Herbs First!

Now is the time to plan your herb garden

What’s the most cost-effective crop you can grow in a small space? Many commercial growers agree that it’s culinary herbs, and I think this may hold true for home gardeners. 

With very few exceptions, fresh herbs are so much better than dried. (The only dried herb in my pantry is oregano.) It isn’t hard to buy good quality fresh herbs, but they are not cheap, and you have to buy an entire bunch when maybe all you need is a couple of sprigs. Even staples like parsley, cilantro and mint will sometimes go to waste. So we are lucky to live where we can grow a variety of herbs almost year-round, and where a few grow through the whole year. If you are a gardener short on time or space or just want a good return on your efforts and investment, consider making herbs a priority.

At this time of year, when conditions are better suited for thinking and planning (and ordering seeds!) than for actual gardening, perhaps it’s time to plan a real herb garden. A traditional, formal herb garden, whether simple or elaborate, can be a thing of beauty, if not particularly practical. It is hard to deny the charm of a little parterre, perhaps hedged around with thyme or dwarf lavender and centered on some feature: a bay tree, a well-trimmed rosemary bush, maybe a sundial or an attractive container. 

So why do I say it’s not practical? Several reasons. First, the plants we call herbs vary widely in scale, growth habit, lifespan and cultural requirements. Rosemary and bay make sizable shrubs and need lots of sun but little water. Most herbs insist on full sun to develop full flavor, while chives, mint, sorrel and parsley will take some shade. A few spread wildly and don’t conform easily to a formal design. 

Second, you probably use a lot more of some herbs than others. A really ambitious herb garden might consist of a formal parterre of predominantly compact perennial herbs as a visual anchor, surrounded by beds for annual herbs, salad greens and the favorite herbs you use most often. 

My own herb gardening is a bit more chaotic. That’s partly because I have soil issues that require a certain amount of trial and error in situating plants. My gardening habits also tend to be, let’s say, excessively spontaneous. 

But while I don’t have a coherent herb garden, I do have a strategy of sorts. This mostly consists of segregating varieties according to the conditions they prefer or tolerate. For instance, since I try to limit summer water use, it makes sense to grow relatively drought-tolerant, perennial plants like fennel, common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), oregano and winter savory in an area that is watered infrequently — in this case, around young fruit trees and established rhubarb plants. 

Chives and tarragon are perennials too, but they tend to be shorter-lived and need to be replaced occasionally. They also need more water. In my yard they share space with self-sowing, edible flowers (borage, nasturtium) and deep-rooted perennials like lovage and French sorrel. 

Mint is a major spreader and has been exiled to the alley, which happens to be damp. You can grow mint in a large pot, but it’s greedy: For best results, divide it every year, feed it well and give it lashings of water. 

Sage demands excellent drainage, and since I use it infrequently I’m prepared to buy it. I could grow it in a pot or just buy a fresh plant every year. I associate sage with cold-weather food and one plant would amply fill my fall and winter needs before succumbing to root rot early the following spring, as usually happens. 

Annual herbs? Basil is a another greedy customer that wants well-prepared ground in the vegetable garden and regular water. I also make space among the vegetables for cilantro, which requires successional sowings and benefits from high fertility. Parsley is less demanding and is allowed to self-sow on the fringes of the vegetable garden, where it’s easy to hit the plants with a hose now and then.

Chervil, a petite and frilly relative of parsley with a mild anise flavor, is mostly used as a garnish, but I like to have a lot of it to put in winter salads. It’s great with pears and radicchio or endive! Chervil is strictly a cool-weather plant and extremely hardy. I save seed and sprinkle it around kale and broccoli plants in late summer and early spring. 

Since I let cilantro and chervil, as well as parsley, flower for the pollinators and go to seed for birds, a certain amount always self-sows. I leave the volunteers until I need the space, which means they often keep going through the winter. Cilantro is very slow to bolt in winter, which extends its useful life considerably.