Growing herbs for seasoning food

Jackie K. Jordan County Extension Agent

November 14, 2013

Using fresh herbs can make an ordinary meal extraordinary. Adding fresh herbs to flavor meals helps cut down on sugar, salt and calorie intake. Herbs are easy to grow. Many are drought-tolerant, do not need very fertile soil and are naturally resistant to insects and diseases. Most herbs are herbaceous perennials or annuals. Some are small shrubs, such as rosemary and lavender.

Herbs need about six hours of sunlight when grown outdoors. The fragrance oils, which account for herb flavors, are produced in the greatest quantity when plants receive plenty of sun. A few herbs-including angelica, parsley and mint-prefer partial shade or shade.

Soil for growing herbs should be well-drained. Add two to three inches of fine pine bark, cracked pea gravel, poultry grit or coarse compost worked in to eight to 12 inches deep to improve the drainage in clay soils.

Add two to three inches of fine pine bark, compost or leaf mold to sandy soils to improve their moisture retention. Build raised beds or grow in containers to further improve drainage. Very few herbs will grow in wet soils, although a few such as mints and lemon-grass thrive in moist soil.

It is best to base fertilizer and lime applications on the results of a soil test. Most herbs do not need a highly fertile soil. Very fertile soils tend to produce lush leaves that lack flavor. Prune herbs regularly to promote vigorous, well-shaped, sturdy growth.

If you harvest herbs regularly, this should keep your plants pruned. When, substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs, as a general guideline, use three times the recommended amount.

Although many herbs are drought-tolerant, moisture is needed to maintain active growth. Water herbs thoroughly and then allow the soil to dry out somewhat before watering again. Plants should be watered early enough in the day that leaves can dry before nightfall. Some herbs, particularly most annual herbs, need additional soil moisture for best growth.

Some herbs may be grown in containers and brought inside in winter to provide fresh herbs all year. Bush basil, sage, winter savory, parsley, chives and varieties of oregano and thyme are some of the best herbs for growing in containers. Herbs grown inside will need plenty of sunlight from a south or west window.

Common Culinary Herbs

• Basil is one of the easiest annual herbs to grow from seed. Harvest leaves frequently to prevent blooming which reduces flavor. Basil is quite tender and will die with the first fall frost. Several species and many cultivars are available. Italian types such as Genovese and Lettuce Leaf have large, sweet, green leaves that are great for pesto.

They may grow up to three feet tall. Purple basils are mainly used for decorative value, but also make beautiful rose-colored vinegars. Miniature bush basils are used in the same way as the larger basils and are excellent as edgings and in pots. Lemon-scented cultivars are wonderful with fish.

• Chives are easy perennial herbs whose chopped leaves are used in many dishes. The grass-like dark green leaves grow to 12 inches tall. Chives have showy lavender flowers that are edible and used in salads. Chives are the smallest members of the onion family. They are grown from seed or transplants in full sun. Garlic Chives produce long, flat leaves with a mild garlic flavor. In late summer, they produce showy white blossoms. Garlic chives thrive in full sun. They often reseed prolifically.

• Dill is one of the easiest herbs to grow from seed sown in fall or early spring. It is a cool-weather annual that will go to seed with the onset of hot weather. Feathery young leaves are used in salads and with vegetables and fish. The ripe seeds and unripe seed heads are used in pickling. The large green caterpillars that love to eat dill are swallowtail butterfly larvae. Do not plant dill near fennel since they can cross and produce strangely flavored seedlings. Dill readily self-seeds.

• Parsley is commonly used as a garnish. The attractively curled leaves are tasty and loaded with vitamins. Two forms are commonly available — the flat leaved or Italian parsley, and the curled or French parsley. They can be grown from seeds sown in early spring or transplants. Seed is slow to germinate. Parsley is a biennial, producing leaves the first year and flowers the next. Grow parsley in light shade with rich, moist soil.

• Rosemary is a beautiful evergreen shrub that comes in many forms from bushes four feet tall or more to low-growing groundcovers. The fragrance is strong and distinctive, used in many meat dishes, especially chicken. Rosemary typically has gray-green or dark green needlelike leaves and blue or occasionally white flowers. There are many different cultivars that vary in size, shape and even flavor. Weeping and pine-scented cultivars are available. All grow best in dry, sunny areas.

• Sage is a small evergreen shrub with broad oval, gray-green leaves that are used to flavor soups, stews and poultry stuffing. Fresh sage has an especially nice flavor. The plants require excellent drainage and dry soil in full sun. Sage can be difficult to grow in coastal areas. Some cultivars include sages with purple or gold leaves.

The cultivar Bergarten seems to be better adapted to heat than the species. Pineapple sage grows to 4 feet tall with lush green leaves and brilliant red flowers in late summer. The flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The leaves have an intense pineapple scent. Pineapple sage is usually hardy, but may succumb to a hard winter in the Upstate.

• Thyme is widely used to flavor many different foods. There are numerous species available, with a range of flavors and forms. Some types are mainly ornamental used for attractive growth habit and flowers. The plants are generally low growing, from virtually flat to the ground to a little over a foot tall. Many are evergreen, or have silvery, wooly leaves. In general, the taller growing species and those with smooth leaves will tolerate heat and humidity better than low growing or wooly types. Plant thyme in full sun in very well drained soil that stays dry.

Jackie K. Jordan is a Horticulture/Specialty Crop Agent. She can be reached at 803-635-4722 or visit the Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center website at http://hgic.clemson.edu.