Growing Fresh Herbs
In The Backyard Garden

Fresh herbs in the backyard garden is a natural compliment to the organic vegetables growing there. A few leaves of an herb plant can be snipped off to flavor a dish without disturbing the plant. Imagine a wonderful vegetable soup with fresh oregano, chives, and (surprise) cilantro. Here are some favorites. 

For growing fresh herbs, find out the average date for the last frost in your area. Thirty days before that, start the seeds indoors. After the frost date, you can plant from seeds, transplant what you have already started from seeds indoors, or buy the transplants from a nursery.

Fresh herbs can be planted in  pots or other containers, or can be planted into the raised bed or ground. When deciding where to plant, keep in mind whether the herb in perennial, biennial, or annual. Also consider the height of each.

Fresh Herbs That Return Each Year: The Perenneals 

Chives are perennial in all growing zones in the US, Height is 6 to 12 inches. Starting seeds indoors is a good idea with this fresh herb as it can take 3 weeks to germinate. Chives will benefit for full sun with a little afternoon shade. Soil should be kept moist.

Chives will reappear each year and will spread. Divide the clumps every few years. Chives can be snipped for use after the plant is 6 to 8 inches tall. Don't take more than 1/3 of the plant at any one time. The upright, hollow leaves have  an onion flavor. The pink flowers are edible and make a pretty garnish,


Lavender is usually grown  for the fragrance, but English lavender (Munstead), can be used in baking, in home-made butter, and many more home-made goodies. The high menthol content of other varieties of lavender can be overpowering in cooking.

Lavender is a perennial in planting zones 5-9. Zones 3-4 may need the plants to be brought indoors to survive the winter. In zone 9, protect the roots from overheating in the summer with a thick layer of mulch

Plants are 12 to 18 inches tall. Lavender can be started indoors or seeded directly into the soil, and should be planted in full sun, 3 weeks after the last frost.  It is low maintenance, and is suitable for container planting. 

Marjoram is a somewhat cold-sensitive perennial. If you want to over-winter it, a container might be best. It grows to only about 12 inches, so it is perfect for an indoor pot. 

Seeds or plants should be located in full sun . Test the soil with your finger for moistness. When it feels dry, lift the leaves and water around the roots to prevent disease. Mulching will cut down on having to water so much.

Mint is definitely an invasive species! If you don't want to have to start mowing it (which smells wonderful!), you need to contain it. One plant is enough for us backyard gardeners. 

Mint comes in lots of flavors: spearmint, peppermint, lemon, orange, pineapple, and even chocolate. Cold hardiness depends on the variety. Peppermint is very cold hardy down to zone 3. Spearmint is heat tolerant in zone 11.

 Mint grows 12 to 18 inches tall. Give it afternoon shade and keep the soil moist.

Oregano needs full sun in the north, but in zone 7 and south a little afternoon shade is best. In zone 7 and north, mulch the roots heavily in winter. Container pots can be put in an unheated shed over winter, or the plant can become a house plant as the size is small, 12 to 18 inches. Oregano can be a ground cover.  Snip it back regularly to keep it the size you want. You can have fresh oregano all winter.

Rosemary is a perennial in zone 7 to 10. If you mulch heavily in zone 6 it may come back. Plants can tolerate a light frost, so set it outside early. Put in the sun and mulch to keep roots moist. Water weekly. 

Rosemary can grow to 3 to 6 feet. In summer climates, zone 8 and south, it can be used as an evergreen hedge.

Sage is perennial, biennial, or annual, depending on the hardiness zone. In zones 5 to 8, Sage is a hardy perennial. In zones 3 and 4 and south of 8, it is an annual. In the South, summer heat and humidity is intolerable to it. Sage grows 12-24 inches tall. Set in full sun, mulch and water the roots weekly.

If you live in the country, you may need to protect you sage from deer as they are particularly fond of it.

Do not plant Russian sage for food. It is strictly ornamental and the leaves are mildly toxic.

Mexican tarragon, also called sweet marigold,  is a cold-sensitive perennial fresh herb in the south; grown as an annual north of zone 9. Mexican tarragon needs full sun or partial shade in well drained soil.  It is drought tolerant, but will grow best and produce more if soil is kept moist. It is 18 inches tall.

Tarragon is wonderful in chicken dishes and tastes mildly of anise.

Tarragon can be somewhat invasive. If stems fall over and touch the ground they will root, causing the plant to spread. Although an annual in most zones, it readily re-seeds, producing plants the next season.

Thyme is a difficult plant to grow from seeds due to slow, uneven germination. Start indoor two or three weeks before last frost date. Or better yet, buy the plant from the nursery and let someone else do the hard work. German thyme is perennial in zones 5-9; lemon thyme in zones 7-9

Set in well drained soil in full sun. Or plant in a container and set that in the sun. Mulch and water once a week. Like oregano, thyme can be a ground cover, so it needs to be sniped back to keep it from spreading. Plants are 6 to 12 inches, so it is suitable for pots and can become a house plant in winter.

Biennial Fresh Herbs

Fennel has soft, feathery leaves and a bulbous stem. Use the leaves in salad, eggs, fish, and sauces. The stem can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable. Chopped and stir-fried, it has a mild anise flavor.

Fennel is sort of biennial. That is, it blooms best in the second year. It re-seeds copiously and can really spread.  It should be planted outdoors after danger of frost is past. Plant in full sun. Keep it well watered. Mulch will keep the soil moist. It matures in 60 to 90 days and can grow to 3 to 6 feet tall.

Parsley is a biennial fresh herb, but can be grown as an annual. It grows 10 to 12 inches in height. Growing from seed is probably best. but can be started indoors if the roots of transplants are handled gently. Sow seeds generously as they are slow to sprout, and some may not sprout at all. Plant or transplant after danger of frost has past.

Plant in the ground or in a container, in full sun with some afternoon shade. Mulch the roots and keep well watered. Soil needs to be moist.

Annual Fresh Herbs

Basil is an annual, 18-24 inches, that comes in many varieties and colors. Three different kinds in a large pot will provide different flavors in cooking and makes an attractive arrangement. Plants need 6 to 8 hours of sun. They are cold sensitive, so don't plant until the weather is 70-80 degrees F. In the Southwest afternoon shade is desirable. Soil should be kept moist but well drained as basil is subject to root rot. Mulch around the plants to reduce having to water a lot. 

Borage is an annual fresh herb with a faintly cucumber-like flavor. It is good in salads and lemonade. The flowers can be candied. 

Sow seeds directly in full sun, though the plant can tolerate a little shade. It reaches 18 inches. Mulch to keep soil hydrated and water weekly.

Use the leaves while they are young, as they are covered with a prickly fuzz when they are older. Butterflies and bees love this plant.

Cilantro, an annual 1 to 2 feet tall, should be planted from seed after the last frost as it does not transplant well. It can grow in full sun or partial shade. Keep the soil moist until seeds sprout, then water weekly. It does not do as well in humid, rainy weather. 

Use the leaves as needed after the plant reaches 6 to 8 inches.  Harvest the seeds (coriander) after the plant turns brown, but before the seeds start to fall. Cut the whole plant and turn upside down to dry, then shake the dried seeds into a paper bag. The seeds are bitter when immature, but are sweet after they ripen.

Cilantro can be replanted until mid-summer.

Dill is a member of the celery family. The leaves and seeds are used in cooking and pickling. It is a self-seeding annual that likes plenty of sun. Height can be anywhere between 18 inches (Fern leaf dill) to 36 inches (Mammoth dill). It produces a pretty yellow-green flower. Leaves can be used as soon as 4 or 5 appear on the plant.

Plant dill far away from fennel as they can cross pollinate. Plant in well drained soil in full sun. Mulch and keep well watered in dry seasons.

Try several of these fresh herbs in your backyard garden. Put them in your salads and cooked dishes. Make herbal tea with some. Use them in potpourri. Put them in a butterfly garden. Put them in a vase as a center piece for the table!

Return to herb garden in containers.

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