If you are new to gardening, herbs are perfect for getting your feet wet. They grow easily in a variety of conditions, and are great both indoors and out. They are quick to grow, quick to harvest, and generally only need between 3-6 hours of sunlight. Keep a few pots of your favorite herbs near the kitchen for a little snip here and there.
How to Start
Step One: Make a List of Favorites
What are your favorite herbs and which do you cook with most often? Make a list and a plan. Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Basil, etc.? In the beginning, limit your choices to those herbs that you will actually use.
Step Two: Choose a Location
Where will you grow your herbs and in what will you plant them? Will you use ceramic pots, window boxes, a vertical garden, raised beds or a traditional garden? If you have a small growing space or apartment, boxes and pots might be best. If you are planning a small quantity of herbs to start, there is no sense in putting in an entire garden; however, if you have the space, go big or go home, right? Whatever method you choose, make sure that it is located in the sun with adequate drainage (holes in the bottom of the pots, for example).
Step Three: Get Planting!
Before planting the herb, always check the tag in the plant’s container for crucial information such as recommended planting depth and distance between plants. If starter plants were purchased, it is usually best to plant the herb at the same depth as its original container. Fill in around the plant and water well. Tip: Be careful with anything in the mint family, as it will overtake whatever container it is planted in. Instead, always plant mint in its own container. If part of a larger garden, go ahead and nestle the container into the soil.
Step Four: Water & Maintain
Make sure to check on your plants daily. Water them thoroughly if the top inch of soil is dry. Keep in mind that containers will dry out faster than raised beds or traditional gardens. Some herbs should be trimmed daily for optimum yield.
Step Five: Harvest
For best results, harvest your herbs in the morning and before they begin to flower. You can prolong the plant’s harvest life by pinching off flowering buds as they appear. Never harvest more than one-third of the plant, so that it can recuperate and continue to grow. If planted to do so, most herbs will pop back up yearly, so treat them well.
Okay. You’ve made your list, obtained and planted them and now they are beginning to emerge. How do you harvest them? Everyone succeeds when planting herbs but we rarely use them and, in most cases, it’s simply because we don’t know how.
Here are a few tips for harvesting some popular herbs:
Basil – It’s one of our favorites and so simple to have on hand. Just pluck a few leaves from the plant and it’s time to cook. For basil, it’s best to hit it early. Begin harvesting the plant as soon as the second set of leaves appear; from then on, it will grow lush until it begins to flower. Harvest a few leaves at first and later clip the stems at the first or second branch intersection before the tips. Pinch off the flower buds as they appear to prolong the flavor. When buds do first appear, harvest approximately 30 percent of the total foliage and use it to make some great pesto.
Cilantro – The trick to growing cilantro is to plant it early. The cooler weather will keep the plant from flowering too soon. If it flowers, all of the flavor of the leaves will disappear. (It’s okay if it does flower, the seeds of the plant are known as the spice coriander. Two for the price of one!) To harvest cilantro: once grown, cut the plants a third of the way down. The bottom will continue to grow. It should be harvested weekly for freshness and to ward off flowering.
Oregano – It’s one of the most loved spices and harvesting it is all about the timing. Like most herbs, oregano should be harvested in the morning after the dew has dried when its essential oils are at highest concentration. The best overall flavor is achieved when harvested just as the flower buds begin to form. When harvesting, use garden shears to cut just above a set of leaves to allow the plant to continue producing. To dry the plants, bundle the stems together and hang in a dark, dry spot. Place a perforated bag around the herbs to catch the tasty leaves as they fall.
Rosemary – This beautifully aromatic herb is best harvested in the spring and summer and daily trimming of the plant will encourage more growth. When ready to harvest, look for branches that are eight-inch or longer – don’t harvest from anything smaller. (It’s best to keep several plants on hand to make sure you always have mature branches.) Cut approximately two inches from the tops of the mature branches, making sure to never harvest more than a quarter of the plant at a time. Bundle and hang rosemary in a dry, dark place for about ten days, then strip the leaves and store them.
Sage – Where growing most other herbs is a race, sage is a marathon. For the first year of growth, harvest your sage plant lightly, taking the very minimum from the plant (if any at all). In subsequent years, harvest however you want – take an entire stem, or just a leaf. To give new foliage the time needed to reinvigorate and mature, leave two months between your last big harvest and the first frost of the season (in Michigan, that could be around the end of August). Dry sage in the standard manner, stripping and storing the dry leaves when ready.
Thyme – Thyme grows great alongside Rosemary; but, it should be noted: thyme harvests differently. The best time to harvest is in the morning after the dew has dried. Clean leaves should NOT be washed, as doing so removes the essential oils. For optimum potency, harvest the herb just before the plant flowers by cutting off the top five-six inches of growth, always keeping at least five inches of growth for the plant to thrive. Dry the leaves in the typical way. Before use, make sure to crush the leaves to release the essential oils.