Planning an all-herb garden
April 3, 2010 1:33 PM   Subscribe

Need help planning out an all-herb garden.

My gardening partner and I would like to turn our vegetable plot into an all herb garden this year. We are looking for suggestions for great combinations of herbs to grow, recipes that we could work to grow towards, interesting uses for herbs that we wouldn't have thought of, and interesting/rare/exotic herbs to fill our space (about 4' x 16'). I'm fine even if it's satisfying to grow and not so practical for cooking etc. Help us make a neat herb garden.

We're in Chicago, and usually start planting Memorial day weekend, but can start seeds now.

posted by Sreiny to Home & Garden (31 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Mint (which can't be grown from seed, FYI) spreads like a mofo, is hard to kill, and very versatile. Just make sure you have it in a container or it will take over everything. A decent-sized mint container can live on your porch and provide more mint then you'll ever need.
posted by The Whelk at 1:50 PM on April 3, 2010

Oregano rivals mint in its ability to spread like crazy, and is also crazy-durable.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:54 PM on April 3, 2010

Lovage is a great perennial herb. Tastes kind of like celery, and delicious in soups.
posted by bubukaba at 1:56 PM on April 3, 2010

I'd plant a lot of basil for Thai beef salad and pesto, and lavender for pretty.
posted by runningwithscissors at 2:19 PM on April 3, 2010

Chives can be grown from seed and are perennial; it's wonderful to be able to just pop out back and snip some for recipes. I grow both regular chives and Chinese chives--the Chinese ones are more for their pretty, long-lasting white flower heads, but they have flat leaves and are a bit more garlicky. Garden sorrel can also be grown from seed and is perennial; its tangy flavor is a nice addition to potato soup and salads. I have these two plants growing next to each other and their contrasting colors and shapes really complement one another.

In the realm of annuals, obviously everyone needs some basil; I prefer the large-leaf type, as it seems to make a great deal more pesto than others. And I'm all about pesto! A couple years ago I tried purple shiso; it did very little that year, but seeded itself all over round about and last year was FULL OF ENTHUSIASM! Whether you use it for comestibles or not, it's a beautiful accent plant.
posted by miss patrish at 2:19 PM on April 3, 2010

Our chives have come back from last year in great numbers but what I'll devote most of my space to is basil. Pesto is delicious, crazy easy to make and can be frozen to use all year if you can resist eating it all up at once. Rosemary is fantastic in home-made bread.
posted by Morrigan at 2:19 PM on April 3, 2010

Oh, another annual that can be thought of as an herb is arugula (rocket), with its very distinctive taste.
posted by miss patrish at 2:20 PM on April 3, 2010

I love rosemary, too, Morrigan, but have to bring it in every winter here in St. Louis; same with my bay tree.
posted by miss patrish at 2:22 PM on April 3, 2010

Rosemary is always my favorite. You need to buy a small plant and it will need to be put into a pot to overwinter, as it is a non-hardy perennial in most US growing zones. A sprig of Rosemary goes excellently in casseroles, soups, and marinades. It grows fast - my preference is for the "spreading" Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus'), as this seems to grow faster and provide good ground cover against weeds. But the upright variety (standard Rosmarinus officinalis) is also good. Both get pretty blue flowers in the summer and can tolerate very dry conditions.

Coriander/Cilantro is a greet herb to grow fresh. Add this to salads, marinades, and sprinkle leaves on top of spicy dishes before serving. You can grow it from seed, but it seems pretty hit and miss. For some reason, the best Coriander success I have seems to be when previous plants seed and they come up the following year. probably indicates that the seed needs to get cold before it will germinate. I would sow it where it is going to grow - it takes a while to come up anyway and I have found that transplanting seedlings causes them to curl up and die ... It does not last very long, as it goes to seed. So you need to keep planting a few seeds, 3-4 weeks apart, to get a continuous supply of leaves. Nipping the flowers off, as buds appear, helps to keep the leaves going longer. I have also had great success buying a bag of Cilantro with roots still on in the produce section of the Supermarket, then planting the individual plants into soil.

Lavender is a great herb for potpourri and for lifting the spirits. (Rosemary is also good for this - I often rub and sniff some Rosemary or Lavender leaves to get me thinking, in the morning). Lavender blossoms can be dried and used for decoration over the winter. Like Rosemary, you'll need to buy a plant.

Chives are great to add to salads and baked potatoes. Buy a small plant and it will grow to be huge by the end of the summer. I have found that they come up again the following year, but I am in zone 6.

You can buy open-bottomed pots that you can sink into the soil, so you can plant Mint in the garden, but it does not take over the whole yard. Do NOT just plant mint in the soil without this unless you want all your other plants squeezed out in a year or two. It grows by sending out runners underground - it is the very devil to pull up. Mint is great for cocktails, salad dressings, Raita (indian yoghurt dressing, served with spicy dishes as a contrast), and potatoes.

Basil can be grown from seed - it is really easy. Again, plant the seeds where you want it to come up, as it does not transplant well as a small seedling. Put on pizza (under a lump of mozzarella) and add to salads. Or buy basil with roots in the produce section of the Supermarket and plant it out - they transplant well when they have grown to large plants.
posted by Susurration at 2:22 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Chives are stupid easy to grow and there are so many wonderful types of basil to grow (Lemon! Sweet! Spicy!) and outdoor is great cause I can never the damned things to stay alive indoors. They need a lot of light.
posted by The Whelk at 2:22 PM on April 3, 2010

Chicago seems too far north for Rosemary, I think? It would have to be moved indoors if you wanted to keep it over winter, and it still grows very slowly.
posted by The Whelk at 2:23 PM on April 3, 2010

Oh! Forgot Italian flatleaf parsley. It's biennial, and the second year is busy putting up a seed head, so you don't get much parsley off it. Right after we moved to this house, I planted one (store-bought) plant one year and a second (store-bought) plant the second, and they've kept me in parsley ever since. You have to be a bit flexible about where it plants itself year-to-year, or you can just dig up new sprouts and transplant them if you're full of vim!
posted by miss patrish at 2:25 PM on April 3, 2010

Oh - if you get a cold snap after your seedlings appear, just use a serrated knife to cut the bottom off a 2-liter soda bottle and put it over your seedlings (without the cap - push it into the soil about half an inch). Protects them well from frost.
posted by Susurration at 2:27 PM on April 3, 2010

Has anybody mentioned sage yet? There are all sorts of different varieties of the culinary sort, though for me, the standard garden sage is the only one that consistently winters over.
posted by miss patrish at 2:29 PM on April 3, 2010

I know nothing about gardening, but I do know a lot about eating herbs. Mmmm, herbs. I nth everyone' suggestion about lots of basil, but two of my very favorites I haven't seen mentioned yet are tarragon and dill. Tarragon makes a good chicken salad absolutely outrageous, and dill is one of my favorite add-ins to pastas and is also great in shrimp dishes. The Barefoot Contessa seems to use lots of fresh herbs in her recipes, to give you some ideas of where to look to cook with your bounty.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 2:32 PM on April 3, 2010

You could also have some fun planning this out as a formal knot garden. Map out a design based on a celtic knot pattern, then decide how to plant it. You'll either need hardy plants for the main structure, or annuals that grow fast (bush basil is a good candidate here). Then you can grow annuals or tender perennials in the spaces between the knot structures. Here is a list of suggested plants for a herb garden. Here are a couple of articles on planning the layout.
posted by Susurration at 2:44 PM on April 3, 2010

Chervil. Rarely found in stores, because it's a bit delicate, but easy to grow. Fantastic in omelettes or hollandaise.
posted by holgate at 2:46 PM on April 3, 2010

I bought a pineapple sage seedling on a whim last year and it took off like crazy into a 2-foot bush with giant citrusy leaves that go great on squash. Apparently in late fall they will produce beautiful red flowers that attract hummingbirds but mine died in an early cold spell (it's merely an annual, sadly).

I also have a volunteer lemon balm plant (more of a weed, technically, but it's welcome to stay if it behaves) which makes great tea/tisane.
posted by Gortuk at 2:50 PM on April 3, 2010

Oh, yes, miss patrish, sage! On the suggestion of a friend, I fried up some fresh sage leaves in olive oil until they were crispy and it was a huge hit.
posted by Morrigan at 3:09 PM on April 3, 2010

Seconding Bella Sebastian on the dill; if you decide to grow it, there are two different sorts: the one grown primarily for foliage and the one grown primarily for the seed. I'm a big fan of the fern-leaf variety. If given a nice fertile bed, it will produce mass quantities of delicate, flavorful fronds. Aside from the pasta and shrimp (yum), potato salad benefits greatly from the addition of chopped fresh dill. Mammoth dill is an old heirloom variety that makes huge seed-heads which are the primary flavoring of dill pickles (imagine that!), and it seems to like to replant itself. The fern-leaf variety will go to seed, too, but the heads are smaller.

Tarragon . . . well, I've tried to grow it a couple times and have had only middling-good success with it, possibly because I don't love it except in a very few dishes (chicken and enoki mushroom in a tarragon sauce over fresh crisp puff pastry, for one), so perhaps didn't give it the best spot in the garden or pay it enough attention. You may have better luck with it.
posted by miss patrish at 3:44 PM on April 3, 2010

Overall suggestion: don't pamper your herbs. Most prefer benign neglect, including minimal watering.
posted by bearwife at 4:36 PM on April 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

My marjoram seedings are doing well, and if a plant is doing well under my care(lessness) it should be pretty easy to grow. I can also generally handle basil. I always have trouble with dill, but if you're a better gardener than I it is wonderful to have around.
posted by cestmoi15 at 5:35 PM on April 3, 2010

If you go with basil, make absolutely sure you don't let it flower. Flowering changes the flavor of Basil, from like, happy goodness to evil licorice badness. Make sure to pinch the tops of the plant as they begin to sprout the flower buds.

Sage is incredibly hardy. I've had a couple containers of it, the same plant for the last three years, and they have lived through the winter (mild here, but still, in a container on concrete) with little problem.

Rosemary in a container is a cute little plant. Rosemary in the ground becomes a giant. It's great for so many things, and prunes well.

Thyme is also very, very hardy, great flavor and so many uses.

You could try lemongrass as well. If you can't find a plant, getting really, really fresh lemongrass stalks (from an Asian market) that still have roots on the end will work. Put some stalks in water to revive them a little. Pick out any of the stalks whose roots start to grow, then plant them. I'd argue that lemongrass is the happiest smell on Earth.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:54 PM on April 3, 2010

For some reason, people seem to overlook the herb savory. There's summer savory and winter savory, and it's delicious, adding a rich flavor to sauces. I've mainly used it in marinara sauce, soups, and in vegetables oven roasted in glass.

Bay may be hardy where you are; here in North Carolina, they use it as a landscape plants. Victorians (I think) used to grow it in pots into a topiary shape with one tallish supporting "trunk" and a big round ball on top like this. Very useful herb, too.

Down here, rosemary could almost be a topiary or barrier plant, it grows so big over several years. I had some in a huge pot for about eight years, and it was fabulous, growing to about 3.5 feet in diameter and maybe 24 inches above the top of the 24-inch-tall pot. One year we decorated it at Christmas. It might be worth investing in a large pot so that you can have multi-year rosemary, if you can bring it inside somewhere for the winter. Ours did become root bound after several years; maybe there's a way to mitigate that, or you could use an even larger pot than we used. There are a lot of varieties of rosemary, so look for the one you want, especially if you decide to invest in a big pot. The folks at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (actually walking distance from my house) actually have a garden area full of different kinds of rosemary -- it's the Herb Society of America's National Rosemary Collection -- and the volunteer (I think) "master gardeners" seem to enjoy talking gardening on the phone - it might be worth following up.

You'll want some basil, of course, but look for purple basil. It will look fabulous with the other colors of the garden.

Cilantro, after it bolts and is no longer that useful as an "herb", has beautiful, delicate flowers that are just lovely in tiny cut arrangements. If you leave them on the plant, the resulting seeds are coriander, which is good for seasoning a lot of things itself.

Nasturtium isn't really an herb, but the flowers and leaves are edible (I don't like them, but some do), and they look awesome and very salady. Nasturtium leaves are amazing if you really look at them.

Finally, if you haven't considered lavender, you might want to. It's nice to have around, even if it isn't edible; it's definitely herb-like.

Good luck!
posted by amtho at 7:19 PM on April 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely lemon balm! Easy to grow, and lemon balm tea is divine!
posted by somanyamys at 7:30 PM on April 3, 2010

In regards to basil and cilantro, and other leafy guys that aren't super tasty after bolting, it's a good idea to have continuous plantings of them. So start a row, then 2 weeks later plant another row, and so on. Harvest all of the oldest row and have Bi-weekly pesto or chimichurri dinners with leftovers for the freezer. Of course, you might need to increase, or decrease the intervals for what you aim to yield, and how fast they're growing at what part of the season.
posted by fontophilic at 9:10 PM on April 3, 2010

a lot of basil for Thai beef salad

If you do plant basil, might want to get some Thai holy basil for Thai food. It tastes quite a bit different than sweet basil and easy enough to grow from seed.

What about edible flowers? Nastursiums, borage and, violets? Nigella?

And, if you have a cat, gotta have cat nip in the garden ...
posted by squeak at 10:25 AM on April 4, 2010

Just a couple more thoughts: in general, aim for a lot of light, sorta bad soil (sandy is good), and if you do basil, which absolutely lives for sunlight, then pinch it mercilessly to keep it bushy.
posted by bearwife at 6:03 PM on April 4, 2010

Sorrel is similar to arugula and rocket in that half-herb-half-salad area, but where other greens are spicy, sorrel is sour and lemony. Very cool, and makes delicious soup. Sorrel also has the advantage of being a perennial.

Fennel is perfect for your transition from vegetable to herb garden because it is an herb when it's young but a vegetable when it's mature. Both dill and fennel have thin wispy leaves that are delicious and tender on the young plant, great for salads; as the plant hits 1-2' high, gets harsher and more woody, good for cooking with, and less tasty as the plant hits full (3') height. Then at the end of the season, dig up your fennel bulb and eat it cooked or in salad. Don't plant both fennel and dill; they're too similar, and get cross-bred.
posted by aimedwander at 7:05 AM on April 5, 2010

If you're serious about herbs, Jekka McVicar is the bible. This is the book to read. She's Briitish and based in Britain, but she's forgotten more about growing herbs than the average professional gardener has learnt.

Monthly sowing guide here.

Growing tips here.

I'd recommend lemon verbena. I'd also second borage, which is good to grow around tomatoes.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:02 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend making vinegars and oils out of your herbs. They're easy to make, a great way to preserve flavor to use year-round, and are just excellent in salads, for marinating meat or vegetables, in sauces, stews, anything you can come up with. And they smell great!
posted by hannahelastic at 8:26 AM on April 11, 2010

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