REBECCA ANDERSSON, TEAM FOODIE AND COMMUNITY BUILDER
Cooking with the seasons and eating at home is a huge money saver and an excellent way to get all the nutrients your body needs from a seasonally varied diet. To make their cooking even more exciting and healthful, and to save even more money, many Azure customers are growing their own herbs and adding them to their family’s meal plan. Herbs are some of the most rewarding plants to grow in a garden, and many grow well in pots as indoor house plants, so there is no reason to be intimidated by the thought.
People have been growing herbs since ancient times, prizing them for their powerful healing properties, and many culinary, medicinal, aromatic and ornamental applications. Today, modern nutrition science is validating their many beneficial properties, and discerning chefs are adding specialty herbs and edible flowers to their signature dishes. We know that herbs are full of crucial phytochemicals that support good health and provide protection against many diseases. And because herbs are a low-calorie food, they are, calorie for calorie, some of the most nutrient-dense superfoods available.
Herbs are a wise addition to anyone’s diet rotation. It’s fun and easy to add herbs to your diet by generously “herbing” common dishes such as frittatas and omelets, rice, sauces, and beverages.
Now, let’s take a closer look at the 10 best, and easiest, herbs to grow at home.
Basil is a fragrant annual bushy herb that is very easy to grow in a sunny spot in your garden or in a large pot. It likes well-drained, moist, loamy soil, but will grown in less ideal conditions if watered regularly and fertilized with compost about once a month. It loves heat and full sun, and will grow fast once the temperatures reach 80-90 degrees.
There are many different varieties of basil — more than 150! — such as sweet basil, Thai basil, holy basil, lemon basil, cinnamon basil and purple basil to name but a few. If your pot is large enough, you can plant a few varieties together and enjoy a selection of flavors at your fingertips.
Basil contains many crucial phytonutrients that promote health. Its flavonoids are powerful antioxidants that provide protection against radiation and oxygen-based damage. Its fragrant volatile oils have antibacterial properties, and have been shown to restrict the growth of numerous bacteria in lab studies. It can also provide anti-inflammatory benefits including symptomatic relief for rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel conditions. It is a good source of beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that prevents free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol. It is also a good source of magnesium, which promotes relaxation of muscles and blood cells, thereby improving circulation and lessening the risk of irregular heart rhythms. Basil also contains vitamin K and C, manganese, copper, calcium, iron, folate and omega-3 fatty acids.
Use it to make pesto (freeze some to have all winter), in pasta sauces and on pizzas. Basil is also an excellent addition to summer smoothies and lemonades.Chives
Chives are a mild member of the onion family. It is tough, forgiving and an-easy-to-grow herb. For the best growth, plant it in rich, well-drained soil in a sunny spot in the garden or flower bed, or in a pot. It is hardy, however, and will withstand poor soil, though this will slow its growth. Water chives regularly until it has become well-rooted, then fertilize with 20-20-20 or fish emulsion (GP561) once a month. Both the leaves and the striking purple flowers are edible. Snipping the flower buds off will yield more stalks, but the flowers are so attractive that many gardeners, home cooks and professional chefs enjoy letting the chives bloom.
Chives are high in flavonoids that help lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It also helps prevent plaque buildup in arteries. Its antioxidants have properties that help provide cancer protection. It contains potassium, iron and calcium, vitamins K, A and C, folate, niacin, riboflavin and thiamin. Thanks to its high vitamin C content, chives may be an effective cold remedy and can also relieve a stuffy nose. In addition, traditional folk remedies use chives to ease upset stomachs, relieve gas, stimulate digestion and treat anemia.
Chives can be added to numerous dishes that benefit from a mild onion flavor. It is of course a classic topping for baked potatoes but can be added to salads, omelets, seafood and other favorite recipes.
Cilantro is a perennial herb that is grown as an annual. It likes full sun, and fast draining, fertile, moist soil. It grows fast as the weather warms up, so it has a short harvest season and has to be succession planted if you want to enjoy a longer season. Cilantro likes the cooler weather of spring and fall, while summer heat will make it go to seed. This is totally fine as cilantro seeds are edible (the seeds are called coriander) and delicious!
If planted in its own corner of the garden, you can simply use the “harvest and ignore” method.
“You should be aware that cilantro that is allowed to go to seed spreads quite easily and may pop up all over the garden,” said Signore.
Harvest no more than two-thirds of the plant at once when it is about 9 to 15 inches tall, cutting the stems close to the ground. Ignore the remaining one-third of the plant, so it can go to seed. It will keep growing and can become 5 to 7 feet tall. This allows the plant to self sow. When the seeds have dropped, you can cut away the tall stems to make room for new tender growth. Or, you can harvest some of the seeds, too, and have green coriander for your cooking. Signore said green coriander is quite in demand among her chef clientele. In mild climates, cilantro may continue producing as it tolerates mild frost and makes a beautiful backdrop in the garden with its umbels of small white or pink flowers.
Cilantro has numerous health benefits thanks to its superfood phytonutrient profile. It contains many volatile oil compounds, antioxidant polyphenolic flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. 100 g of cilantro only provides 23 calories, but provides appx 225% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, essential for healthy skin, mucosa and vision, and 258% of vitamin K, which promotes bone mass building. It also contains dietary fiber thought to be good for reducing LDL or “bad cholesterol.”
Cilantro is used to enhance salsas, guacamole, and as a garnish, but if you really want to up your cilantro intake, you can make cilantro pesto or chimichurri to enjoy over seafood, meat or vegetable dishes.
Dill grows best from seeds, so plant your dill in a spot in the garden that receives direct sun and has rich, well-drained soil. Dill stems can get quite tall, and its delicate whips leaves make a beautiful backdrop against a fence with lower plants in front. It does best in mild temperatures, so plant it in spring and fall to avoid peak summer heat. It is an annual plant that dies once the first frost arrives, so if you allow some of your last plants to go to seed, it will often regrow from the fallen seeds the next spring again. Like cilantro, dill seeds are also commonly used as a seasoning, so you can harvest some of the seeds too.
Like many other herbs, dill is packed with phytochemicals that offer protection against free radicals and carcinogens. Its volatile oils make it a “chemoprotective” food that helps neutralize some carcinogens. It is also anti-bacterial and can prevent bacterial overgrowth. Dill is also a good source of calcium, dietary fiber, manganese, iron and magnesium.
Add dill to potato salads, green salads, egg salads, and herbed veggie dips. Enjoy dill on gravlax along with new potatoes.
Marjoram is an easy-to-grow, drought-tolerant, low-maintenance kitchen herb. It requires very little care, watering or fertilizing. It is a perennial, but because it is quite tender it will not withstand a frost, so it is typically grown outdoors as an annual. It makes for attractive edging or even ground cover in the garden. You can also easily grow it indoors like a house plant. Because it is quite slow growing, it is best to grow it from starts rather than seed, and to trim off its knot-like flower buds as they appear so the plant continues to grow.
Marjoram has been prized for its numerous health benefits since ancient times. It is packed with phytonutrients like antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. It has antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties that can fight against a variety of common infections. It is also anti-inflammatory and thought to relieve several digestive complaints such as nausea and flatulence.
When harvesting marjoram, pick shoots right before the flower buds begin to open or the herb’s flavor will turn bitter. Bundle the cuttings and hang them to dry for 7 to 10 days in a dark place. When dried, remove the leaves from the stems and store in an airtight spice jar.
Its flavor is similar to oregano, but sweeter and milder, and can be used fresh to flavor various dishes like soups, meats, salads, pasta and vegetable dishes. Use it to make dressings, sauces and marinades. It can also be steeped and brewed into a healthy tea.
Mint is another herb that is very easy to grow — sometimes too easy as it sends out runners both beneath and above the ground and spreads very fast. Because of this, it is best grown contained in a pot or in a location that keeps it from spreading too far and choking out other plants. It is wonderful planted along pathways where it can release its cool uplifting scent when you walk by. Mint likes full or partial sun and will grow vigorously on its own in most soil types. If you harvest sprigs frequently, it benefits from being fertilized every few weeks.
There are many different varieties of mint. Two of the most popular varieties are peppermint and spearmint, which both provide a cool refreshing taste that is appreciated on hot summer days.
Mint is knows for its many soothing digestive benefits. It is often taken as a tea to relieve GI upset, such as IBS, indigestion and reduce nausea. It is also known for opening up airways and making breathing easier, which can benefit asthmatics. Mint has anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties as well, and contains many essential nutrients.
Fresh mint is a traditional complement to lamb dishes, and delicious in a minty melon salad and many beverages such as lemonade, punch and tea.
Oregano is a hardy, drought-tolerant herb that is very easy to care for. It likes full sun and well-drained soil, and will tolerate drought well. It does not need much fertilizing either, and will happily grow in poor soil. It is perennial and can overwinter — just cut it down and mulch it, or bring it indoors if grown in a pot to enjoy it year round.
The leaves can be harvested as soon as the plant is about 6 inches tall. For best flavor, harvest the leaves as soon as you see the flower buds form. Like marjoram, you can easily dry oregano and store its leaves long-term for cooking.
Oregano is frequently used to spice up various Italian dishes and meats. The Sarah’s Starts variety imparts a mellower flavor than its intense cousin, Greek oregano. Fresh leaves have more intense flavor than dried, so you may want to harvest and dry your oregano.
Parsley is easy to grow in a window indoors with morning sun or in a sunny or partially sunny spot in the garden. It is a hardy herb that tolerates poor soil and drainage, but it is always a good idea to give it well draining soil rich in organic matter. Once established, it requires very little maintenance other than occasional watering — and weeding if grown in the garden. Mulching reduces the need for both of these tasks. Parsley is a biennial herb in mild climates and an annual in colder climates, so it will need to be replanted or allowed to go to seed so it can self sow if you want to keep enjoying it.
There are two common varieties of parsley: flat leaf parsley, and curly (common) parsley, which is more commonly used as a garnish.
Both kinds of parsley are powerhouses of nutrition, full of antioxidant polyphenolic flavonoids, vitamins, minerals and volatile oil compounds that boost health and prevent disease. It helps flush out excess fluid from the body and supports kidney function.* It can help control blood pressure, relieve joint pain, relax stiff muscles and ease digestion. Like dill, it is also considered to be “chemoprotective.”
Keep parsley on hand, chopped and frozen to use as a garnish on all your food. Use its stems to make broth from kitchen scraps. To increase your intake of parsley, consider making parsley pesto, chimichurri, and adding it to green salads, such as this Mediterranean lentil salad.
Another hardy perennial herb that is so easy to grow in mild climates is sage. In hotter, more humid climates it is usually grown as an annual in fall and winter since it does not tolerate heat and humidity very well. It likes full sun, and well-drained, loamy, sandy soil, but will tolerate poorer conditions. It is wonderful in pots and in the garden as it produces abundant fragrant leaves and attractive purple flowers that are alluring to bees.
Sage has several health benefits and a long history of being used to treat ailments from GI discomfort to mental health disorders. It improves brain function and memory, and has been studied as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. It has also been shown to lower blood sugar in patients with diabetes, and can also help lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (the good cholesterol). Like other herbs, sage is packed with antioxidants that help protect the body against damage by free radicals, which can cause impaired immunity, cell death and chronic diseases.
Sage is a classic culinary herb used in stuffings, sauces, sausages and as poultry seasoning. Its fragrant leaves can be used fresh or dried for winter seasonings. If using the leaves fresh, it is nice to sauté them first in butter, to bring out their flavor. Sage can also be preserved in butter and frozen for later use.
Thyme is a very popular perennial culinary herb that has more than 400 subspecies. It has been used since ancient times both as a powerful medicine and as a culinary herb. Thyme grows well in a garden, along walkways and fences, and in pots. It does best in full sun, in well drained soil, and is easy to grow because it needs very little maintenance other than some light pruning after the first year. It is a low-growing, evergreen landscape plant with pink flowers that attract bees.
Thyme is a real powerhouse of nutrition. One of its many volatile oils, thymol, is well known for its powerful antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral properties. (The ancient Egyptians even used thyme for embalming!) Thyme has several phenolic antioxidants and is one of the richest sources of many vitamins and minerals, such as B-complex vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamins A, K, E and C, folate, potassium, iron, calcium, selenium and magnesium. All these phytonutrients combine to make thyme very effective at boosting immunity, stopping coughing fits, lowering blood pressure, treating acne, repelling mosquitoes and pests, and disinfecting mold spores. Thyme is also a feel good herb and can help elevate your mood thanks to its vitamin B6 content, which directly affects neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for stress levels.
Harvest thyme sprigs as you need them, and strip the leaves from the stems before using in soups, sauces, stews, and slow-cooker meals.
Herbs are a must-have for any kitchen gardener or home chef, and add both flavor and nutrition to meals.
They are fun and easy to grow, and require minimal maintenance other than watering, fertilizing, and clipping once established. Many herbs are perennial, and come back year after year, so they are an extremely cost effective way to have access to fresh herbs that grace the dishes of discerning restaurant chefs. We hope we have inspired you to try growing your own herbs at home and enriching your family’s home cooked meals.
*Parsley is high in oxalates, so it can exacerbate kidney problems for those with pre-existing kidney conditions. Consult your doctor or health care provider before increasing your intake of parsley.
Editor’s Note: The recommendations listed here do not replace a care provider’s advice. Consult your care provider if you are pregnant or nursing before consuming any of the above plants. The statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.