Growing Herbs for the Home Gardener

2/98 HIL-8110

Erv Evans, Extension Associate
Jeanine Davis, Extension Specialist
Department of Horticultural Science
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
North Carolina State University

An herb is any plant used whole or in part as an ingredient for health, flavor, or fragrance. Herbs can be used to make teas; perk up cooked foods such as meats, vegetables, sauces, and soups; or to add flavor to vinegars, butters, dips, or mustards. Many herbs are grown for their fragrance and are used in potpourris, sachets, and nosegays; or to scent bath water, candles, oils, or perfumes. More than 25% of our modern drugs contain plant extracts as active ingredients, and researchers continue to isolate valuable new medicines from plants and confirm the benefits of those used in traditional folk medicine.

Herbs as a group are relatively easy to grow. Begin your herb garden with the herbs you enjoy using the most. For example, choose basil, oregano, and fennel for Italian cooking; lavender and lemon verbena for making potpourri; or chamomile, peppermint, and blue balsam mint if you plan to make your own teas.

The optimum growing conditions vary with each individual herb species. Some of the herbs familiar to North Americans, such as lavender, rosemary, thyme, bay laurel, marjoram, dill, and oregano are native to the Mediterranean region. These herbs grow best in soils with excellent drainage, bright sun, and moderate temperatures.

When growing herbs follow these basic guidelines:

Plan your herb garden by grouping herbs according to light, irrigation, and soil requirements. Most herbs enjoy full sun, but a few tolerate shade. Herbs can be classified as either annual, biennial, or perennial. Be aware of the growth habits of the plants before you purchase them. Some herbs, such as borage, anise, caraway, chervil, coriander, cumin, dill, and fennel, should be direct-seeded, because they grow easily from seed or do not transplant well. Other herbs, such as mints, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and tarragon, should be purchased as plants and transplanted or propagated by cuttings to ensure production of the desired plant (do not come true from seeds). Additional information on specific herbs can be found in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1. Growing Requirements, Propagation and Uses of Annual Herbs

Plant

Height

Spacing

Light
Requirement

Propagation

Uses

Anise
Pimpinella anisum

24"

10"

Sun

Grow from seed.

Leaves in soups, sauces, and salads; oil for flavoring; seeds for seasoning cakes, breads, and cookies.

Basil, sweet
Ocimum basilicum

20 to 24"

6 to 12"

Sun

Grow from seed; grow transplants for early-season harvest.

Leaves in soups, stews, pasta sauce, poultry and meat dishes; flavors vinegar; teas.

Borage
Borago officinalis

1 to 3'

12"

Sun

Grow from seed; self-sowing.

Edible flower; leaves in salads, teas, and sandwiches; attracts bees.

Calendula (Pot Marigold)
Calendula officinalis

12"

12 to 18"

Sun, partial shade

Grow from seed.

Flower petals give color to soups, custards, and rice; cookies; vinegars; crafts.

Caraway
Carum carvi

12 to 24"

10"

Sun

Grow from seed; biennial seed bearer, some cultivars are annual seed bearers.

Leaves in salads, teas, stews, and soups; seeds for flavoring cookies, breads, salads, and cheeses; roots can be cooked.

Chamomile, sweet false
Matricaria recutita

1 to 2 ½'

4 to 6"

Sun

Grow from seed.

Tea, potpourris, garnish, crafts.

Chervil
Anthriscus cerefolium

1 ½ to 2'

15"

Partial shade

Sow seeds in early spring; needs light to germinate; does not transplant well, not heat tolerant.

Leaves in salads, soups, and sauces; teas; butters.

Coriander (cilantro)
Coriandrum sativum

24" to 36"

12 to 18"

Sun, partial shade

Grow from seed; goes to seed quickly, so plant frequently.

Entire plant is edible; leaves in stews and sauces; stems flavor soups and beans; seeds in sauces and meat dishes, potpourris, and sachets.

Dill
Anethum graveolens

3 to 5'

3 to 12"

Sun, partial shade

Sow seed early spring.

Teas; seasoning for butter, cakes, bread, vinegars, soups, fish, pickles, salads, etc.; flowers in crafts.

Nasturtium
Tropaeolum spp.

15"

6"

Sun

Grow from seed; does not transplant well.

Leaves, stems, and flowers have a peppery taste; use in salads.

Parsley
Petroselinum crispum

6 to 18"

6"

Sun

Sow seed early spring; slow to germinate; soak in warm water; is a biennial grown as an annual.

Garnish; flavoring for salads, stews, soups, sauces, and salad dressings.

Perilla
Perilla frutescens

36"

3 to 6"

Sun

Grow from seed.

Decorative plant; flavoring oriental dishes.

Summer savory
Satureja hortensis

12 to 18"

10 to 12"

Sun

Sow seed in early spring, cuttings.

Mild peppery taste; used with meat, cabbage, rice, and bean dishes, stuffings, teas, butters, vinegars.

Table 2. Growing Requirements, Propagation and Uses of Biennial and Perennial Herbs

Common name/
Scientific name

Height

Spacing

Light Requirement

Propagation

Uses

Angelica
Angelica archangelica

2 to 3'

3'

Partial shade

Grow from seed.

Stems raw or in salads; leaves in soups and stews; teas; crafts; closely resembles poisonous water hemlock.

Anise hyssop
Agastache foeniculum

3 to 5'

12 to 24"

Sun, light shade

Grow from seed or division.

Attracts bees; edible flowers; leaves for flavoring or teas; crafts; seeds used in cookies, cakes, and muffins.

Artemisia
Artemisia spp.

2 to 3'

24"

Sun, partial shade

Division.

Wreaths and other crafts; aromatic foliage.

Bee balm
Monarda didyma

2 to 3'

12 to 15"

Sun, partial shade

Grow from seed or division; invasive rhizomes.

Attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds; teas; flavors jellies, soups, stews, and fruit salads; edible flowers; dried flowers in crafts.

Burnet, salad
Poterium sanguisorba

12"

18 to 24"

Sun, well-drained soil

Grow from seed or division.

Cucumber-flavored leaves used in salads, vinegar, butter, cottage cheese, and cream cheese; garnish.

Clary sage
Salvia sclarea

5'

24"

Sun

Grow from seed; biennial.

Leaves in omelets, fritters, and stews; flavoring of beers and wines; oil.

Chamomile
Chamaemelum nobile

2 to 8"

18"

Sun, partial shade; well-drained soil

Grow from seed, division, or stem cuttings.

Dried flowers for tea; potpourris; herb pillows.

Catnip
Neptea cataria

3 to 4'

12 to 18"

Sun or shade

Grow from seed or division.

Teas; fragrance for cats.

Chives
Allium schoenoprasum

12"

12"

Sun, partial shade

Grow from seed or division.

Edible flowers; leaves for flavoring, eggs, soups, salads, butter, cheese, dips, spreads, etc.

Comfrey
Symphythum officinale

3 to 5'

3'

Sun

Grow from seed, cuttings, root division.

Safety of ingestion is highly questionable. Large, rambling plant; dyes, cosmetics.

Costmary
Chrysanthemum balsamita

2 to 4'

12"

Sun, light shade

Division.

Garnish; fragrance.

Echinacea
Echinacea angustifolia

1 to 2'

18"

Sun

Grow from seed or crown division.

Ornamental plant; used medicinally.

Fennel
Foeniculum vulgare

4 to 5'

4 to 12"

Sun

Grow from seeds, difficult to transplant.

Entire plant edible; seeds in sausage and baked goods; leaves used with fish, vegetables, cheese spreads, and soups.

Feverfew
Tanacetum parthenium

2 to 3'

12"

Sun, partial shade

Grow from seed or division.

Tea, crafts, dyes .

Geranium, scented
Pelargonium spp.

12 to 24"

12 to 24"

Sun

Grow from stem cuttings.

Teas, potpourris, sachets, jellies, vinegars, desserts.

Germander
Teucrium chamaedrys

10 to 12"

8 to 10"

Sun, partial shade

Slow to germinate from seed. Stem cuttings, layering, division.

Attracts bees, decorative plant.

Horehound
Marrubium vulgare

24"

15"

Full sun

Grow from seed, cuttings, or division.

Attracts bees; tea; flavoring in candy, crafts.

Hyssop
Hyssopus officinalis

24"

15"

Sun

Grow from seed, stem cuttings, or division.

Attracts bees and butterflies; mostly decorative usage, potpourris.

Lavender
Lavandula angustifolia

24 to 36"

18"

Sun

Grow from seed or stem cuttingsv

Potpourris; herb pillows; crafts, vinegars and jellies.

Lemon balm
Melissa officinalis

3'

2'

Sun, light shade

Grow from seed, stem cuttings, or division.

Teas; flavors soups, stew, fish, poultry, vegetables, and meat dishes; garnish; potpourris.

Lemon verbena
Aloysia triphylla

2 to 5'

12 to 24"

Sun

Grow from stem cuttings.

Potpourris; herb pillows; lemon flavoring for drinks, salads, and jellies; teas.

Lovage
Levisticum officinale

3 to 5'

2'

Sun, partial shade

Sow seeds late summer; division.

Seeds in breads, butters, and cakes; teas; leaves in soup, stew, cheese, cookies, and chicken dishes; root edible.

Marjoram
Majorana hortensis

1 to 2'

12"

Sun

Grow from stem cuttings, division, or seed.

Flavoring for meats, salads, omelets, vinegars; jellies; teas; flower head for crafts.

Oregano
Origanum vulgare and
O. vulgare subsp. hirtum

24"

8 to 12"

Sun

Grow from cuttings or division.

Flavoring for tomato dishes, meat, poultry and pork stuffings; vegetables and sauces, etc.

Peppermint
Mentha x piperita

36"

18"

Sun, light shade

Cuttings and division recommended; invasive rhizomes.

Teas, fragrance.

Rosemary
Rosemarinus officinalis

3 to 6'

12"

Sun

Seeds slow to germinate; use stem cuttings, layering, or division.

Teas; flavoring for vinegar, jam, bread, butters, stuffing, vegetables, stew, and meat dishes.

Rue
Ruta graveolens

3'

12 to 18"

Sun

Grow from seed, stem cuttings, or division.

Decorative plant.

Sage
Salvia officinalis

18 to 30'

12"

Sun

Grows slowly from seed; stem cuttings, division, layering.

Seasoning for meat, vegetable and egg dishes; stuffings.

Sage, pineapple
Salvia elegans

2 to 3'

24"

Sun

Stem cuttings.

Attracts hummingbirds and butterflies; teas; potpourri; cream cheese; jams, jellies.

Santolina
Santolina chamaecyparissus

24"

2 to 3'

Sun, needs good drainage

Slow to germinate from seeds. Stem cuttings, layering, or division.

Dried arrangements and potpourris; accent plant.

Sorrel
Rumex spp.

3 to 4'

12"

Sun

Grow from seed.

Flavoring of soups, butters, omelets; some species of sorrel are toxic.

Southernwood
Artemisia abrotanum

4'

18"

Sun, well drained soil

Stem cuttings, division.

Teas; sachets; potpourris.

Spearmint
Mentha spicata

18"

18"

Sun, partial shade

Cuttings or division recommended; invasive rhizomes.

Teas; flavors sauces, jellies, and vinegars; leaves in fruit salad, peas, etc.

Sweet marjoram
Origanum majorana

8"

12"

Sun

Grow from seed, division, or cuttings .

Flavors tomato sauces, eggs, etc. Leaves in salads, sauces, pizza, and meats.

Sweet rocket
Hesperis matronalis

3 to 4'

24"

Sun

Grow from seed.

Salads.

Sweet woodruff
Galium odoratum

8"

12"

Partial shade

Division.

Tea; sachets, dyes.

Tansy
Tanacetum vulgare

3 to 4'

2 to 3'

Sun

Grow from seed or division.

Toxic oil in leaves; decorative plant; crafts.

Tarragon
Artemisia dracunculus

24"

12"

Sun

Division or root cuttings, stem cuttings are slow to root .

Sauces, salads, soups, omelets, meat, vegetable, and fish dishes.

Thyme, common
Thymus vulgaris

4 to 12"

6 to 12"

Sun

Cuttings, seeds, or division.

Teas; attracts bees; sachets; potpourris; flavoring for poultry, fish, stews, soups, tomatoes, cheese, eggs, and rice.

Valerian
Valeriana officinalis

2 to 5'

12 to 24"

Sun

Division is recommended over seeding.

Roots for flavoring; ornamental plant.

Yarrow
Achillea millefolium

8" to 5'

12"

Sun

Seeds or division.

Crafts.

Winter savory
Satureja montana

24"

18"

Sun

Grow in light, sandy soil from cuttings or seed; cut out dead wood.

Leaves used to flavor meat, fish, salads, soup, stew, and sausage.

Wormwood
Artemisia absinthium

36"

12 to 36"

Sun

Seed germinate slowly; use stem cuttings or division.

Bitter flavor; toxic if consumed in large quantity; ornamental plant, dried arrangements; insect repellent.

To conserve moisture and prevent splashing mud, mulch your garden after planting. Use 1 to 2 inches of organic material. Many growers mulch with hardwood bark or a mixture of bark and sawdust. The use of a landscape fabric covered with mulch has proven to provide excellent weed control and slows down the spread of invasive herbs, such as mints. For Mediterranean herbs, mulch with white "concrete" sand or gravel to provide drainage and light reflection.

When grown outdoors and given ample air circulation, sunlight, and water drainage, herbs rarely suffer severe disease or insect damage. Natural predators and parasites usually keep mite and aphid populations below damaging levels. This is especially true in gardens with a wide diversity of plants. Traditional synthetic pesticides are not labeled for use on culinary herbs, so rely on cultural, biological, and physical control techniques. Insecticidal soap or horticultural oil are useful against severe outbreaks of aphids, mites, and whiteflies. Hand-pick larger pests such as beetles and caterpillars.

Growing a diverse group of herbs can be attractive; they can provide color, fragrance, and interest throughout the season, and they can help keep pest problems to a minimum. You often will find populations of predators and pests co-existing in a balanced situation.

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