After my vegetable garden, the thing I am most proud of (and get the most pleasure from) is my herb garden.
I love using herbs in cooking and I love herbal tea. But buying fresh herbs can be expensive and the selection is often limited. So I grow a variety of herbs to use in the kitchen as well as for the medicine chest.
Herbs can be divided into two categories: Culinary and Medicinal. Some, like peppermint, cross over into both categories.
Culinary herbs are good for both flavoring as well as eating or infusing into an herbal tea. Not all the parts of the herb are good to eat, so consult a reliable resource to learn how to use these herbs in cooking.
If you are going to grow herbs for medicinal purposes, there are several sources that will tell you about traditional and proven medicinal uses for a wide variety of herbs. Refer to trusted sources to determine if or how you should use medicinal
herbs. Always check with your doctor if you are pregnant or using prescription drugs before using any herbal remedy.
Is this an annual or a perennial? Does it matter?
When you plan your herb garden, it’s important to know if the plants is an annual or perennial. Annual plants are plants that start from seed, grow, flower and die in one year. They must be replanted every year.
Biennial plants have a two year life cycle: they grow the first year, but don’t flower and produce seed until the second year. Many biennials self-seed so it may seem like they are perennials because there are always plants growing each year.
Many annual and biennial herbs are self-seeding. That is they have lots of seeds that fall to the ground and readily grow the next year. If you do not till the ground too much, self-seeding annuals will produce enough new plants every year that you will not need to replant them year after year.
Perennial plants survive cold winters year to year without needing to be replanted. These will form the foundation of your herb garden, with the annuals filling in the space in between.
Some herbs listed as annuals are technically a tender perennial or biennials. They will not survive our cold winters and so they are treated like annuals. Lemon Verbena is an example of a tender perennial. It is one of my favorite herbs but it is not hardy in most of the US zones. So you will either have to dig it up and bring it indoors every fall and replant it in the garden the next year or treat it like an annual and replant it every year.
When is a weed not a weed?
There are lots of weeds, like dandelions and nettles, that have culinary and medicinal uses. Nettles are a great tonic and help cleanse the blood, so it’s a staple on my medicinal herb shelf. They are also delicious cooked. The same is true of dandelions. But most people spend their time trying to eradicate them, not plant them. Since there are always plenty of these weeds (I mean, herbs) around, I do not list whether or not they are annual or perennial.
Growing an herb garden
Here’s a map of my herb garden. It’s about 3 1/2 feet deep and runs the length of my vegetable garden, which is 40′ on each side.
When I started it, I knew what my key plants would be: comfrey, calendula, sage, oregano, mints and roses. There were several others on my wish list: bergamot, arnica, St. John’s wort, chamomile, anise, thyme, meadow sweet and angelica. But I wasn’t sure how the plants would grow or how they would perform next to each other. So I started with my favorites and then over time, I’ve moved plants that got too crowded or didn’t do well next to each other.
Managing the garden
After getting everything planted and established, my next big challenge was to make the most of the herbs. I need to keep an eye on growth so that I can harvest the herbs at their peak and then use or preserve them.
I like to dry most of my culinary herbs. That’s usually the easiest way to use them in cooking. Two exceptions to this are basil and sage. I like to make pesto out of basil and sage. Lots and lots of pesto. I freeze it in ice cube trays and then pop the frozen cubes
out and store them in a ziploc baggie.
For some of my medicinal herbs I like to either make an infused oil or a tincture. After making all the oil and tincture I think I’ll need for the next year, I dry the rest.
And, of course, I dry all the herbs that I want to use as tea.
Start harvesting herbs when the usable parts (usually the leaves) are mature and before the plant starts flowering.
Cut the plant on a sunny day in the early morning, when the plant’s oils are starting to rise but before the heat of the day sets in and dries up the oils that
make the herb so tasty. You can cut up to 1/3 of the plant. It will grow back bigger and bushier and be ready for you to harvest more in just a couple weeks.
Usually herbs can go straight from the garden to your plate. But if your herbs are dusty and dirty you may want to wash them first. You can wash woody herbs such as Rosemary and Lavender if they are dirty. Just swish them in a bowl of cool water to remove surface dirty. If you have herbs with tender leaves that need washing, spray them with a water hose an hour or so before picking. Basil is one that should never be washed after picking.
I dry about 80% of the herbs that I pick. It’s just the easiest and quickest way to preserve their wonderful flavor and usefulness. I cut the leaves of tender-leaved herbs (such as basil, parsley and cilantro) off of the stems and put a layer of the leaves on the dehydrator tray. For woody or herbs with a sturdy stem (such as tarragon, rosemary, thyme and lavender) I put the whole branch on the tray. When the are dry, I run my finger along the stem to remove all the leaves and toss the stem.
Dry herbs at the lowest temperature you can get on your dehydrator–between 90°-100°. Most herbs will be dry in just a few hours. Dense or thick herbs (like sage or rosemary) may take as long as 36 hours to dry.
Once herbs are completely dry, store them in a dark jar. Light and heat are the biggest enemies of herbs. A dark jar will keep sunlight out. Dark jars help ensure that your herbs are at their peak flavor and goodness for months to come.
Herbs like to be stored in dark jars to prevent light from bleaching the color and flavor. Here are some jars I painted just for this purpose. Full instructions on how to make these custom herb jars can be found here.
What if I don’t want to dry?
Even though drying is the easiest way to preserve herbs, it’s not your only option. One of my favorite ways to preserve herbs is with pesto. Typically pesto is made with basil, but you can also make it with parsley, dill or sage or a combination of any of those herbs.
You can also chop herbs and put a tablespoon into in an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water or olive oil and freeze. Then just pop out the cube and store in a ziploc baggie to use in your recipes all year long.
Making a tincture is a good alternative for medicinal herbs. Tinctures and infused oil and
vinegar are super simple to make: just fill a jar with herbs and pour oil, vinegar or alcohol over the herbs until they are completely covered. Oil should be kept warm during infusion, either by placing it in a warm, sunlit porch or car or in a crock pot set on warm. Let the oil/vinegar/tincture steep for a few days to a couple week. When it’s ready, strain and store in a dry bottle. See the links for complete details on how to do this.