Our mission as Master Gardeners is to educate about sustainable gardening. And what could be more sustainable than growing your own food? Growing your own herbs is part of that. Growing herbs can save you money and save water and shipping resources. Plus, there is nothing more satisfying than walking outside with a pair of kitchen shears to collect the herbs you need for a recipe.
Many of the culinary herbs we use are woody perennials native to the dry Mediterranean region. As we have a Mediterranean climate here in the Rogue Valley, they are a perfect choice for our gardens and kitchens. Why spend good money on four sprigs of sage packaged in a plastic clamshell at the supermarket, when you can easily grow it in your yard?
The woody perennials herbs include: sage (Salvia officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), rosemary (Rosmarius officinalis), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), and oregano (Oregano vulgaris). They are easy to grow and tend to thrive on neglect. A word of warning about oregano: it is now listed on the Oregon Invasive species list, as it escapes easily from gardens. I recommend an alternative, Oreganum syriaca, which has a similar flavor profile, and is used in the middle eastern spice Za’atar. And for those who like a licorice flavor profile, French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is well worth growing. It must be grown from cuttings, as the seeds are sterile. Other perennial herbs that are very easy to grow are chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). Both are vigorous clumping bulbs with edible leaves and flowers. They spread readily by clumping and reseeding. Many kinds of mint (Mentha) can also be grown, but be sure to grow them in containers, as they will spread aggressively around the yard. They need more water than most other herbs.
Annual herbs I recommend for companion planting in your summer vegetable garden include basil (Ocimum basilicum), dill (Anethum graveolens), and coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Coriander seeds are ground for the spice coriander, while the leaves are what we know as cilantro. Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida), which is actually a marigold, is used as a replacement herb for French tarragon.
Biennials you should plant are parsley and fennel. As with oregano, fennel needs a warning. It is also on the invasive species list, so if you are growing it for seed, please encase those in a paper bag to dry for harvest, so they do not enter the environment. The stems and leaves of fennel may be harvested before the flowers develop. Both the biennials and the annuals have the added value of attracting pollinators and tiny beneficial predatory and parasitic wasps, which will protect your vegetables from pest insects. In fact, all the herbs mentioned here are terrific nectar plants for butterflies, bees and other beneficial insects. What is not to love?
All of these herbs can be found at local garden centers, and most will be available for sale in the JCMGA greenhouses at the Spring Garden Fair at the Extension on May 6th, this spring. Try growing some in your garden this year, and GARDEN FOR LIFE!