Used for both culinary and fragrance purposes, herbs are versatile and easy to grow. Just a few sprigs can lift our mood as their scent fills the air. They can delight our palate as flavorful additions to summer recipes. They provide beautiful texture, shape and color in the garden, further treating the senses. With the versatility to grow in vegetable gardens, colorful landscapes or containers, you are always guaranteed a sensational gardening experience.
Many herbs are native to the Mediterranean and require conditions that mimic their home climate (warm temperatures and well-drained soils) for optimal growth and flavor. Many are drought-tolerant, once established, and few have pest and disease problems. When planting, be mindful that most selections require at least 6 to 8 hours of full sun, but some will tolerate partial shade. Herbs are classified as annual, biennial
Annual herbs complete their lifecycle in one year. They are best planted by seed in the spring, either indoors or directly in the garden after the threat of frost has passed. These include basil, cilantro, dill and fennel.
Biennial herbs complete their lifecycle over two years — year one is vegetative growth (foliage), and year two is flowering, fruiting and plant death. These include caraway and parsley.
Perennial herbs come back every year following winter dieback of the previous year’s growth. They can be small woody shrubs or herbaceous plants. Hardy perennial herbs (which can survive winter in Illinois) include chives, lavender, lemon balm, lovage, oregano, sage, mint and thyme. (If growing mint, plant it in a container to prevent it from taking over the garden.) Tender perennials are perennials that are not winter hardy in colder climates, such as rosemary, lemon verbena and scented geraniums. These herbs can overwinter indoors in Illinois.
Culinary herbs are classified as either robust or fine. Robust herbs, like rosemary, sage and thyme, are rich in flavor and are often mixed with other herbs for roasting or grilling. Fine herbs, like dill and basil, become milder when cooked and are often used in fresh salads. For the best flavors, harvest herbs early in the day before the sun pulls the flavored oils from the leaves. Remove any flowers from the plants to encourage new foliage growth instead of seed development on the plant.
Consider growing a few plants for the pollinators, too. Many pollinators are attracted to the fragrant aromas and sweet nectar of herb blooms. A few herbs are also host plants (food sources) for the larval stage of butterflies. Parsley, dill, fennel and caraway, all members of the carrot family, are host plants to the black swallowtail caterpillar. Caterpillar populations on a single plant do not tend to stress the plant, so consider sharing your herbs with a few multi-legged diners or plant a couple of extras if space allows. In return, your garden will become a butterfly haven.