Saxon Holt

What to plant in your kitchen herb garden

Kathleen N. Brenzel,  – August 30, 2004

Basil. Bushy annuals, 1 to 2 feet tall, come in a variety of flavors. In addition to sweet Italian types, try spicy cinnamon basil, zesty lemon basil (Ocimum basilicum citrodorum), or pungent purple-leafed kinds like ‘Dark Opal’ and ‘Purple Ruffles’. ‘African Blue’ basil (pictured at right) is a tender perennial. Use fresh leaves in pastas, pesto, salads, and soups.

Chives. Clumping perennial, 1 to 2 feet tall, with grasslike leaves bears edible rose-purple flowers in early summer. Grow onion-flavored chives (Allium schoenoprasum) or garlic chives (A. tuberosum). Use the leaves in salads and sauces, the flowers as garnishes or salad toppings.

French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Upright perennial, 1 to 2 feet tall, has narrow green leaves with spicy anise flavor. Give plants sun and excellent drainage; too much fertilizer produces tender growth with little flavor. To harvest, snip out tips. Use in egg, chicken, and fish dishes, or in béarnaise sauce.

Lavender. Perennial English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) forms mounds of gray-green foliage topped by flower spikes. Compact varieties such as L.a. ‘Munstead’ (11/2 feet tall) and L.a. ‘Hidcote’ (11/2 to 2 feet) fit best in raised beds. Toss the fragrant leaves on the grill to flavor meats, or steep the flowers for lemonade.

Mint. These hardy perennials, 1 1/2 to 3 feet tall, have invasive roots that can choke out less vigorous herbs, so give them their own box. Set plants 12 to 18 inches apart. In addition to familiar spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (M. piperita), try apple mint (M. suaveolens), pineapple mint (M.s. ‘Variegata’), and chocolate mint. Use spearmint for cooking, others to flavor tea.

Nasturtium. Annual flowers in vivid shades of yellow or red. Dwarf kinds (to 15 inches tall) work best in raised beds. Edible blossoms and leaves add a peppery, cresslike flavor to salads.

Oregano. Bushy perennial grows 1 to 2 feet tall. Choose pungent Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum) or milder Italian oregano (O. majoricum). Use in pastas, pizza toppings, sauces, soups, and stews.

Parsley. A biennial grown as an annual, it forms 6- to 12-inch tufts. Dark green curly-leafed types make a handsome garnish; many cooks prefer the stronger flavor and smoother texture of flat-leafed Italian parsley.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Prized for its aromatic, evergreen leaves, this Mediterranean native comes in upright and trailing forms. Chefs prefer the resinous foliage of bushy, upright varieties like ‘Tuscan Blue’ (6 feet or taller), which bears edible bright blue flowers in winter and early spring. Use the leaves to flavor pork, lamb, and poultry.

Sage. Bushy perennial reaches 1 to 2 feet tall. For the classic flavor associated with turkey stuffing, try garden sage (Salvia officinalis) or dwarf sage (S.o. minumus). More decorative varieties are golden ‘Icterina’ and variegated ‘Tricolor’. Use in soups, stews, and poultry stuffings.

Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana). Usually grown as a summer annual, this plant reaches 1 to 2 feet tall. Its tiny leaves are sweet with a milder flavor than Greek oregano. Use to flavor eggs, soups, herb butters, and vinegars.

Thyme. Hardy perennial English thyme (Thymus vulgaris) grows about 1 foot tall; its tiny, pungent leaves add mild tang to fish, pork, poultry, and vegetables. Similar-tasting silver thyme (T.v. ‘Argenteus’) is more ornamental but less hardy. For zesty citrus flavor (and pretty yellow-green foliage), try lemon thyme (T. citriodorus) or lime thyme.

Planting and growing tips

• Don’t waste space on herbs you won’t use. Put in three or four plants each of tender-leafed herbs such as basil or parsley that you use frequently. For larger woody plants like rosemary, a single plant can supply enough sprigs for years.

• For added visual appeal, combine plants by color: purple-leafed basil with ‘Tricolor’ sage, for example.

• With basil, French tarragon, and parsley, remove flower heads regularly so the leaves retain their best flavor. Remove flower buds from chives to encourage new leaves; use the edible blooms in salads.

• If chives, mint, or sage grow leggy, cut back to promote new growth. Replace basil and parsley every year.