There is nothing quite like the flavor that fresh herbs add to dishes. Take your home cooking to the next level with this collection of cooking herbs that you can grow right in your backyard garden.
Herb gardening is one of the unsung joys of growing edibles. Not only are the plants gorgeous in their own right, but they add incredible flavors to your favorite dishes.
As an avid cook, it cheeses me off when I have to spend 2 bucks on a clamshell of herbs that are not only days beyond their picking date, but where I also only need a tablespoon or so for the dish I’m making. It’s very gratifying to step out onto the deck – I grow most of my herbs in containers on my sunny deck – and snip just what I need. It’s a true joy of summer!
These ten cooking herbs will serve your kitchen well, with growing tips and interesting plant facts. Let’s get started!
Possibly the most celebrated of culinary herbs, basil deserves space in your garden. A must-have ingredient for caprese salads and pesto, it’s also just a beautiful that grows all season long. Trim back when it starts to send up a flower stalk, and you’ll have fresh basil leaves until it gets chilly.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Either. Basil grows easily from seed, and young plants are usually readily available at garden centers or online nurseries (they’ll withstand shipping).
- Annual or Perennial? Basil is basically an annual when grown outside. But, inside, its life can be extended indefinitely with care.
- Grow indoors? Yes, basil thrives indoors and out, and will happily grow in a glass of water on the kitchen sill.
- Culinary uses: dry leaves for long-term storage. Goes with just about anything with fresh tomatoes (caprese salad, tomato sandwiches), pizza topping, chop into salads. Pesto.
- Pollinator bonus: Bees love basil flowers. I’ve grown 20 varieties of basil, and the bees have loved every one of them. I always grow extra plants that I allow to flower all season long, just for the bees.
Bay Leaf (Bay Laurel Tree)
Bay leaves are a nice addition to your cooking herbs collection. Toss a dried bay leaf into soups, stews, and stocks. Use them when cooking beans from dried. Any time you need a little extra seasoning for a liquid base.
The bay laurel tree is slow-growing, so no worries about it overwhelming your space. It can be trimmed up like Bonzai plant and kept small for a container.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Buy a transplant at the garden center; it will be well established and ready for home growth.
- Annual or Perennial? Bay laurel is a tree, so it’s meant to live year-round. However, it does not do well in cold climates. I bring my bay laurel tree indoors in the winter. The dry indoor climate is not perfect, but it does hang in there and survive.
- Culinary uses: soups, stews, tomato sauces, beans, rice for infusion during cooking (remove before serving the dish). Don’t forget homemade soup stock!
- Bonus: insects generally hate the smell of bay leaves, so they’re often used in long-term storage of food products such as flour and rice. Place a dried leaf or two in the storage container – it will not impart flavor to the food.
Cilantro is probably my favorite every-day herb: it goes on and in everything, from guac and salsas to dressings to refried beans, pasta dishes, rice dishes, and fresh salads.
If you’re one of the unlucky people whose olfactory receptor genes heighten the soap-flavored aldehydes in cilantro, you have my sympathies, because there’s no real substitute for the bright herbaceousness of cilantro. Parsley is too strong and sharp, in many cases.
Don’t let that put you off from trying the ground seeds of cilantro (coriander). I hear there’s no soapy taste.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Either, but cilantro is most economical when grown from seed.
- Annual or Perennial? Cilantro is an annual, and a cool weather herb. Sow seeds early in the spring so that its greenery lifecycle is complete before June. The plant easily bolts in heat.
- Culinary uses: sauces, dressings, vinaigrettes. Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes.
- Pollinator bonus: Bees love cilantro flowers. I grow lots of cilantro – it’s often one of the earliest sources of food for bees.
- No-waste bonus: One of the things I love most about cilantro is that it’s extraordinarily efficient, in terms of edibility. The green leaves and stems are edible, of course. The plant will flower when the weather turns hot and produce seeds. Interestingly, the seeds (known in the U.S. as coriander) are edible into two of its forms: when young and green, coriander has a unique, fresh, and crave-worthy flavor that’s amazing in salads and vinaigrettes. When dried, the seeds are ground and used as a spice.
Dill is a wonderful, versatile herb in the garden. Its feathery leaves are quite attractive when numerous plants are grown together in a cluster. Harvest the leaves and stems as you need them, leaving the rest of the plant to continue growing. At some point, the plant will send out a huge round seed head of beautiful yellow flowers that look like fireworks.
The flower heads produce seed, which can be used for pickling, or left to fall to the ground, where they will regrow next year.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Either. Dill grows easily from seed, and young plants are usually readily available at garden centers or online nurseries (they’ll withstand shipping). If you let some of the plants flower and produce seeds, those seeds will drop to the ground and sprout the following spring.
- Annual or Perennial? Dill is an annual.
- Grow indoors? Yes, dill will survive for a time indoors. It’s not the ideal environment, but it will produce in a sunny window with adequate watering.
- Culinary uses: fresh dill makes delicious dips and salad dressings. Top a summer minestrone with dill.
- Pollinator bonus: Many butterflies, including the Swallowtail, love dill: they lay their eggs on the leaves and stems, and the resulting caterpillars feed on the plants right up until they cocoon. I always, always grow lots of extra dill for the swallowtails.
- No-waste bonus: One plant creates two products: the feathery leaves, and, after the plant flowers, the seeds that can be used in pickling.
Mint has its obvious flavor charms, but it’s also a stunning plant, with relentlessly green leaves and an attractive growing habit.
The mint family is extraordinarily large, well over 7,000 varieties, but just a few will do your garden a mighty service. Garden centers usually sell a lovely variety of culinary mint, including peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, orange mint, ginger mint, pineapple mint, and more.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Mint grows fastest via cuttings from its vast root system. Buy a plant from the garden center – you’ll likely have a choice of several of the varieties mentioned above. Mint spreads aggressively, so unless you want a field of mint, it’s advisable to grow mint in a container to keep it under control.
- Annual or Perennial? Mint is a hardy perennial. It will die back in the winter, but return reliably in the spring, thanks to rhizomes that spread underground.
- Culinary uses: teas, sauces, salads, cocktails, and my personal favorite: cucumber-lime-mint ice water (so refreshing!)
Oregano is a lovely cooking herb, but I’ll be honest: I grow it mainly for the pollinators. The photo below is my oregano garden – not the original intent for this space to be overtaken by one herb, but, I go with the flow where Mother Nature is concerned – and I harvest just enough oregano each spring to dry and fill its spice jar.
The real reason I let oregano live its best life here is because of the bees. Bees love oregano flowers. They will zoom right over the dazzling lavender bed to get to the oregano. Honeybee heaven.
But, of course, in terms of cooking, oregano is a must-have ingredient in your kitchen. Pizza night wouldn’t be the same without a dusting of dried oregano.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Either, but you’ll have a head-start on the season if you buy a transplant from the garden center.
- Annual or Perennial? Oregano is a perennial that dies back in the winter and returns each year, spreading as it goes. The photo above is 10-year-old oregano, about 3′ x 5′, and all started with just one plant.
- Culinary uses: Italian cuisine. Harvest branches in the spring when the growth is new and fragrant, tie in a bundle, and hang to dry. Crumble the dried leaves into an airtight jar for use all year long.
- Pollinator bonus: Because my oregano bed is so large at this point, I have the luxury of harvesting just a small portion of it in the spring, leaving the rest of it to flower. Of all the pollinator herbs in my yard, bees love oregano flowers the most.
Parsley is probably the hardiest herb I grow. If left to flower, it reseeds easily and pretty much takes care of itself, in terms of returning year and year.
It’s also quite surprisingly cold-hardy, for such a fragile-leafed plant. One winter, after an extraordinarily robust growing season, which created a parsley mass about 2′ x 3′, I decided to experiment and placed a row cover “tent” over the whole thing. The plant survived well into a very cold and snowy February, when it finally succumbed to excess moisture.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Either. Parsley grows easily from seed, and young plants are usually readily available at garden centers or online nurseries (they’ll withstand shipping).
- Annual or Perennial? Neither. Flat-leaf Italian parsley is actually a biennial, which means its lifecycle is spread over two years: the first year focuses on leaf production (this is when its leaves are most flavorful). The second year – although sometimes it’s simply later in the season, rather than the following spring (depends on weather) – the plant sends up flower stalks and new greenery to nurture the flowers. The flowers will produce seeds, which drop to the ground. They’ll sprout the following spring and begin the cycle all over again.
- Grow indoors? Theoretically, it’s possible. I’ve had only spotty luck keeping a parsley plant alive through the winter, as it doesn’t particularly care for the dry environment of a heated home.
- Culinary uses: sauces, dressings, soups, chopped into salads. Adds a pop of color when minced and sprinkled over the final dish.
- Pollinator bonus: Many butterflies, including the Swallowtail, love parsley: they lay their eggs on the leaves and stems, and the resulting caterpillars feed on the plants right up until they cocoon. I always, always grow lots of extra parsley for the swallowtails, and if I find the bright green caterpillars with black stripes on a plant, I’ll stop harvesting from it.
Rosemary is a beautifully scented plant with an attractive, upright growing habit.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Rosemary is very difficult to grow from seed. Best to purchase a transplant at the garden center.
- Annual or Perennial? Rosemary is an evergreen in some growing zones in the South, where year-round warm weather causes it to grow into a rather impressive and fragrant shrub. But here in our northern climes (such as my zone 6), rosemary is an annual. Most years, I keep it in a pot and bring it inside in the winter, where it continues for a few months (rosemary doesn’t particularly like the dry environment of a winter-heated home).
- Culinary uses: soups, pan sauces. Goes great with chicken, potatoes, steak. You can use the sturdier branches as a skewer for grilling kabobs.
Tarragon is one of my very favorite cooking herbs. It’s actually related to the sunflower, but shares a similar flavor palate with fennel and anise, thanks to estragol compounds within. I love tarragon in salad dressings and vinaigrettes, and chopped into fresh, green summer salads.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? Transplant only. The best culinary tarragon by far is French, which can be propagated only through cuttings. Double-check the tag at the garden center: Russian tarragon is not very flavorful, and you’ll be disappointed if growing as a cooking herb.
- Annual or Perennial? Tarragon is a perennial. It dies back with cold weather but regrows from its roots in the spring. The plant can grow quite large in its growing season, but it does not spread and expand, like mint and oregano.
- Culinary uses: I think fresh tarragon is positively dreamy. Use it in salad dressings and vinaigrettes. Mince it into green salads. Goes great with chicken, seafood, and vegetables.
Thyme is a lovely addition to soups and stew – tie together a bundle of freshly clipped stems and toss into the pot (remove the stems; the leaves will detach into the soup while cooking).
But, it’s also a beautiful plant. I love its straggly growth. I grow English and German thyme in the ground, and lemon thyme in a pot. I keep the pot in a high-trafficked area of my deck so that I can run a hand over it as I pass by. Its scent is amazing.
- Start from seed or buy transplant? For time savings, buy a transplant at the garden center. Thyme seeds have low germination rates and can take a long time to sprout, making it difficult to know when to give up on the effort.
- Annual or Perennial? Thyme is a very hardy perennial that’s actually an evergreen in many growing zones (including mine, 6a). Whether planted in the ground or grown in containers, thyme will, at a minimum, return each year. My container thymes die back in the winter, but my garden-planted thymes remain green all winter long, ready to cook with.
- Culinary uses: sauces, soups, stews.
- Pollinator bonus: Bees love thyme flowers. Thyme usually blooms late spring/early summer, and bees are all over it from start to finish.
If you’re new to herb gardening, this list also serves as a great starting point for your herb growing education. While herbs aren’t as glamourous as, say, a big, juicy Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, I’ve found a lot of satisfaction in tending to my ever-expanding herb collection.
And as a devoted home cook, these cooking herbs are indispensable ingredients in my kitchen. I hope you’ll try some and enjoy the fresh bounty, right from your own backyard!
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