A sampler of 12 common garden herbs

Quick facts and care essentials

BASIL (Ocimum basilicum)

Sometimes referred to as the king of herbs (the name is derived from basileus, which is Greek for king), basil has fragrant, bright green leaves on 6-inch- to 2-foot-tall plants. Annual. All zones.

Best culinary varieties: 'Finissino Verde A Palla' bush basil, 'Italian Pesto', 'Lettuce Leaf', 'Mammoth Sweet', 'Mrs. Burns' Lemon Basil', 'Profuma di Genova', 'Red Rubin', 'Sweet Basil'.

Growing tip: Basil thrives when the soil is warm and nighttime temperatures are above 60°, so don't rush springtime planting. To encourage branching on young seedlings, cut back stems to just above the first set of leaves when plants have developed three pairs of leaves.

Harvest tip: Prune often to avoid flower formation. When a stem has developed four pairs of leaves, cut each stem down to just above the first set. Continue cutting plants back throughout the summer, or set out new seedlings in succession a month or so apart and harvest the entire plant for pesto.

Uses: Eggs, fish, marinades, meats, pastas, pestos, salads, soups, stews, and tomatoes.

CHIVES (Allium)

Green, grasslike, 12- to 24-inch-long spears form in clumps. Clusters of rose purple or white flowers in spring. Perennial.

Best culinary varieties: Chives (A. schoenoprasum); all zones. Chinese or garlic chives (A. tuberosum); zones 1-24, H1-H2.

Growing tip: Increase the number of plants by dividing in winter every two years or so.

Harvest tip: Gather chives by snipping the spears to the ground (otherwise you'll have unsightly brown foliage mixed in with the green).

Uses: Butters, cheeses, eggs, lamb, mayonnaise, potatoes, rice, salads, sauces, seafood, soups, sour cream, stews, and vegetables.

CILANTRO (Coriandrum sativum)

Bright green leaves on foot-tall stems look similar to flat-leafed parsley. Cilantro refers to the leaves; the seeds are called coriander.

Best culinary varieties: Grow types that are slow to bolt (go to seed), which are labeled as such or sold as a variety called 'Slow-Bolt'.

Growing tip: Cilantro grows best in cool weather. Plant in early spring after last frost (autumn in the low desert). If practical, start from seed; cilantro has a taproot and transplants poorly. Plant in succession every few weeks through summer. Once it goes to seed, the flavor changes.

Harvest tip: Cut off leaves as needed. Harvest the entire plant before it starts to flower.

Uses: Beans, curries, fish, lamb, Mexican dishes, pork, poultry, salads, salsas, sauces, shellfish, and stir-fries.

DILL (Anethum graveolens)

• Annual
• All zones
• Full sun
• Infrequent water

The fresh or dried leaves and the seeds of this versatile annual herb are a popular seasoning for many foods ― including, of course, dill pickles. The plants grow 3 to 4 feet high, sporting soft, feathery leaves and flat clusters of small yellow flowers. Sow seed directly in garden beds in spring, after all danger of frost is past. Thin seedlings to 1 1/2 feet apart.

OREGANO (Origanum)

Shrubby plant with 1 1/2-inch-long leaves grows 2 to 3 feet tall. Perennial. Zones vary.

Best culinary varieties: Greek (O. vulgare hirtum) has gray green leaves; zones 8-9, 12-24. Italian (O. x majoricum) has milder bright green leaves; zones 4-24.

Growing tip: Needs especially good drainage. Plants thrive on little to moderate water.

Harvest tip: Oil is strongest when the plant is in bud but before flowers open. Cut back to 4 inches tall in late spring, summer, and fall.

Uses: Beans, cheeses, eggs, meats, pastas, salsas, sauces, soups, stews, and vegetables.

PARSLEY (Petroselinum)

Flat or curly green leaves grow in clumps. Flat-leafed types grow 2 to 3 feet tall, curly types to 1 foot. Biennial often grown as an annual. All zones.

Best culinary varieties: 'Giant Italian' is best for cooking; the curly type ('Extra Curled' or 'Green River') is good as a garnish.

Growing tip: Start new plants each year. In mild-winter climates, plant in fall or early spring (provide partial shade in hot climates); in cold climates, plant in spring after last frost.

Harvest tip: Pick outside leaves so the center of the plant continues to develop new ones.

Uses: Bouquets garnis, cheese sauces, pestos, soups, stews, stuffings, vegetables, and as a garnish.

SAGE (Salvia officinalis)

Shrubby plant from 1 to 3 feet tall with 2- to 3-inch-long leaves. Perennial. Zones 2-24, H1-H2.

Best culinary varieties: 'Berggarten' produces few or no flowers and is considered the best culinary type by herb professionals. For a milder flavor, grow S. officinalis, S. o. 'Icterina', or S. o. 'Purpurascens'.

Growing tip: Keep plant on the dry side once established. Avoid planting near a lawn where the soil stays wet. Give afternoon shade in hot climates.

Harvest tip: Cut just above where new growth emerges; don't cut into old, woody growth.

Uses: Apples, beans, breads, butters, cheeses, chowders, fish stock, game stuffings, gravies, lamb, marinades, pork, poultry, soups, stews, and tomatoes.

ROSEMARY (Rosmarinus)

Short, narrow green leaves with grayish white undersides grow on woody stems ranging from 1 to 6 feet tall. Perennial in zones 4-24, H1-H2.

Best culinary varieties: Some of the best varieties for cooking are 'Blue Spires', 'Gorizia', and 'Tuscan Blue'. Avoid rosemary plants with strong pine or turpentine undertones. 'Arp' is hardy to -10°.

Growing tip: These are tough plants that take wind and salt spray, or inland heat if given moderate water. Too much fertilizer and water produce rank growth and woodiness.

Harvest tip: Prune regularly to encourage new growth.

Uses: Beef, breads, cheeses, dressings, eggs, lamb, legumes, marinades, oils, potatoes, poultry, roasted game, seafood, soups, stews, stuffings, and vegetables.

SWEET MARJORAM (Origanum majorana)

Oval gray green leaves on 1- to 2-foot-tall plants. Milder and more floral than oregano. Perennial in zones 8-24; annual elsewhere.

Growing tip: Needs especially good drainage. Plants thrive on little to moderate water.

Harvest tip: Oil is strongest when the plant is in bud but before flowers open. Cut back to 4 inches tall in late spring, summer, and fall.

Uses: Cheeses, eggs, fish, gravies, meats, pastas, poultry, rice, sauces, soups, stews, and vegetables.

TARRAGON, FRENCH TARRAGON (Artemisia dracunculus)

• Perennial
• Zones 3-24, 29-41
• Full sun
• Occasional water

A perennial with narrow, anise-flavored leaves of shiny dark green, tarragon dies to the ground in winter but returns the following spring. Plants grow 1 to 2 feet tall; space them 2 feet apart. French tarragon can only be grown from divisions or cuttings. Seed-grown plants belong to a different variety and are inferior in flavor.

THYME (Thymus)

Small, pungent leaves grow on stems up to 1 foot tall. White to lilac flowers appear in late spring to early summer. Perennial. Zones 1-24.

Best culinary varieties: English or common (T. vulgaris), French (T. vulgaris variety), golden lemon (T. x citriodorus 'Aureus'), and lemon (T. x citriodorus), pictured at left.

Growing tip: Use as a low edging for vegetable or herb gardens.

Harvest tip: For best flavor, cut back before flowers appear. Hold foliage like a ponytail and shear it to about 6 inches tall.

Uses: Bouquets garnis, breads, casseroles, cheeses, eggs, fish, grains, marinades, meats, mushrooms, poultry, soups, stews, tomato-based sauces, and vegetables.

WINTER SAVORY (Satureja montana)

• Perennial
• Zones 3-11, 14-24, 30-34, 39
• Full sun
• Little to moderate water

This perennial herb is a mounding, 12- to 15-inch-tall plant with pungent, peppery-tasting dark green leaves (a close relative, summer savory, is an annual with a milder flavor). Seeds of winter savory are slow to germinate, so it's best to buy plants. Space them 6 to 12 inches apart.

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