When you shop for herbs, keep in mind that within each group - oregano or rosemary, for instance - fragrances differ widely. Some oreganos are mild, almost scentless, and not great for cooking, while others are pungent and flavorful. Rosemaries, on the other hand, can be strong and piney or have a sweet, gingery taste.
Since flavor preferences vary, the best way to know if the aroma of a certain herb appeals to you is to give the plant a touch and sniff test. When shopping at the nursery, gently run your fingers over the foliage (don't hurt the plant), then sniff them. If you like the fragrance, buy the plant.
Keep in mind that plantings are never permanent. If you don't like the flavor of a certain herb after growing it and cooking with it, you can always remove the plant and try another variety.
Buying herbs by mail is another matter; there's no opportunity to sniff the foliage before the plant arrives on your doorstep. The varieties listed under "9 essential herbs," our favorites, can help you get started.
How many plants?
Use this list as a guideline, adjusting the number to reflect your preferences. If you love to cook with basil, set out six plants to start with, then add more several weeks later to extend the harvest season.
Basil, four to six plants
Chives, three to four plants
Cilantro, two to three plants
Oregano, two plants
Parsley, one to three plants
Rosemary, one to two plants
Sage, one to two plants
Sweet marjoram, two to three plants
Thyme, three to four plants
The herbs we list are available in well-stocked nurseries. But for large selections, you may order by mail from:
Mountain Valley Growers, 38325 Pepperweed Rd., Squaw Valley, CA 93675; www.mountainvalleygrowers.com or (559) 338-2775. Sells herb plants.
Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 Old Salem Rd. NE, Albany, OR 97321; (800) 422-3985, (541) 928-9280, or www.nicholsgardennursery.com. Sells plants and seeds.
Renee's Garden, (888) 880-7228 or www.reneesgarden.com. Sells seeds.
Territorial Seed Company, Box 158, Cottage Grove, OR 97424; (541) 942-9547 or www.territorialseed.com. Sells plants and seeds.