Herbs add flavor and freshness to meals, as well as scent and beauty to the garden. But some are easier to grow than others.
Here’s a snapshot of the easiest herbs for Northern California gardeners with tips for success:
Garlic (Allium sativum): Plant on the shortest day, harvest on the longest; that’s garlic’s basic timeline. That means plant the bulbs on Dec. 21 or thereabouts. While the cloves are forming underground, the green tops can be a winter substitute for chives, which have only a 50-50 chance of staying green through winter. Or try garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), which are a hardier cousin of common chives (Allium Schoenoprasum). Garlic is a universal seasoning in many cuisines.
How to grow: Sandy, well-drained soil and lots of sun produce plump garlic cloves. Garlic is at home in borders or containers.
Italian (flat) parsley (Petroselinum crispum): While its curly cousin can’t take the cold, flat parsley usually over-winters here. It does everything curly parsley does – only more so. Italian cooks swear flat parsley has more flavor.
How to grow: A biennial, parsley takes two seasons to produce seed. Planted as a seedling now, it should continue to thrive until fall 2018 – then reseed itself and sprout anew. Under a foot high, it makes a natural border plant and is quite happy grown in a medium (6- to 8-inch) container at least 6 inches deep. It does well with average water and average soil. Full sun works best, although it will tolerate partial shade.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare hirtum): Another Italian native, this low-growing herb is a must for pasta sauces, pizza and marinades, but is also wonderful in soups, salads and meat dishes. It’s widely used in Mexican cuisine, too. The Italian variety over-winters best. It’s OK dried, but better fresh.
How to grow: This perennial likes full sun and sandy, fast-draining soil. It's usually under 6 inches, but can spread over time. Start from cuttings or divisions. Trim back in spring to encourage new growth.
Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis): If you like lamb or Greek cooking, rosemary is a must. The leaves, dried or fresh, add rich, intense flavor to winter roasts and stews. Strong straight stems make great skewers, adding flavor to broiled or grilled meat or veggies. Several other culinary rosemary varieties are also available. This bee-friendly plant is also handsome in water-wise landscapes.
How to grow: A very sturdy perennial, rosemary can be transplanted as a small plant now. The small bushes grow to 3 feet tall (or more) and produce abundant small blue flowers. Developed plants are drought tolerant and very hardy, even in poor soil.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum): This summer favorite produces masses of aromatic leaves. Snip off flower stalks as soon as they appear to prevent the plant from going to seed. Dozens of basil varieties are now available including purple, lemon, licorice and Thai.
How to grow: Basil is a summer annual, needing warmth and water. Seed can be started indoors now, and the baby basil transplanted outdoors in April. Or plant seed directly outdoors in late spring after the ground has warmed. Basil can grow up to 3 feet tall, but stays more compact in pots. Water twice a week.
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum): What would baked potatoes be without chives? This onion cousin has a similar flavor and fragrance, but milder.
How to grow: This compact perennial can form a fat clump, up to a foot wide and tall. In spring, it produces purple flowers; snip them off to keep the plant growing leaves. Chives grow easily indoors with bright light.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Thyme is a must in French bouquet garni (the workhorse herb mix) and is useful with many vegetables and most meats. English thyme is the most common, but other varieties have subtle differences. Silver thyme and caraway thyme will stay green year round, while other varieties tend to go dormant in winter.
How to grow: A naturally compact perennial, thyme is at home in the border, staying under 12 inches max. It makes an attractive landscape plant and excellent container herb. It likes full sun and sandy, fast-draining soil. Mulch to protect from frost. Trim in spring to keep bushy.
▪ Vacaville’s Morningsun Herb Farm offers hundreds of varieties of herbs – and a wealth of information on growing, harvesting and using them. Check out its website, www.morningsunherbfarm.com. The farm is at 6137 Pleasants Valley Road, Vacaville. Call 707-451-9406.
▪ Valley nurseries also are well-stocked with herbs for summer. Ask your nursery pro for special requests.
Create an herb garden in 15 minutes
No space or time for a vegetable garden? You still can harvest home-grown herbs for daily meals with your own portable herb garden.
This garden will grow almost anywhere outdoors; it needs just four hours or more of sun a day. That makes it perfect for a patio or apartment balcony – somewhere close to the kitchen. Water two to three times a week or as needed.
A container herb garden also can be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill; choose herbs that prefer partial shade such as parsley, golden oregano or mint.
Choose a theme for your herb garden such as “Italian favorites,” “Asian accents” or “salsa stuff.” Or just pick five to seven herbs you use often in the kitchen.
For our example, we chose a Mediterranean mix with golden accents: golden sage, golden lemon thyme, variegated oregano, lettuce-leaf basil, French tarragon, Italian parsley and chives.
For a container planting, select herbs that tend to have compact or low growth. Those include oregano, parsley, chives, tarragon and thyme. Some sages and basil also can be kept small and bushy.
This herb garden can double as a summer centerpiece for casual entertaining. It smells as good as it tastes.
What you need
▪ A shallow pot or container (14-inch round is ideal); make sure it has a bottom hole for good drainage
▪ Potting soil
▪ Herbs of your choice
Directions: Put a layer of potting soil in the container, up to 3 inches from the rim.
Transplant herbs from individual pots into the larger container. (To loosen plant in its small plastic pot, smack the bottom of the pot with a trowel.) Loosen the root ball of each plant before setting it into its new container. Arrange the herbs with the tallest-growing variety in the middle and four to six herbs spaced around it.
Once plants are positioned, add more potting soil and gently firm it around roots. Water well. Place in a sunny spot.
Pinch herbs to use as needed. Also, pinch back plants to keep them bushy.