Must-Have Herbs to Grow Fresh

People don't always think of herbs when thinking about putting in a garden. If you cook at home, growing herbs is one of the easiest ways to get a "return" on your gardening. 

The price of fresh herbs at the grocery store is outrageous. I understand why they the price is high - most herbs are low-volume sellers and they end up throwing out much of their herbs when they go bad. The higher price compensates for the waste. For $3 or more, you get a little packet of herbs in a fancy "clamshell" pack that costs , and you only need to use a tiny bit of them! The only really "cheap" herbs in most areas are parsley and cilantro, which I rarely use all of. 

American cuisine doesn't use herbs heavily. If you look at other cuisines, notably Asian and Middle Eastern, you'll find recipes that call for cups of fresh herbs! That would cost a fortune if you try to make it using those tiny packs.

Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow, and it's so convenient to step outside to your herb garden, and snip off exactly what you need for your recipe! 

I grow most of my herbs in two large pots right outside the back door on the patio. I want the pots so close that I have no excuse not to harvest what I need. I don't even have to put on shoes. I put a few different herbs in each pot. 

Here are my go-to fresh herbs:

Chives

Chives are a perennial, meaning they come back year after year. They die back in the winter and start to grow up again early spring. It's one of the first fresh things in the spring. 

They easily grow in a pot or in the ground. 

Basil

Basil is a warm-weather herb. Plant it in late spring in a pot or in the ground. I prefer to buy a transplant for basil because as soon as it's warm enough to grow, I want to start using it. With transplants, you can harvest shortly after they've been planted! It grows well from seed, too. 

With basil, the flavor tastes better if you don't let it go to flower and go to seed (also known as "bolting.") So keep an eye on it, and if you see the tip of the stem starting to form a flower, pinch it off. 

Here's a trick I learned from a fellow gardener a few years ago. I would pick the sprigs I needed and let the plant recover from that point, but the plant always wanted to go to seed, even if I took off the tips. 

When the plant gets full and it's starting to look like it wants to go to flower, cut the whole plant down, leaving about 1" stems. This causes the plant to "reset" and start brand new growth, just like you've got a new basil plant! If you can't use all of the basil from cutting it down, you can dry it or freeze it.

Try the leaves fresh mixed into a salad, too. 

Thyme

I like to use transplants for thyme as well. Again, I put it in the pots by the back door, but they grow equally well in the garden. Thyme grows low to the ground, and I find I can gently direct the growth over the edge of the pot. When I pick off a few sprigs of thyme that's hanging over, it's relatively clean. No need to wash it. 

Other Favorite Herbs

Cilantro

I don't use cilantro all that much, and only recently have I started growing it successfully. For many seasons, I was frustrated by how quickly it would go to seed! Turns out, the secret is that it really prefers cooler weather, and I had been planting it for the summer garden. Whoops - well, live and  learn.  In 2020 I enjoyed cilantro from the garden for the first time. 

If it does go to seed, let the seeds mature on the plant, then pick them. The seeds of the Cilantro plant are actually coriander seed! Same plant. 

Oregano

I grow oregano primarily to dry it. I use dried oregano on my pizzas and tomato sauces throughout the year. I rarely have to buy dried oregano any more and my dried oregano always looks and tastes fresher than store-bought. Oregano is another easy-to-grow plant in a pot or in the ground. In fact, in some parts of the world, it's a weed which you can pick by the roadside (a friend from Turkey told me this once!)

Like thyme, it grows low to the ground. When it's grown in a pot, you can direct the long stems to drape over the edge of the pot away from the soil, which keeps the leaves clean. 

Dill

I am planning to grow dill for the first time this year. It's easy to grow, but the plant can grow rather large. It seems happier in the garden. You can use the leaves and the seed of a dill plant in various dishes and of course, for pickles. 

How to Grow an Herb Garden in a Pot

Use a relatively large pot (12 to 14" diameter) which is at least 6" deep. Be sure the pot has drainage holes. Fill the pot about 3/4 full with potting soil. 

You can fit 3 herb plants in a 12 inch pot, and 4 plants in a 14 inch pot. 

If planting from transplants, remove the transplants from their nursery pots and position the transplants around the perimeter of the pot, evenly spaced. Fill in around the root balls of the transplants with potting soil. Water well. If the potting soil compacts, add more potting soil to the top to keep the rood covered. 

If planting from seeds, add more potting soil to the pot so that it is within about 1" from the top. Plant a few seeds from each variety equally spaced around the perimeter of the pot. Plant them to the depth designated on the seed packet. Water well. 

Remember: pots tend to dry out quickly in hot weather. Water when the soil becomes dry to the touch.

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