Definition, Number and Types of Herbs Available

Early herb gardens served as the major source of seasonings in the preparation of foods. But the need for homegrown herbs declined with the advent of modem stores. Today, many gardeners are rediscovering the joy and pleasure of producing their own herbs.

Definition of Herb

From the botanical viewpoint, an herb is a seed plant that does not produce a woody stem as does a tree. But an herb will live long enough to develop flowers and seeds — including annuals, biennials, and perennials.

To simplify the definition, consider an herb as a plant which, because of its particular aromatic or healing property, is useful for scenting, flavoring, or medicinal purposes. In addition, some herbs are grown strictly as ornamental plants.

Number of Herbs Available

A true herb connoisseur can select from a wide variety of common and not-so-common herbs. For example, the E & A Everts Ashfields Herb Nursery of Shropshire, England, lists 57 herbs, 16 mints, 17 onion-type herbs, 20 sages, and 17 thymes in a recent catalog.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Handbook on Herbs lists 73 different types of herbs.

Some herbs fit into one or more classifications according to use — culinary, aromatic, ornamental, and medicinal.

Culinary Herbs

Culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners, having a wide range of uses in cooking. These herbs, because of their strong flavors, are generally used in small quantities to add flavor. Parsley, produced in the largest amount, is used mostly as a garnish. Next in popularity is sage — an important flavoring in pork sausage. Other popular culinary herbs include chives, thyme, savory, marjoram, mint, and basil.

Aromatic Herbs

Aromatic herbs have some novel uses and are not as popular to grow. Most have pleasing smells from flowers or foliage. The oils from aromatic herbs can be used to produce perfumes, toilet water, and various scents. For home use, the plant parts are used intact, often to scent linens or clothing. When dried, many aromatic herbs will retain their aroma for a considerable period. Some common aromatic herbs include mint, marjoram, lovage, rosemary, and basil.

Ornamental Herbs

Ornamental herbs have brightly colored flowers and foliage. Many have whitish or light-colored flowers. Valenian has crimson blossoms; borage and chicory are blue-flowered forms. Such herbs as variegated thyme, mint, lavender, and chives produce variegated foliage.

Medicinal Herbs

Medicinal herbs have long been thought to have curative powers. But while present medical knowledge acknowledges some healing properties, others are highly overrated. Medicinal herbs should be used carefully. Some herbs are harmless while others can be dangerous if consumed.

Herb Types

Herbs can also be classified as annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annuals bloom one season and then die. Biennials live for two seasons, blooming the second season only. Perennials over winter and bloom each season once established.

Herbs for Beginning Gardeners

Beginning herb gardeners may have a problem deciding which herbs to plant. There are numerous herbs from which to select. A quick check of your supermarket shelf will give some idea of the types of herbs used in cooking and will also serve as a planting guide. Many cookbooks also offer information on uses of various herbs as flavorings.

Following is a good variety of flavors and uses of recommended herbs for beginners:

  • Strong herbs — winter savory, rosemary, sage
  • Herbs strong enough for accent — sweet basil, dill, mint, sweet marjoram, tarragon, thyme
  • Herbs for blending — chives, parsley, summer savory

As your interest and needs increase, you can add to the variety of herbs in your garden. Herbs can be annuals, biennials, or perennials. Keep these classifications in mind when selecting herbs to grow for the first time.

  • Annuals (bloom one season and die) — anise, basil, chervil, coriander, dill, summer savory
  • Biennials (live two seasons, blooming second season only) — caraway, parsley
  • Perennials (over winter; bloom each season once established) — chives, fennel, lovage, marjoram, mint, tarragon, thyme, winter savory.

Mountaineer Gardener: Make Room in your Garden for Herbs

If you love the taste of fresh herbs, why not add them to your backyard vegetable garden?

Horticulture specialists with the West Virginia University Extension Service suggest keeping annual and perennial herbs separate. You can section off 12x18-inch sections within the garden for herbs. A diagram of the area and labels for the plants will help. You may want to grow some of the more colorful and frequently used herbs, such as parsley and purple basil, as border plants.

When selecting a site for your herb garden, consider drainage and soil fertility. Drainage is critical because herbs will not grow in wet soils. If the area drains poorly, you will have to modify the soil to have any chance of success.

To improve drainage, remove the top 15 to 18 inches of soil. Place a 3-inch layer of crushed stone or similar material on the bottom of the excavated site. Mix some compost or sphagnum peat and sand into the soil that you remove to lighten its texture. Then, return to the soil to the bed area, refilling the beds higher than the original level to allow for settling.

The soil does not have to be especially fertile. Generally, highly, fertile soil tends to produce excessive amounts of foliage that is poor in flavor. Some herbs, such as chervil, fennel, lovage and summer savory, require moderate amounts of fertilizer. Adding several bushels of peat or compost per 100 square feet of garden area will help improve soil and retain needed moisture.

Nearly all herbs can be grown from seed. Very few diseases or insects attack herbs, although rust infects mints. In hot, dry weather, red spider mites can be found on low-growing plants. Aphids may attack anise, caraway, dill and fennel.

You need to contain a few herbs, including mints, or they will take over a garden. Plant them in a No. 10 can or bucket; punch several holes just above the bottom him, for drainage. You also can use a drain tile, clay pot or cement block. Sink these into the ground; they should confine the plants for several years.

You also can grow herbs in containers, in window boxes or in hanging baskets. These methods necessitate some extra care, especially watering.

If possible, sow seeds in shallow boxes in late winter, then transplant the seedlings outdoors in the spring. A light, well-drained soil is best for starting the seedlings indoors. Be careful not to cover the seeds too deeply with soil. Generally, the finer the seed, the more shallow it is sown. Sow anise, coriander, dill and fennel directly in the garden since they do not transplant well.

Most biennials should be sown in late spring directly into the ground. Work the soil surface to a fine texture and wet it slightly. Sow the seeds in very shallow rows, and firm the soil over them.

Fine seeds, such as marjoram, savory or thyme, will spread more evenly if you mix them with sand. Cover the bed with wet burlap or paper to keep the soil moist during germination. Water with a fine spray to prevent washing away of the soil.

You can harvest fresh leaves as soon as the plant has enough foliage to maintain growth. To insure good oil content, pick leaves or seeds after dew has disappeared but before the sun becomes too hot.

For dry, winter use, harvest leaves before the flower buds open. Pick seed heads as color changes from green to brown or gray. Wash dirty leaves and seed heads in cold water; drain them thoroughly before drying.

Growing Herbs

Home growing of herbs is gaining in popularity as more and more herbs are being enjoyed dried in fragrant sachets and potpourris. Herbs are very easy plants to grow and can even be grown indoors. They require little care and space, have few insect and disease problems and require only moderate fertility levels. Thus, growing herbs has become continuing and satisfying hobby for many home gardeners.

When beginning an herb garden, it is important to choose a proper site. An optimal site is one where the herb garden receives at least 4 to 6 hours of sunlight a day. Herbs will grow well under a wide range of soil conditions, with the exception of extremely wet, poorly drained soil. Popular herbs such as sage, rosemary and thyme require a well-drained but moderately moist soil. Poorly drained soil can be improved by modifying or amending the soil or by use of raised beds. Although they have little fertility requirements, herbs do better in soils of low to medium fertility.

The garden site should be prepared in the same manner as a vegetable garden: spaded to a depth of 6 to 12 inches, leveled and raked to remove any large clods and debris. The size of the garden depends largely upon the quantity of herbs desired; a good size for an average kitchen herb garden is 4 by 20 feet

More common herbs, such as dill, basil and parsley are usually available from local seed dealers, and those that are less common may be purchased from companies specializing in herbs. Annuals usually grown from seed tend to grow, flower and produce seed during one season and then die. Biennial herbs grow for two seasons, flowering the second year only, and perennial herbs over winter and flower each season.

Summer care includes weed control and provision for adequate moisture. Mulch is an attractive and effective means of controlling weeds and maintaining constant soil moisture and temperature for the root systems. Mulches include bark chips or shredded bark, compost, ground corn cobs, pecan hulls or dried grass clippings and should be applied at least 3 inches deep around the plants.

Some recommended varieties for use in planting include:

Balm, Lemon (Melissa Officinalis)

Uses: Herb and iced teas, leaves gloss and scent on wood furniture
Description: Heart shaped, light, bright green leaves, yellow or white flowers, strong lemon scent
Culture: Started from cuttings or seed in spring or early fall, harvest just before flowering stage, leave 2 to 3 inches of stem above ground

Basil, Sweet (Ocimum basilicum)

Uses: Small culinary uses for both leaves and seeds
Description: Blue green, feathery foliage, grows 2 to 4 feet tall, tiny yellow blossoms
Culture: Started from seed, April through July. Sow in a well-drained, sunny place, thin the seedlings to 8 to 10 inch spacing

Lavender (Lavandula vera)

Uses: Lovely subtle fragrance, used in sachets and perfumes
Description: Somewhat woody perennial, grows from 1½ to 3 feet tall, bluish lavender flowers
Culture: Propagate by means of cuttings or layered divisions of three year old plants, dry, well drained sunny location in alkaline soil, harvest as bloom opens

Mint: Peppermint (Mentha pipenita) and Spearmint (Mentha apicata)

Uses: Many culinary uses and used as ingredients in potpourris and sachets
Description: Upright growing, reach 2 feet in height. Peppermint has dark green leaves, reddish stem and lavender flowers. Spearmint is lighter green with pink flowers. Both emit a warm, spicy scent.
Culture: Easily propagated by division of clumps, space at 2 foot intervals, harvest entire plant by cutting the shoots to 1 inch above ground just before flowering.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Uses: Major ingredient in Italian and Mexican main courses
Description: Sprawling stems, may reach 2 feet in height, 2 to 4 inches clusters of small, purple-pink flowers
Culture: Grows well in poor soil and can be propagated by seed or division, flavor is best just after the flower buds form.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

Uses: Culinary and as garnish
Description: Two tubes-curled and Italian. Curled has tightly curled foliage while Italian has broad, flat leaves and stronger flavor
Culture: Plant seeds in early spring in medium-rich soil, can be harvested as soon as the plants are 6 inches tall. Leaves may be stored fresh in ajar in the refrigerator or dried for later use.

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis)

Uses: A cooking herb, used dried or fresh
Description: Evergreen shrub that reaches a height of 2 to 4 feet. Needle-like, leathery, dark green leaves with a gray under-surface. Flowers are pale lavender blue and the whole plant has a "balsamic smell"
Culture: Propagation by means of cuttings 4 to 6 inches long, well drained soil containing lime. Soil must be kept moist.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)

Uses: Culinary-aromatic and slightly bitter
Description: Shrubby with oblong, wooly, wrinkled gray green leaves; grow to a height of 2 feet and sprawl unless kept trimmed. Lilac blue flowers.
Culture: Can be started from seeds, cuttings or from crown divisions and planted in sunny location when they are 3 to 4 inches tall. Harvest before plants bloom or cut the stems 6 to 8 inches long and hang to dry.

Tarragon, French (Arternisia dracunculus)

Uses: One of truly "fine" herbs, adds special flavor to food.
Description: Grows 2 to 3 feet tall, with dark green, narrow, elongated leaves.
Culture: Plants best started from clump divisions in early spring and grown in sunny, fertile, well-drained site. Harvest for fresh in early July and again in August for drying.

Thyme (Thymus vulganis)

Uses: Culinary, oil used in medicines and perfumes
Description: Low-growing, wiry stemmed, grows 4 to 8 inches tall. Stems stiff and woody while leaves are small, oval and gray green and flowers are purple clusters.
Culture: Light, well-drained soil, started from seed, cuttings or division. New plants should be started every 3 or 4 years, sometimes two or more crops can be harvested in the same season.

Some other herbs worth consideration when planting are:
Borage, Caraway, Chamomile, Chervil, Coriander, Fennel, French Sorrel, Salad Burnet, Summer Savory, and Sweet Marjoram.

Propagation Techniques

Some suggestions for good germination:
1. Use clean, disease free soil and pots. Many seedling diseases are transmitted through using "dirty" pots, and "used" soil. They may both be "sterilized", but that's another subject. There are many good commercial germination mixes available, but when I have time, I use the recipe below to make my own.

5 parts of homemade or store bought compost (make sure it's very fine; may need to run through a sieve)
4 parts sand, either lava or granite
3 parts earthworm castings
2 parts colloidal phosphate
1 part green sand

Mix it all up and it's ready to use. Increasingly, there are prepackaged soils containing some of the ingredients listed above. In a pinch, you can mix half (by volume) finely milled peat moss, with half, either vermiculite or perlite. Throw in one teaspoon each of ground limestone and bonemeal per quart. In a major pinch, just buy some. Before using any mix, moisten it to the consistency of a wrung out sponge.

2. Provide constant moisture, but not saturated, soaking wet conditions. Use warm tap water, if possible, in winter, for quicker germination. After germination, mist seedlings with a fine spray a few, or several tines a day. They benefit from high humidity for awhile.

3. Provide air! Make sure soil isn't constantly saturated with water, and start seeds in containers with good drainage holes.

4. Let there be warmth. In general, maintaining a temperature of between 65-75degrees is optimal for germinating most seeds. Temps below 50 degrees will result in poor, if any, germination. There are some finicky seeds out there which require more exacting conditions, but that's another discussion. If possible, try to provide bottom heat by using heating cables or pads. I've had excellent luck in the past putting them on top of the fridge, in the closet with the hot water heater, or on a warm, sunny windowsill. A soil thermometer comes in handy here to make sure you've got them in the right spot. Try not to let the temperature vary more than 10 degrees.

5. Lightness and grace. Some of the little tiny seeds need light to germinate. If you have any doubts about which ones need light, ask the Bulletin Board. If you know your seeds require light, they need to be just lightly pressed onto the surface of the soil, and germinated in a well lit area. All seedlings need good light after germination to avoid that leaning, leggy look. With good light, they will develop nice, stout stems and grow straight up. Supplemental lighting may be an option here if the light isn't adequate.

6. Don't plant seeds too deep. A good rule of thumb is to plant them at a depth of 2 to 3 times their width. Sometimes it's very hard to determine this depth exactly. Common sense tells you to plant the smaller seeds shallower, and the larger ones correspondingly deeper. I seldom run across a seed that needs to be planted deeper than 1/41 feet. Be careful to keep the more shallow planted seeds soil surface moist.

7. Food and drink. The potting soils mentioned above will contain all the nutrients necessary for a good start in life for the seedlings. After the seedlings have gotten about 6 true leaves, I start fertilizing with a dilute solution of fish and seaweed emulsion. This will provide everything they need till transplanted into the garden, as well as boost their immunity to disease and insects. At this point, the amount of water may also be reduced, although not to the point of letting the soil become completely dry.

Growing Herbs in the Home Garden

James C. Schmidt — Department of Horticulture — VC-44-93

Little wonder that herbs have earned a place in American gardens. Freshly harvested herbs have pungent and aromatic qualities that far exceed those of their commercially obtained counterparts—whether fresh or dried.

Even after the outdoor growing season is over, you can still enjoy dried herbs in fragrant potpourris and sachets. You can also grow herbs indoors in pots on sunny windowsills, and use them for culinary purposes, either fresh, dried, or frozen.

You will enjoy growing herbs because their culture is easy. They require little care and space, have very few insect and disease problems, and generally require only moderate fertility levels. Above all, herbs provide you with a continuing and satisfying hobby.

Choosing a Site

Herbs flourish under the same conditions that you provide for your flower or vegetable garden. Although most herbs will grow in partial shade, it is better if the herb garden receives at least 4 to 6 hours of sunlight a day. A majority of herbs will grow well under a wide range of soil conditions, with the exception of extremely wet, poorly drained soils. Note, however, that sage, rosemary, and thyme require a well-drained but moderately moist soil.

If the garden soil is poorly drained, you can improve the situation by modifying or amending it. Even more effective would be the use of raised beds. To improve soil fertility and tilth, add several bushels of compost per 100 square feet of soil before planting. Spade it into the soil thoroughly.

In general, herbs do better in soils of low to medium fertility, so additional fertilizer applications are not needed. Soils with high fertility tend to produce lots of foliage that is low in flavor.

Prepare your garden site in the same manner that you would a vegetable garden, spading it to a depth of 6 to 12 inches. Then level and rake the site to remove any large clods and debris.

Determining the Size of Your Herb Garden

The size of your garden will depend largely upon the quantity of herbs that you need and want to grow. A dozen annuals and/or perennials will provide you with a good variety.

Fitting Herbs into Your Landscape

Decide on a type of garden. An herb garden can take any form. They can be planted in a formal garden; informally with flowers, trees, and shrubs; or in theme gardens.

A formal herb garden generally is composed of a series of beds that are not identical but appear balanced. The herbs are arranged by height, foliage color, and/or use, often in rows. Wide walkways are used to separate the beds and give the garden a sense of spaciousness. Formal gardens of the 16th century were designed as knot gardens. This style used plants to create intricate, geometric designs within a square or rectangle. The designs were often edged with low-growing hedges of lavender or boxwood that showed off the subtle characteristics of the herbs. When choosing plants for a knot garden, select those that are compact, low-growing, and are manageable. Some suggested herbs are thyme, germander, rue, hyssop, rosemary, and santolina. Avoid invasive herbs such as the mints. In addition to the herbs, statuary, topiaries, and container-grown plants are important features to include in a formal garden.

Herbs are typically planted in a garden by themselves. Unfortunately, most herbs look great in May and June, and then get scraggy and unattractive the rest of the season. For this reason, they are often informally combined with annual and perennial flowers, trees, shrubs, ground covers, vegetables, or other plant material. This allows you to take advantage of the various colors, textures, sizes, and shapes that other plants have to offer. For a listing of herbs recommended for Illinois, refer to Horticulture Fact Sheet VC-36 Culinary Herbs for Illinois Gardens, and Horticulture Fact Sheet VC-37 Ornamental Herbs for Illinois Gardens.

Some gardeners prefer to select a specific theme for their herb garden and choose the herbs accordingly. Some examples are a kitchen garden (including thyme, sage, basil, tarragon, dill); a single color garden such as gray-green (including horehound, lavender, artemesia, and wormwood); a scented garden (including mint, scented geranium, lemon balm, silver thyme, and rosemary); or a garden with different varieties of a specific herb (common sage, Tricolor sage, golden sage, purple sage, clary sage, pineapple sage). The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Don't limit your use of herbs to specific situations. You can use them to enhance most any garden. Of course, some grow better as ground covers, others as edging plants; still others are best when intermingled with different plants in a mixed border. Most, however, are best used where their fragrance and beauty can be appreciated up close.

Put your ideas on paper. Once you have decided on the type of garden you want, make a rough sketch or drawing on paper. This helps to visualize what the garden will look like and will help in figuring the number of plants needed. Think about the staging (shorter plants in front, taller towards the back) as well as succession of flowering. Consider the specific requirements of the herb (sun vs. shade; moist vs. dry soil). It is much easier having it on paper than trying to remember it. Consider color schemes and combinations. Use specific plant characteristics when deciding where to locate the plants. Color is one of the most noticeable features of a plant. By choosing a single color scheme, you can create a garden that gives a sense of space, openness, and brightness. For greatest effect, vary the height, shape, texture, and size of the flowers and tones of the color. Colors can also be used in combination; some colors blend together better than others. For example, a silver-foliated plant such as horehound is enhances a red or pastel foliage or flowers. Yellow and blue is always a good combination. Orange and blue, yellow and violet, and red and green are complementary colors and create a strong effect.

Contrast is another technique to use to make your garden more interesting. By definition, contrast is using opposing elements close together to produce an intense or intriguing effect. You can contrast textures, darks, lights, colors, shapes, lines, flower form, flower height, any design element. For example, rounded plant forms look best next to those that are upright; a plant with round flowers is complemented by a plant with spiky flowers.

Keep the plants together. It is very important to define the garden. The plant will look better if kept together rather than scattered through the lawn. Edging the herb garden defines the planting area and makes the garden look as though it belongs in the landscape. If the plants are located next to a wall, a sidewalk or path can provide the boundary. If they are located in a lawn area, a permanent edging of brick or wood can be useful. A defined area looks more "finished" and is easier to maintain.

Create a unified effect. In addition to the plant material, other things to consider are benches, sculptures, and other objects that serve as focal points or enhance the planting.

Growing Herbs in Containers

Many herbs can be grown successfully in containers on a patio, balcony or terrace. There are many reasons why you may want to grow herbs in containers rather than in the garden. First, many of them are small and tend to get lost in a landscape; growing them in containers brings them closer to the viewer. This is especially true of ornamental herbs that have unique qualities that should be viewed up close. Container growing is especially recommended for herbs that need good drainage and tend to rot in overly wet garden soils, or for tender herbs that need to be over wintered indoors. Containers are easily transported and can be arranged in attractive groupings with containers of flowering plants.

Choosing a container. Any container is suitable for growing herbs as long as it has a drainage hole. Clay pots are often preferred because they are more porous than plastic. Other containers that work well include window boxes, strawberry jars, and hanging baskets.

Soil mix. The soil you use should be loose and well-drained. A recommended mix for container grown plants can be made by mixing equal parts of potting soil, peat moss, and perlite (or vermiculite).

Choosing the plants. Small and slow-growing herbs look best in containers. Some examples are variegated sage, purple sage, golden sage, parsley, Greek oregano, rosemary, prostrate rosemary, marjoram, bush basil, thyme, chives, and summer savory. Window boxes, strawberry jars, and large pots can accommodate a combination of several herbs and flowers.

Care of herbs in containers. Watering is the most difficult part of container gardening. Plants growing in containers dry out faster than in the ground. On a hot, sunny day, a container may require water once or twice daily. Of course, the water requirements vary from plant to plant. When the top of the soil feels dry, apply enough water to allow a small amount to come out the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. Since most herbs do not require high fertility, you should not need to fertilize them as much as you would other container-grown plants such as flowers or houseplants. During the growing season, pinch the plants back to keep them bushy and compact and remove any dead or diseased leaves to keep them healthy.

Growing herbs indoors. Herbs growing in containers can be easily moved indoors for the winter. Before doing so, the plants should be acclimatized in early fall. Gradually move them indoors a few hours at a time over the period of several days so they get adjusted to the differences in temperature and light.

Herbs growing indoors should be treated differently than those out-of-doors. One of the biggest problems is providing sufficient light to keep the plants from getting spindly. Grow them in the sunniest location you have or under fluorescent lights. Since the plants will not be using as much water as they did outdoors, water only when the soil is dry; apply enough water so that some drains out the bottom of the pot. Avoid over watering which will cause the roots to rot. Check the plants frequently for aphids, spider mites, and white-flies which are common pests on herbs grown indoors.

Availability of Seeds and Plants

Seeds and plants of various herbs can be obtained from mail order companies that specialize in herbs, or you can often find a fairly good selection at local seed and nursery firms. The seeds of the more common herbs, such as dill, basil, and parsley are usually available from local seed dealers, while the less common ones should be purchased from companies specializing in herbs. For a listing of some recommended sources of herb seeds and plants, see Fact Sheet VC-32, Sources of Herbs.

Classification of Herbs

Herbs are classified either as annuals, biennials, or perennials. Annual herbs are usually grown from seed; they grow, flower, and produce seed during one season, and then die. Biennial herbs grow for two seasons, flowering the second year only. Perennial herbs, once established, over winter and flower each season. Some herbs are tender perennials; these do not survive severe winters and are best grown as annuals or over-wintered indoors.

Summer Care of the Herb Garden

Your herb garden will need attention throughout the growing season. Weed control and provision for adequate moisture are two important cultural necessities. When rainfall is less than I inch per week, provide additional moisture. The use of a mulch is an attractive and effective means of controlling weeks and maintaining constant soil moisture and temperature for the root systems of your herbs. Mulches that you might consider include bark chips or shredded bark, compost, ground corncobs, pecan hulls, or dried grass clippings. To be effective, the mulch should be applied at least 3 inches deep around the plants.

Winter Protection

Most perennial herbs are hardy plants that are able to survive winter. However, in Illinois, winter weather can be severe. Sometimes herb plants succumb to the extreme temperatures but often they are killed by extreme temperature fluctuations. Here are some suggestions to ensure plant survival.

First, start out with healthy plants and maintain vigor throughout the growing season. Though many herbs tolerate poor or wet soils, the majority prefer to grow in well-drained soils. Plants in overly wet soils will grow poorly and are subject to root rots. Soils that are heavy should be amended with organic matter to loosen the clay structure. Another method of improving drainage is to plant the herbs in raised beds.

Avoid late fertilizing and pruning. Most herbs are more flavorful when the fertility is not too high. Pruning should be done during spring and summer; avoid excessively cutting the plants back in the fall. The growth serves to catch leaves that help insulate the plants. An additional mulch of evergreen branches or some other material should be placed around the plants. Avoid a mulch that packs down and stays too wet during the winter, which would cause the plants to rot.

Finally, plants that are marginally hardy (such as rosemary and Greek oregano) should be dug up, potted, and over wintered indoors. They can be moved back to the garden the following spring.


There are many resources available that have information about herb gardening and design. Your local library and retail bookstore should have a number of excellent books and magazines about herbs. You may also wish to contact a local herb society for more information.

Herbs from Seed

I recently heard that some herbs do not come true to type if grown from seed. Is this true?

Yes, there are some herbs you should avoid growing from seed because they may be poor quality or may not germinate properly. Propagating by cuttings is faster than by seed for some plants (rosemary) and may be the only option for getting the aromatic varieties of other plants. For example, French tarragon is the only variety that provides the aromatic oils that impart the anise-like flavor in recipes, but it does not set viable seed. If you've been disappointed in the plants you started from seed or even those purchased at a nursery, it's because they were Russian tarragon, a sad cousin to the culinary herb.

English thyme (Thymus 'Broad-leaf English') is a female plant and produces hybrids if grown from seed. Because characteristics differ slightly depending on the source of the pollen, it must be propagated vegetatively.

Peppermint (Mentha x peperita) is sterile, meaning it doesn't produce viable (live) seed. It is best to divide mints for more plants.

Lavender doesn't come true from seed, so cultivated varieties usually are propagated vegetatively to produce named plants, such as Hidcote and Munstead. Rosemary seed has a low germination rate and is somewhat variable. Cutting propagation is used for named varieties.

Most of the oregano seed available from large seed houses lack enough aromatic oils for culinary purposes. It usually is Origanum vulgare (subspecies hirtum). It comes true from seed, but the seed may be difficult to find.

Basil, dill, fennel, coriander, sorrel, sage, and chive can be direct seeded very successfully. When chives get too long, just cut off the tops.

Ornamental Uses of Herbs in the Landscape

Traditionally, many herbs are used for culinary, medicinal, fragrant or other household purposes and are thus defined in a horticultural rather than a botanical sense. They are prevailing members of the mint and parsley families (Labiatae and Umbelliferae) and are mostly aromatic plants. However, gardeners should not overlook their ornamental qualities.

Herbs offer a wide variety of foliage colors that vary widely; the blue green of rue, the silver gray of lavender, and the bright green of parsley to the reddish purple hues of "Purple Ruffles" Basil. The foliage texture of herbs provide an ornamental contrast; from the needle-like leaves of dill to the bold leaves of angelica. In addition, some herbs have very decorative flowers, such as chive or lavender, while others possess attractive plant forms, such as the compact mound form of santolina. Although many "herbs" are herbaceous in the botanical sense, there are also woody plants that fit the herbalists' definition; including sage, thyme, lavender and rosemary.

There are many uses for herbs in a garden setting. Herbs can be used in a variety of garden settings 'including perennial borders, vegetable gardens, rock gardens, or as pot plants in an urban landscape. They are suitable plants to be used in knot gardens when plants are carefully selected to insure the appropriate materials. Exquisite effects can be created by the combination for textural qualities of foliage; for example, the blending of wooly greens with lacy shades of grays and blues will offer a rich composition of subtle effects throughout the garden. Certain herb plants are particularly well suited to this function; including Thymus, Artemisia, Santolina, Salvia, Alchemilla, Rosmarinus, Lavandula and Stachys. A vertical accent herb like Angelica archangelica can be used almost like a sculpture in the garden, or can be placed in a pot or tub on the patio to highlight its bold texture and exotic appearance.

Both Artemisia aboratanum, southernwood and Artemisia pontica can be grown as a hedge; as they spread rapidly by their roots. The true lavender, Lavandula Augustifolia, is often used as an in frontal low hedge or edging for a garden path: its foliage remains attractive well into the winter for added interest and its cut flowers can be used in arrangements.

Arctostachylos uva-ursi, bearberry galium odoraturn, sweet woodruff and many of Thymus spp. will make excellent ground-cover in the border, rock garden or for naturalizing. For shady spots, there are beautiful herbs which thrive in moist, cool shade like the sweet cicely, Myrrhis odorata.

Cultural requirements must be taken into consideration when using herbs ornamentally. Most herbs do best in a sunny location, with the exception of a few such as angelica, woodruff and sweet cicely, plants which prefer partial shade. Any garden loam will prove satisfactory for most herbs, while a soil pH of neutral to slightly alkaline is best. Good drainage is essential: poorly drained sites should be avoided or improved with deep cultivation and the addition of sand and organic matter. Once established, most herbs prefer a rather dry soil and require watering only during a fairly severe drought. However, a few herbs such as mint, angelica, and lovage do best in a moist soil.

There is a large variety of herbs recommended for use in the rock garden, including:
Achillea; yellow-flowers and A. decolorans, A. tomentosa "Moonlight", A. ptarmica "Angel's Breath"
Ajuga genevensis
Alchemilla vulgaris var. mollis; A. alpina
Anemone patens
Anneria maritima
Artemisia schmidtiana
Asarum canadense; A europaeum (pergola "final rock" foreground)
Daffodil: a few early miniature
Dianthus: label lost
Digitalis lutea; D. minima
Filipendula vulganis
Heuchera sanguinea
Hosta albo-marginata
Hypericum kalmianum
Lavandula officinalis "Mmistead Dwarf'
Linuin perenne
Myrrhis odorata
Nepeta mussim
Oniganum vulgare
Polygonatum biflorum
Salvia officinalis
Sanguinaria canadensis, single
Satureia montana
Sempervivum tectorum
Stachys olympica
Thymes- both bush and creeping.
Hardy creepmig favorites are T. Herbabarona and T. pseudolamiginosus
Trillium grandiflorum

Adding Herbs to Your Landscape

I really love fresh herbs. Can you give me some pointers for adding herbs to my landscape?

As interest 'in herbs continues to escalate, gardeners are seeking more creative ways to use these hardy, pest-resistant plants. Beyond the traditional, Williamsburg-style herb garden is a world of possible applications for the diverse colors, textures, and fragrances of herbs. A few suggestions include:

  • As a border to annual flowers, try globe basil, parsley, or thyme. For interesting color and texture in the perennial border, include clumps of chives or one or two fennel plants placed toward the back of the border.
  • As a ground cover in mass plantings to eliminate mowing or cover bare areas, oregano, lamb's ear, pennyroyal, and many of the thymes have proven effective.
  • For container culture, mints do very well and provide the added benefit of soothing aromas when you brush against them. Cultivating them in a container eliminates the threat of complete take-over accompanying the presence of most mints.
  • As specimen plants, rosemary can be trained into interesting and unusual shapes. Between stones along pathways or at the sides of patios, use creeping thyme, dwarf yarrow, or low-growing speedwell (Veronica officinalls).
  • In rock gardens and retaining walls, thyme, oregano, winter savory, and pennyroyal can be combined with Sedum and Sempervivium for an attractive display.

Growing Herbs Organically

Herbs have a great many more uses than those in the culinary world. Some make excellent landscape plants. Rosemary, bay, germander, santolina make excellent permanent plants and are all evergreen in the warmer parts of the country.

Perennial herbs make great garden additions by adding fragrance, foliage texture a flower color. Some of the most beautiful and easiest to grow include the following: artemisia (soft silvery gray foliage in summer), garlic and onion chives (summer flowers of white and lavender), sweet marigold (yellow flowers late summer into fall), mealy blue salvia (blue flowers in summer), Gregg salvia (red, pink or white flowers in the south all summer), yarrow (lovely delicate foliage and yellow, white, pink or red flowers in summer), purple coneflower (beautiful white or purple-pink flowers in summer). Elderberry is a spring flowering herb with berries in late summer and fall.

Some herbs make excellent ground covers. Lamb's ear is a soft-textured, light gray-green herb good for small areas; prostrate rosemary is a very low growing version of the regular rosemary; lanium is a silvery-leafed ground cover good for partially shaded areas; pennyroyal is a tough, low growing evergreen ground cover that is excellent for use between stepping stones; and creeping thyme is not only a durable ground cover but also has flowers in a range of colors from white to lavender. Greek oregano is a good winter hardy ground cover. Gotu kola and gill ivy are also good ground cover herbs.

Some trees are herbs. The most noteworthy is ginkgo. It has interesting, delicate foliage and beautiful yellow fall color.

Herbs can help with insect control and make excellent companion plants for our vegetables and ornamentals. They are great choices for organic gardens — in act anyone who sprays toxic pesticides on herbs is a nut. People like to pinch, small, taste and eat herbs fresh out of the garden. Besides, pests aren't usually a problem.

Even if your herbs are only to look at, pesticides shouldn't be used on them.

The following are some of my favorite herbs:
Sweet marigold
Lamb's ear
Lemon balm
Purple coneflower
Lemon verbena
Salad bumet

Bay (Laurus noblis): A slow-growing evergreen that needs protection from hard winters. Bay is tough, easy to grow, has a delicious flavor and is an attractive plant.

Basil (Ocimuni spp.): Plant after danger of frost in sun or partial shade. Great flower for food or tea.

Borage (Borago officinalis): Grows about three feet tall. It has gray-green leaves with whitish bristles and blue star shaped flowers that bloom throughout the summer.

Chives (Alium schoeoprasurn): Grows in clumps and look a bit like thin monkey grass. Onion chives have narrow leaves and lavender flowers. Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) has wider leaves and white flowers.

Comfrey (Symphytum officiale): "The healing herb" has large, frizzy, 10-inch long leaves, spreads to three feet high by three feet wide and wider and has lovely pink or purple bell shaped flowers which hang gracefully from vertical stems.

Garlic (Alliurn sativum): The foliage of garlic is dark green and grass-like. The flowers on some species are very interesting as they curve around and finally burst open in the early summer. Elephant garlic, actually a leek, has large round decorative flower balls.

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): The leaves when used in food or tea are good for your memory. Great, although short lived, yellow fall color. Open lacy overall effect.

Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis): A large growing, graceful shrubby perennial with edible purple-black berries from August through September. Grows to 10 feet in most soils and has lovely white flower clusters in the summer.

Lamb's ear (Stachys byzantina): A tough, soft, gray, fuzzy-leafed herb, that makes a good small area plant.

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalls): An easy-to-grow lemon flavored perennial herb with scalloped edge oval leaves.

Lemongrass (Cybopogon citratus): A grass-like herb that looks like a small scale pampas grass. Its wonderful lemon scent makes it excellent for making tea. If it freezes, which is often in all but tropical areas, just plant new plants each year.

Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphilla): In addition to being one of the most delicious flavoring herbs, lemon verbena is a wonderful addition to the landscape garden as well as the herb garden. It will freeze, so it is best treated as an annual.

Mint (Mentha spp.): Mints make good landscape ground covers but they spread aggressively. Mentha pulegium, pennyroyal, is reported to repel fleas.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): Common mullein or old man's flannel is a big wildflower that looks like a large, upright version of lamb's ear. Its flowers are yellow, white or purple depending on the variety.

Oregano (Oreganum spp.): The strongest in flavor is Greek oregano, which is also an excellent ground cover plant. Excellent in sauces, soups and salads.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.): An absolutely terrific perennial herb that should be used in every landscape. Bright pink or white daisy-like flowers with yellow centers.

Rosemary (Rosmarmius officinnalis): Gray-green shrub that can grow to a height of 4 feet. It freezes in hard winters but is worth replacing every year if necessary. The low-growing ground cover type is Rosemary prostratus.

Salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba): A compact, rosette evergreen herb that will reach a height of 2 feet. Lacy foliage provides a pleasant cucumber fragrance.

Southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum): My favorite artemisia. It has finely textured, dusty-gray foliage and constant lemon scent that's stronger when crushed.

Sweet marigold (Tagetes lucida): French tarragon substitute. It flowers with yellow blossoms in late summer and early fall. Some people call it Mexican mint marigold.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): I especially like the creeping thymes which make fragrant ground covers. Use between stepping stones, on borders and in stone pockets.

Yarrow (Achillea millifolium): Lacy, fern-like foliage and is an evergreen perennial in warmer climates. Colorful flowers on tall stalks which bloom in early summer.

Herb Culture: Plant in any well drained soil improved with compost and rock dust. Fertilize twice each year with mild organic fertilizer. It's that easy.

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