It’s truly incredible how the addition of some freshly-chopped parsley, basil or cilantro can take a dish from drab to delicious. Fresh herbs are a staple of my home-cooked meals, thanks to a sprawling rosemary bush in my front yard and a few pots that we tend to on the front stoop.
As a cook, I’m always looking for new ways to bring a vibrant bite into my food, and a sprig of fresh thyme or chopped green onion always does the trick. Surprisingly, it’s not difficult to grow your own herbs.
And this is coming from someone who struggles to keep even the most forgiving houseplants alive.
Here’s how I keep a fresh stockpile of herbs around, and some of my favorite ways to use them.
1. Planting Prep
The main way to decide which herbs you’d like to grow is to think about which herbs you’d like to eat. Do you picture yourself sprinkling some chopped cilantro over tacos? Throwing some sprigs of rosemary in with a roast chicken? Making tabbouleh with loads of parsley and mint?
The key to taking care of herbs long-term is to plant something you know you’ll go back to again and again, keeping the plant from being neglected.
Consider whether you’ll be planting your herbs inside or outside. Most herbs will do okay outside in pots or planted right into your garden.
Rosemary will grow quite large rather quickly, if you’re looking to add some landscaping as well as herbal variety to your yard. And, be careful of mint! Our front garden bed was taken over by mint two summers ago. We had to tear most of it out, but the remainder was happily planted into a large pot, where it thrives and doesn’t threaten our other plants.
If you need to keep your herb gardening limited to the indoors, plants such as green onion, chives, oregano, rosemary, thyme and mint will thrive indoors.
2. What Do You Need?
Some of us may be able to venture out into garden centers or grocery stores right now. If you’re one of those lucky people, those are both great places to start your search for fresh herbs.
Many grocery stores sell small basil, mint, cilantro, parsley or rosemary plants, and even seeds, in the produce section. If you’re stuck at home, check the grocery delivery options available to you and see if you can add one of these plants or some seeds onto your order.
You’ll also need some pots. Nothing fancy, just make sure they have good drainage and provide ample space for the herbs to grow. You can put a few different herbs together in a large pot (except for mint — that tenacious little herb always needs its own space), or get a few smaller pots — one for each herb.
No other specialized equipment is needed, except for maybe a shovel or a few rocks from outside. You can order special compost or potting soil, but there’s nothing wrong with using dirt dug up from your yard.
3. Potting and Planting
Okay, so it’s finally time to plant. You’ve got your seeds or sprouts, your pots, and your soil. Let’s do this.
First, prepare your pots. If they are large or quite deep, be sure to put a layer of gravel or rocks down at the bottom, to keep your herbs from getting water-logged.
Next, fill the pot with soil. To plant seeds, make a small hole in the top of the soil with your finger, about 1 ½ in. deep. Place about a teaspoon of seeds into the hole, and cover it with more soil.
To plant a seedling or live plant, dig a hole large enough for the root system of the plant. Remove the plant from its temporary container, stick it into the hole, and cover with soil. Make sure it’s in there nice and snug.
Don’t forget to water right after planting to give your little herbs all they need to start growing.
If your plants are inside, be sure to place them in a spot that will get lots of natural light. Outside, most herbs are hardy enough to survive in full or partial sun. I find that the front porch steps are a great spot for my potted herbs. They’re close enough to be convenient for cooking but still get lots of sun and rain. Plus, they look darn cute.
Caring for Your Herbs
Now, this is where it gets scary, at least for me. I can easily put some seeds or a small plant in a pot, but what do I do next?
Apparently, it doesn’t have to be all that complicated. If your plants are indoors, check their soil for moistness once a day or every other day. If the soil feels dry, go ahead and give the plant a little water. If it’s still moist, you’re all good.
If you find yourself forgetting to check the plants, try setting a repeating reminder on your phone until it becomes a habit. Or try integrating it into your morning or evening routine. Take it from me, starting or ending the day with a plant tour and a cup of tea can be very relaxing.
If your plants mostly live outside, then there’s likely even less maintenance involved. Still, check them for soil moisture, paying extra close attention during hot and/or dry months, and water them when needed.
If you are growing herbs that might flower, like basil or parsley, it’s important to cut and trim them back, because once those flowers appear, the leaves lose much of their flavor. Here’s the handy guide that I use to determine how often to trim my herbs, and the best way to go about it.
4. Making the Most of Fresh Herbs in the Kitchen
Yes! You’ve managed to keep some herbs alive! Now it’s time to enjoy all of that hard work. Here are a few ways to make the most of the fresh herbs grown at home.
Salad Dressing. It’s pretty easy to make your own salad dressing, especially if you have an immersion blender. Throw a handful of herbs of your choice, some olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, and some salt and pepper to make a quick, easy, herb-a-licious salad dressing. To kick it up a notch, add some soft avocado or plain Greek yogurt.
Fresh Pesto. The perfect way to dress up a summer pasta dish. Typically, pesto is made with basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan, and olive oil. But you can easily put your own spin on this classic – add some fresh parsley, mint, or dill to bring more Mediterranean flair, or add some green onion and oregano to add more spice and intensity.
Mixed drinks. If you’ve never had a mint julep with freshly-muddled mint, you are missing out. Next time you are in the mood for a cocktail, grab a couple sprigs of rosemary or mint to add to the mix.
Growing and caring for your own herb plants can be an excellent entry-point into gardening. The plants are usually small and don’t take up too much space, time or energy. And they are delicious, and so, so worth it.