Herbs
From late winter to early spring, herb seeds may be started indoors in sterile seed starting mix, either under grow lights or on a sunny south-facing windowsill. As they grow, they can be potted up to larger containers with high-quality potting mix.
Around the date of the last expected frost in your region, gradually introduce herb plants to the outdoors. Start with a half hour in the sun and wind, and increase the time to an hour the next day. Keep increasing the exposure for one to two weeks, after which, as long as the last frost has passed, the plants should be adapted to the outdoor environment and able to stay outdoors 24/7 for the season. This is a process known as hardening off, and this step greatly increases a plant’s chances of survival.
Once plants are hardened off, they can be planted in-ground, in raised beds, or in containers anywhere that gets full sun. The soil should be well-draining — a generous application of compost will help achieve that quality.
In containers, rather than soil and compost, use outdoor potting mix or potting soil; native soil, even with compost, is too heavy for containers.
Planting in containers offers the convenience of being able to move the plants around at will as they require more space. If planting in a bed, taking note of the plants’ size at maturity and space them out accordingly. Also, be conscious of where you are planting perennials and where you are planting annuals. Because perennials will stay in your garden for years to come, put extra thought into where they will be placed, what the neighboring plants will be, and how you will use the spaces between them.
A comprehensive list of all of the types of culinary herbs and the varieties within would be never-ending, so here is a list of some of the most common herbs, just to get you started:
Basil is used in cooking worldwide and is sometimes called “the king of herbs.” The most common basil grown in North America is sweet basil, also known as Genovese basil, and it is revered for its flavor somewhere between sweet and savory and subtly minty and pepperish.
Whole basil leaves make a great pizza topping. Basil with fresh sliced tomatoes and mozzarella makes a Caprese salad. Basil is also the primary ingredient in pesto and is used in making tomato sauce and infused oil and vinegar as well.
Culinary basil is most often green, but there are purple varieties that impart color in both the garden and on a dinner plate.
Lettuce leaf basil grows extra-large leaves that are not quite as sweet as common sweet basil. For basil that stays short and compact, there’s bush basil, which has a more intense flavor than sweet basil.
Basil is an annual, but a cutting can be taken and grown indoors before frost kills the plant.
Cilantro is a member of the carrot family with leaves used as an herb, and seeds, known as coriander, used as a spice. Cilantro should not be cooked; rather, chopped fresh cilantro should be added as a topping or dressing. Cilantro often complements lime on tacos, shrimp or rice, and also goes with fish or in soup.
Cilantro is a cool-season annual that grows approximately 2 feet tall.
Dill, of dill pickle fame, is grown for both its leaves and its seeds. In addition to making pickles, dill is great as a garnish or in potato salad.
Dill grows 2 to 4 feet tall and is a host plant for the black swallowtail butterfly, so it’s common to find green-and-black-striped caterpillars with yellow dots eating the tops of dill plants. The colorful caterpillars are as satisfying to watch as the beautiful adults are. The best strategy is to plant more dill than you think you’ll need, and to leave the caterpillars undisturbed so they can eat their fill, form chrysalises, and emerge as beneficial pollinators.
Fennel is an aromatic herb that, like dill, is in the carrot and celery family. With a flavor that is reminiscent of licorice, the seeds are used as a spice for making sausages, and fennel pollen can replace fennel seed in a variety of recipes. The stalks can be used in place of celery. Some fennel varieties grow an above-ground bulb that is also used in cooking.
An annual best suited to cooler climates, fennel grows 3 to 5 feet tall and is also a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies. Anise is similar in flavor and aroma to fennel and licorice, and it is the host plant for the anise swallowtail.
Fresh mint has a wonderful smell and, when chewed, provides a cooling sensation. Most seeds that are simply labeled “mint” are spearmint, the popular mint for beverages. But there are many types of mint for a variety of culinary purposes.
Apple mint, also known as wooly mint, has a delicate flavor and can be used in salads or to make mint tea. Canners grow apple mint to make apple mint jelly.
Chocolate mint indeed smells like chocolate and mint. Likewise, orange mint smells citrusy. These can be used similarly to spearmint when you desire to mix things up.
Mint is a fast-growing perennial that grows between 1 and 2 feet tall and readily spreads via seeds and its root system. To prevent mint from overtaking a garden, the plants should be grown in containers.
Oregano, closely related to marjoram, belongs to the mint family, though oregano flavors are quite distinct from any mint. There are countless cultivated varieties of oregano that range from sweet to spicy and go on pizza or in sauces, salads and soups.
When selecting an oregano variety to grow, take note of whether it is marketed for culinary use or as an ornamental plant. Ornamental oregano plants, like golden oregano, are safe to cook with but will not offer the same degree of flavor.
Greek oregano grows from 6 inches to 2 feet tall with leaves that are green with tinges of gray. It is hardy and flavorful. Profusion is a trademarked Greek oregano variety that is highly aromatic and hardy even in Canadian winters.
Italian oregano, a cross of oregano and marjoram, has larger leaves than Greek oregano and a milder flavor. It grows to be 2 feet tall and perennializes in zones 8-11
Depending on the variety and the growing location, oregano can establish itself in a garden, survive winter, and come back in spring. Oregano produces many seeds if the flowers are not removed and will readily self-seed and spread if not carefully managed.
Parsley is related to carrots and grown as a root vegetable in some places. But in terms of parsley as an herb, curly-leaf parsley and flat-leaf parsley are typically grown to be used as garnishes.
Giant of Italy is a popular parsley that is high yielding with strong, upright stems. Wega is a curled parsley suited for container growing as it grows just 1 to 1.5 feet tall. Moss Curled is a dark green type of parsley that so named because its tight curls resemble moss.
Parsley is another swallowtail host plant, so plant a bit extra. It is a biennial, which means it will set seed and die in its second year.
Rosemary is a woody perennial with a pleasant aroma that flowers in white, pink or purple, depending on the variety. The plants are drought tolerant with needle-like leaves and can grow upright as tall as 5 feet. Other varieties are short and creeping.
Rosemary has a lemon and pine flavor and is used both fresh and dried. This herb is popular in chicken dishes and with oily fish, and also goes in soups and salads or on roasted potatoes — and so much more. Rosemary is very versatile.
When selecting and placing rosemary plants, take note of how large the plants will be at maturity and whether they are designed to be ornamental.
Sage is most associated with its pleasing fragrance, but it’s a culinary herb too with a pungent, earthy flavor. It goes great with poultry or pork and is an essential ingredient in Thanksgiving stuffing.
Sage is a perennial in zones 5 to 8 and will stay stout — 2 to 4 feet tall for most varieties. Garden sage, or common sage, has woody stems and gray leaves. White sage and purple sage are two more culinary sages to add some variety to your garden and dishes.
Thyme is a perennial evergreen herb that is a relative of oregano, but spicier.
Common thyme, or garden thyme, is the variety most often grown for culinary uses. German Winter is winter hardy and loved for its flavor and great yield. A variety named Summer is smaller than German Winter with a spicier, more pungent flavor. Lemon has a lemony flavor that is a great substitute for lemon zest on fish. Orangelo is earthy with notes of orange.
There is no one hard and fast rule that applies to all herbs when it comes to watering, but generally, an inch of water a week — from rainfall or supplemental watering — is recommended during the growing season.
While some herbs, such as rosemary, are drought-tolerant, others, such as basil, will quickly wilt if the soil is allowed to dry out.
Herbs grown in containers will need to be watered more frequently than herbs grown in-ground. If the soil is dry an inch below the surface of the soil in the container, add water.
Applying a 1-to-2-inch layer of organic mulch such as straw or shredded leaves will help retain moisture.
Most herbs perform better without fertilizer. Keep that in mind if interplanting herbs with vegetables that are heavy feeders, and avoid fertilizer applications near the herbs as best you can.
There are exceptions, such as basil. A balanced fertilizer should be applied to basil once every four or six weeks indoors and every two to three weeks outdoors. Don’t overfeed, though, as too much fertilizer will achieve vigorous growth at the expense of flavor.
Cilantro can be fertilized every two weeks with a well-balanced fertilizer.
Herb Pests & Diseases
When it comes to low-maintenance plants, herbs are the textbook example. As long as the soil is well-drained, diseases are few, and because of their strong scents, herbs have few pest problems. In fact, herbs are a fantastic way to repel pests from your other garden plants. For example, basil planted near tomatoes helps repel tomato hornworms, and dill planted near cucumbers repels cucumber beetles.
When it comes to using herbs, a little bit really does go a long way. Just cut what you need — a stem or two is about all it ever takes — and you’ll have plenty of fresh herbs for that night’s meal.
Herbs may also be hung and dried, then ground or crushed. They can be frozen as well so you can continue to enjoy your garden’s herbs throughout winter.
As the first frost date approaches in fall, you can take cuttings of healthy plants, dip the stems in rooting hormone powder, and propagate new plants in potting mix or seed starting mix. These propagations can be overwintered indoors and planted out come spring.
What are your tips to grow herbs successfully? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. Relaunching January 28, 2021.
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