Fresh Herbs Enhance Food and Health
Growing a kitchen herb garden is immensely rewarding and doesn’t require an especially green thumb. Home cooks, gardeners, and world-class chefs all prize culinary herbs as essential ingredients for the best food in the world.
Most kitchen herbs are simple to grow and can immediately transform simple foods into gourmet meals. Whether you’re growing them to flavor your food or ornament your garden, once you start growing herbs, you’ll want to keep on growing them year round!
There’s nothing like snipping fresh sprigs of fragrant and nourishing culinary herbs to transform a meal from plain to gourmet.
Growing ‘kitchen gardens’ or ‘edible herb gardens’, is a hot trend among gardeners year after year. Culinary herbs are undemanding yet highly productive plants, and some even thrive on neglect.
Just give them the basics of adequate water and sunlight and they’ll thrive almost anywhere. Last summer, I inadvertently let my rosemary plant go to seed. I later found a little baby rosemary shrub growing nearby, peeking out from under a rock at the edge of the woods behind my house.
The thriving herb volunteered there, and I transplanted it to a pot in the fall. I placed it in my “She Shed” for a little protection here in NC zone 7b, and enjoyed clippings from it all winter long.
Most culinary herbs are resilient plants.
With a little cover from frost, rosemary can grow all winter long in zones 7-9.
Deborah Tayloe’s She-Shed
What are the Benefits of Growing Culinary Herbs?
Culinary herbs are more than aromatic. Most edible herbs have nutritional and medicinal benefits to boot. We’re all so used to thinking of food relative to ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’, that it’s easy to forget… the actual purpose of food is nutrients that sustain life.
Herbs are little nutrient-dense leaves, rich in vitamins, minerals, and medicine.
During the growing season, you can pick herbs and use them fresh, as needed. Before season’s end, you can dehydrate herbs and store away to preserve the flavor and potency all winter long.
Not only will you be able to cook with these dried herbs, but you will also find that many make excellent herbal teas that will help fight your winter colds, help ease stress, and amp up your immune system.
Fresh herbs can be dried for cooking, teas and nutritional powders for supplements, foods, green juices and smoothies.
Outdoor vs. Indoor Herb Gardens
There are naturally pros and cons to each growing environment. Here we list the benefits and disadvantages of growing herbs indoors and outside.
Outdoor herb gardens
- Herbs are hardy and thrive outdoors.
- They require less care when in their natural environment.
- Outdoor herb gardens get you out into the fresh air.
- Plants produce more abundantly when grown outdoors.
- Can serve as ornamental and aromatic landscape plants.
- Natural predators to plant pests live outside and help take care of your plants.
- Include herbs that naturally repel deer and insects, such as:
- Some outdoor plants are more vulnerable to destruction critters and creatures, however herbs are less prone.
- A weather emergency (like a flash flood or a hailstorm) can wipe out your herb garden in an instant.
Indoor herb gardens
- Access to fresh herbs throughout the entire year.
- No need to take time dehydrating herbs… and fresh is always best when possible.
- Fresh herbs always taste fresher and stronger.
- You don’t need to make room on your overly crowded dried spice rack—just clip as needed.
- Plants can improve the air quality of your home.
- Herbs require lots of sunlight.
- If you don’t have adequate sunshine, indoor lighting and grow systems can be costly.
- Look out for aphids, mites, and other pests that set up their winter home on your plants with no predators to keep them under control.
- It’s easy to over-water indoor plants, causing rot.*
*If plants are ailing indoors, it’s usually either too little sun, or a plant parasite. When a plant is struggling, the first inclination is to give it water. However, this may not be what it needs, and could add to the problem by causing rot.
Can You Grow Herbs Indoors?
Yes, you can grow culinary herbs indoors, however, most herbs fair best grown outside.
So, everyone has their own take on whether an indoor herb garden or outdoor herb garden reigns supreme. Judging by these lists, outdoor growing is best overall.
My take? While I’m an enthusiastic gardener, I don’t have a green thumb when it comes to indoor gardening. I experience more victories with outdoor planting.
Because I live in North Carolina in zone 8a, I am in a fairly temperate climate. I can grow herbs in my garden from March through early December.
What’s Your Growing Zone?
Growing and Caring for Herbs
Like most plant, most culinary herbs are eager to grow and thrive without much help from you. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so check your seed packet or plant care instructions. Meanwhile, to get you started, here are some general care guidelines.
5 Step Herb Survival Guide
That’s it! Do these basic things and your herbs should thrive, but we’ve expanded on each of these briefly below.
Virtually all herbs require sunny conditions–at least 6 hours per day. If you are planting herbs indoors, give this careful consideration.
For outdoor planting, select a sunny spot for your herb garden.
Remember that most herbs flourish in container gardens, so you can move them easily as the days shorten at the end of the summer.
SUN: Most herbs thrive in full sun.
WATER: Not too Much or too Little
Of course, herbs require water like all plants. However, most cannot tolerate boggy conditions. Water them only when needed, depending on your weather conditions.
When watering, be sure to apply the water around the base of the plants gently. Avoid dousing the leaves and stems as this can cause rust spots, which happens when the sun scorches the leaves through the magnification of water drops.
WATER: Keeps herbs moist but not wet. Water base but not leaves.
FOOD: 2x / Season or as Needed
Before your herbs can nourish you, you must nourish them! Herbs don’t require continual fertilization. A couple of doses of organic liquid—or other—fertilizer, one in the spring and one in midsummer, will help keep your herbs healthy and thriving.
One exception to this is for those who grow herbs year-round. Keep an eye on your culinary herbs and fertilize as needed the rest of the year.
FOOD: Nourish your herbs with organic fertilizer during growing season for optimal growth.
First, when it comes to weeds, pay attention to them. Are they edible? What are they telling about your soil? We have chickweeds, dandelions and plantains and we harvest and eat as many as we can (that are outside the parameters of our electronic dog fence).
So if you have edible and/or medicinal weeds growing around your yard and garden, you may choose not to enjoy them rather than get rid of them. Take advantage of your built in yard gardener, and count those as bonus plants with benefits.
Non-beneficial weeds can steel life from your garden plants.
If however, you have weeds that aren’t beneficial to you, get rid of them. Pull weeds manually, then use an organic weed inhibitor to prevent regrowth of weeds. Weed preventers will prohibit the return of weeds but leave your herbs unharmed.
WEEDS: Non-beneficial weeds are native competitors for essential nutrients and moisture which can weaken your plants. Weak plants are less able to resist pest invasions, molds, or disease.
For your herbs to remain productive all season long, they must be harvested or pruned regularly.
If you aren’t utilizing the plants for culinary herbs because you’re growing them as ornamental flowers, be sure to give them a thorough pruning as soon as the blooms are spent.
PRUNE: Harvest the largest oldest growth first for culinary uses. Trim away dead stems and leaves to encourage new growth while keeping your plant healthy, happy and fresh.
Winter Care for Perennial Herbs in Zones 3-6
In climates 8 or lower, you should take preventive measures to ensure the health of your perennial herbs during the long months of winter.
How to Overwintering Herb Plants
- Bring plants inside the house to grow in pots or planters
- Cover outside herbs to protect from the elements
OVER WINTERING HERBS – Indoors:
Many gardeners, especially in zones 3 through 6, grow their herbs in large pots—or transplant to pots—that can be moved indoors. Indoor herb garden during the winter works best at southern facing windows for the best chance of getting enough sunlight.
While that seems to be the easiest course of action, that depends on exactly how many plants you have, which directions your windows face, and how much time you plan to devote to them.
OVERWINTERING HERBS – Outdoors:
Other gardeners in zones 3-6 opt to leave the herbs outdoors for the winter. You must prune them carefully, amend the soil, and heavily mulch them for protection.
OVERWINTERING HERBS – Somewhere in Between Indoors and Outdoors
Where I live in zone 8a, I actually remove my herbs from the garden. Then, I pot them, lightly mulch, and place them in a sunny place in my She-shed, which is a lean-to against our barn, not an enclosed building.
The roof of this lean-to offers enough protection to keep the frost from falling on the herbs and protects them from the brutal pelting of ice storms.
There, they receive lots of sunlight. I just water them once a week or so.
LATE SUMMER: Trim herbs and dehydrate leaves for fresh dried herbs.
FALL: Cover or move plants indoors at first sign of frost.
SPRING: Move plants outside (or uncover) after the last frost.
Deborah Tayloe’s Southern-Facing She-shed – a great idea for adding a passive solar shelter for plants
Overwintering Herbs in Zones 7-9
The (Mostly) Outdoor Solution
In the event that we receive a winter storm warning that will require additional protection, I can quickly cover the pots or move them inside the barn for a day or two.
This method allows me to utilize fresh herbs year-round. Although the plants grow more slowly during the winter, the taste remains outstanding.
If you have a sunny but protected area, and you live in zones 7 through 9, overwintering outside with a place for refuge is a fantastic option.
If you over-winter outdoors, be sure to “wake up” your herb garden in the spring by pulling back the mulch early in the season, fertilizing well, and watering.
For growing herbs indoors in colder zones, you’ll need sunny windows or grow lights.
Wake up your herb garden in the spring by pulling back the mulch early in the season, fertilizing well, and watering.
~Deborah Tayloe, for GardensAll.com
How to Dehydrate Culinary Herbs
Should you dehydrate your herbs? Absolutely! If you don’t plan to move them indoors and live in a climate where they will perish during the winter, dehydrate them.
While some would argue that dehydrating removes some of the potent aromas and flavors, others would say that you will be storing away your own home-grown herbs. Homegrown and fresh preserved is the next best thing to homegrown fresh.
You know the love and care you put into your herb garden, so harvest and enjoy!
What’s the simplest way to dehydrate herbs? Most people prefer an electric dehydrator unit. They’re relatively inexpensive and compact and don’t require a lot of energy. You can read more about best dehydrators here.
You harvest, wash, and pat dry all the edible parts of your herbs. In some plants, this includes the non-woody stems.
Carefully place the herbs on the dehydrator racks, and turn on the unit. If you purchase a unit equipped with a fan, the herbs will dry evenly with little attention from you.
However, if you buy a unit that doesn’t include a fan, you will need to rotate the racks every two hours or so. In just a few hours, you can put up herbs for the off-season.
Be sure to consult your particular dehydrator model for complete details.
How to Cultivate 5 Popular Easy Growing Culinary Herbs
Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
When we think of sweet basil, we often think of bold Italian and Greek flavors. But, sweet basil is loved around the world for its bright, clean flavor.
This annual plant loves to bask in the sun for 6 or more hours each day and prefers a loamy soil that drains quickly.
Sweet Basil – Outdoors
To grow sweet basil outdoors: Start your seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before your last expected frost. Transplant to their beds as soon as the threat of frost has passed and the soil warms up.
Once the roots are established, cover the plants with burlap if an unexpected cold snap moves in, they will bounce back from the cold if you’ve protected them from frost. Keep beds weeded as sweet basil doesn’t like to compete for nutrition and will become depleted quickly.
Sweet basil thrives as an annual in zones 3-9; zones 10 and up enjoy it as a perennial.
Sweet Basil – Indoors
Sweet basil also serves as a gorgeous container plant. To grow sweet basil indoors: Plant in a container alone. It can grow quite large and crowd out co-inhabitors. Water weekly; take care not to overwater. Keep the pot in a warm, sunny spot.
Whether you’re growing indoors or outside, harvest the leaves regularly to stimulate regrowth.
EXOTIC BASIL VARIETIES TO TRY:
- Lemon basil
- Thai basil (licorice flavored)
- Cinnamon basil
- Purple basil
Sweet basil attracts aphids and is prone to moisture-borne fungus and rot. It prefers dry over wet.
SWEET BASIL MEDICINAL BENEFITS
Fighting pain and need fast relief? Try chewing on basil leaves. Eastern medicine reports that chewing basil leaves opens the leaf cells and releases the essential oils beneficial to easing pain-causing inflammation.
Sweet Basil Benefits
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
This culinary herb emits an unmistakable aroma that makes you long for Thanksgiving day. Sage is a perennial in most climates (zones 5 through 8), but it is considered an annual in the coldest environments.
Don’t underestimate sage’s potential. Yes, it can do more than season your Thanksgiving Day stuffing. It’s bold enough to season a pot of Tuscan beans or make a Brown Butter Sauce for your carrots.
To grow sage outdoors: Find a location that receives full sun all day long. The area must drain well, as sage plants don’t like wet feet and will mildew quickly.
These herbs grow best from plants, not seeds. Plant once the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees, allowing 2 feet between plants as sage plants grow rather large.
Sages silvery-green leaves add delicate color and texture in a kitchen garden.
Keep sage free of weeds. If drainage is an issue in your garden, consider planting your sage in a decorative well-draining pot.
To grow sage indoors: Technically, you can grow sage indoors. However, because of the requirement for full sunlight to thrive, it’s impractical unless you have grow lights or a full window with southern exposure.
SAGE MEDICINAL BENEFITS
- Oral health
- Digestive discomfort
- Blood sugar
- Memory and brain health
- Lowers bad cholesterol
- Protects against cancer
- Strengthens weak bones
- Fights Alzheimers
- Helps with sleep
WOW… what an AMAZING plant!!
In naturopathy, practitioners utilize sage to treat digestive discomfort by steeping dried leaves into a tea. If you’re not yet growing sage, you’ll want to!
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley imparts a refreshing flavor that balances out acidic foods and adds a delicate, mild aroma.
Have you ever wondered why you often see parsley as a garnish on the side of a plate?
While it’s certainly decorative, the traditional reason for that little garnish is that if you chew on the parsley post-dinner, this mint-family member will freshen your breath.
How to grow parsley outdoors: Parsley is notoriously difficult to start from seeds. Even the most experienced gardeners often take the easy route and pick up a plant from the nursery.
The silver lining? Parsley’s a biennial (every two years) plant that flourishes in zones 4 through 9.
Space plants about 8″ apart. The parsley grows slowly, but the reward is those bright green feathery spikes that add so much flavor to foods.
Parsley requires partial to full sun, not too much shade, please! Loamy or sandy soil is its choice as that provides good drainage.
Watch out for swallowtail butterflies, whose larvae find your parsley patch the optimal place to feed and grow.
Harvest your parsley regularly to keep it growing continuously.
Parsley also flourishes as in a container garden.
Growing parsley indoors: If you insist on growing your own parsley from seed, do so from indoors. The more predictable temperature will benefit the seedlings.
Because parsley can tolerate partial shade, they work out fine on a sunny window sill as an indoor herb.
MEDICINAL BENEFITS OF PARSLEY
Parsley is surprisingly nutritious! It’s full of Vitamins A, C, and K and can help amp up your immune system and fight the common cold. Eat it raw and fresh in a salad for maximum benefit.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
As a culinary herb, chives add a mild onion flavor to any dish. Magical when mixed into a bland dish like potatoes or rice, they can really boost your culinary game!
While chives might smell like onions, they are actually in the Allium family. This makes them closer kin to leeks or garlic.
The plants are perennials that grow in zones 3 through 10. That said, they prefer cooler temperatures.
If you live in zone 3, you might enjoy abundant production into the summer. However, in warmer climates, they are more productive in the late winter or early spring and less so during the hottest months.
The spiky plants produce purple blooms that resemble a pom-pom. While it’s tempting to let those blossoms go, know that they will go to seed and chives can become invasive!
Snip from your plants regularly to avoid the flowers from forming if you want to control your garden.
To grow chives in an outdoor herb garden: Put established plants in still-cool soil in the late winter to early spring, depending on your hardiness zone.
Chives like sandy soil and love to get 6 hours of sunshine each day.
Avoid clay soils as they hold too much moisture. Chives easily suffer from bulb rot (like onions and garlic) when grown in wet conditions.
To grow chives indoors: Place your chives in a window that get at least 6 hours of daily sunshine. Be careful not to overwater.
MEDICINAL USE OF CHIVES:
Chives are also a documented appetite stimulant, so this makes them beneficial for people who don’t receive adequate nutrition due to lack of appetite.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Technically, rosemary is an evergreen shrub. That detail means that if you live in zones 6 through 9, you can enjoy this herb all year round.
Left unpruned, it can grow 4 feet high and 4 feet around. Some people love growing it in the kitchen garden to enjoy the fragrant perfume.
While rosemary flourishes planted in the ground, it also doesn’t mind being in a well-sized container garden.
A member of the mint family, rosemary’s flavor tastes like a combination of mint warmed up by earthy notes of pine and sage. Its distinctive taste is ideal in sauces, stews, soups, and roasts.
To grow rosemary in an outdoor edible garden: Plant rosemary in sandy or loamy conditions after the soil temperature reaches 70. Locate the herb garden in full sun.
Rosemary is susceptible to leaf spots and root rot. To prevent this, water during the morning hours.
To grow rosemary in an indoor herb garden: Use a pot large enough for rosemary’s wide root spread. You must keep rosemary in a window that receives a minimum of 6 hours of sunshine every day. Harvest regularly.
Medicinal uses for rosemary:
Rosemary is rich in Vitamins A and C. The powerful antioxidants are proven to boost your immune system and relieve inflammation.
I have had chronic asthma since childhood. While it’s fairly well-controlled, I still suffer occasional asthma attacks.
When I feel a flare-up coming on, I infuse 8 ounces of simmering water with a couple of large sprigs of rosemary and a dollop of locally-harvested honey to make a “tea.” Once I have sipped the tea, the tight feeling in my lungs disappears within minutes.
The allergy and asthma specialist tries to dispel the notion that my rosemary and honey tea thwarts my asthma attacks.
All I know is that this tea generally helps me to avoid an asthmatic episode.
For more on healing with herbs, you may enjoy this article and interview with herbalist, Jennifer Capestany.
Dried Herbs vs Fresh Herbs for the Most Antioxidants
Whether fresh or dried, herbs add more than flavor to food and drinks. Herbs are high in antioxidants and phenolics help to reduce cell damage caused by free radicals, the breakdown of molecules–from food and exposure to toxins—which lead to disease.
Best Dried Herbs and Spices for Health Benefits
In studies, of nine common herbs, fresh and dried oregano exhibited the highest antioxidant capacity (AC) amongst common herbs.
*Nine common herbs (basil, chili, cilantro, dill, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, oregano, and parsley) and one herb mixture (Italian Herbs).
Best Fresh Herbs for the Most Health Benefits
FRESH HERBS WITH HIGHEST ANTIOXIDANTS:
- Lemon balm
Basil and oregano antioxidant strength is reduced in paste form, so best to consume fresh or dried.
~Study by Susanne M. Henning and associates, PMID:21118053, 2011 https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.3109%2F09637486.2010.530595
Culinary Herbs are Easy to Grow
The bottom line is that culinary herbs are easy growing plants. They require minimal watering, care, and time invested.
All they ask for is a sunny place to bask every day, for the weeds to be kept under control, well-drained soil, light watering, and some organic liquid fertilizer every few months.
All in all, they are easygoing creatures.
Whether you opt to plant an edible herb garden indoors, outdoors, or in a container, so you can hybridize the process, one thing is for sure:
You will love the aromatic fragrances and great taste of your culinary herbs.
If you want to read more about herbs, please check out our guide on how to grow herbs throughout the year.
Wishing you great gardens and abundant harvests!
Wishing you great gardens and happy harvests!
Hi! My name is Deborah Tayloe. I’m a full-time freelance writer and blogger. I blog about my favorite things: gardening, cooking, and DIY. I live in a very rural area called Bertie County, North Carolina. Here, I have plenty of open space to pursue my gardening habit. I’m a regular contributor to GardensAll and publish my own blog, DIY Home & Garden.