January 17, 2021

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Home Improvement

Favorite herbs and must-haves for your garden

If you’ve developed herb fever, don’t worry. It’s not fatal and the cures are many, varied and tasty.

Here are some herb suggestions — for herb newbies, herb mavens and everyone in between — from Rose Loveall, co-founder of Vacaville’s Morningsun Herb Farm and Florence Nishida, founder of LA Green Grounds. Whether you’re planting now or next spring, you’ll find plenty of inspiration here, including some herbs you may have never heard of before.

Most popular herb of 2020

If you want your garden to be on trend, you’ll need to grow some Perilla frutescens, also known as perilla, Korean perilla, Japanese shiso or oubais. It’s a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is very aromatic. It has become something of an herb darling. Loveall says it’s a huge favorite with her customers.

The Korean perilla variety has larger leaves and is bicolored, Nishida says, while the Japanese shiso has dark red wine or green colored leaves. Perilla is one of the most popular garnishes in Japan, where the leaves are often used on sushi platters. The leaves make a fine ingredient, too. And the seeds are delicious sprinkled over any mild food, such as tofu or roasted chicken breast.

Perilla germinates in early spring, grows through the summer months and is slow to bolt (or go to seed). It self-seeds well, especially in slightly shady locations of the garden.

The basil family

Every herb gardener wants basil in their garden. The herb comes in a wide selection of types and flavors. Genovese is probably the most popular culinary variety, but there are other options out there for pesto fans, including Ocimum ‘Pesto Perpetuo,’ a new, non-blooming annual basil. You’ll want to plant it in early spring.

“The goal of most basils is to grow, have babies and die,” Loveall says. “Our goal is to grow basil, make pesto, grow more basil, make more pesto. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ will provide you with pesto through November.”

Ocimum citriodorum, popularly known as lemon basil, has a wonderful citrusy flavor that will give your pesto a twist. The fabulous flavor of Ocimum ‘Cardinal’ is matched only by its flowers.

African Blue basil tastes terrible, but it’s great for attracting pollinators. Ocimum ‘Wild Magic’ basil grows to about 16 inches tall and produces beautiful violet flowers that will attract a lot of honeybees and other pollinators.

Asian herbs

Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) resembles a young Italian flat-leaf parsley or cilantro, but it tastes sweeter. It’s similar to chervil and very tasty in clear broth soups or sprinkled on tofu with soy sauce. Both the leaves and tiny seeds are edible. The plant tolerates cool, fall weather and some shade. Plant in the spring.

Japanese purple mustard (Brassica juncea) is a mustard green, but it can be used as an herb because of its striking peppery flavor, which resembles wasabi. It can be used raw in salads or shredded over tofu or noodles. When cooked, say in a stiry-fry, the flavor becomes very mild. It’s a striking plant, deep burgundy with lime green ribs, in a vegetable garden or used as a border. Sow seeds early spring to late summer.

Thai basil ‘Siam Queen’ (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflora) is a popular variety. It grows into a perennial shrub with attractive white flowers that have a slight licorice flavor and a strong basil aroma. It’s very attractive to bees and takes pruning well two to three times a year. Plant in the spring.

Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), also known as Chinese parsley, has a distinctive flavor people either love or think tastes soapy. There’s a genetic reason for that — your genes, not the herbs’. Cilantro grows well from late summer and fall into late spring. In other words, it grows wonderfully right now. Seed heavily, plant less than 3/4-inch deep and keep the soil moist. The flowers are very attractive to bees, and the plant self-seeds to grow again once summer’s heat is over. Plant in very early spring or fall.

Cilantro grows in the fall, winter or early spring. (Getty Images) 

Shungiku or edible chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) grows as an herb, or soft shrub. It tastes best when leaves are tender. After flowers form, the leaves become more bitter. It’s good quickly steamed or braised with soy sauce, fresh lemon or ponzu sauce drizzled over it — or fried for tempura. Plant in the spring.

Lemon grass (Cymbopogo citratus), is a sturdy grass with stiff stems. It  has a distinct and pleasant lemon flavor, suited for Thai and Vietnamese stir fry dishes. Crush the white, fibrous stem end to release the aroma and flavor, and remove it before serving your dish. You can start your own plants from roots of lemon grass you buy at the grocery. Just snip a  stalk and put the base in water; plant when roots appear. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

Japanese bunching onions, also known as Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum), are excellent permanent members of your vegetable garden. The large green leaves can be steamed or used in stir-fry dishes. These onions do not produce bulbs, but their tasty green leaves grow nearly year round. Sow from early spring to mid summer.

The thyme family

This Mediterranean perennial has so many delicious varieties, you’ll probably want to plant more than just one. French thyme is one of the great culinary herbs, adding flavor to many different types of dishes, from tomato tarts to ratatouille. It makes a good substitute for salt, too.

French thyme, rosemary and garlic are classic ingredients. (Getty Images) 

Lemon thyme is great for summer dishes. Its cousin, spicy orange thyme, adds citrusy appeal to your cooking. And Thymus vulgaris ‘English Wedgewood’ is delicious, with wide greenish yellow leaves and pink flowers. Plant in the spring.

If you can’t decide between thyme and oregano, go for Thymus ‘Oregano,’ a semi-trailing plant that combines the best of both.

And Thymus longicaulis, also known as turbo thyme and creeping thyme, grows rapidly, has large fresh scented leaves and big lavender colored flowers. Plant in the spring.

The oregano lowdown

Fun fact: Oregano is not a plant, it’s a flavor. There are several herbs with that signature oregano flavor.

Origanum vulgare, or Italian oregano, is a classic. Just be aware, Loveall says, that it can be a garden thug — or put more nicely, a joyous spreader. If you plant it in a bed, it will take over the entire bed. It’s best grown in a pot, or in an area where you have trouble getting anything else to grow. You can harvest it year round, and the flowers are edible or can be dried and used for crafts. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

Origanum vulgare ‘Dwarf Greek’ has round, fuzzy leaves and a sweet flavor. It is an evergreen and often grown as a ground cover. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

‘Kent Beauty’ oregano doesn’t have much in the flavor department, but it’s grown for its large, showy, violet and chartreuse flowers. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

Lippia graveolens and Poliomintha longiflora are both commonly known as Mexican oregano. The herbs are spicy, and you can harvest them all year. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

Origanum ‘Bristol Cross’ grows upright — about a foot tall — and produces beautiful soft pink flowers that are perfect for drying. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

And Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) is great in drought-tolerant gardens. It’s a good general culinary herb. It also is low-growing and its furry leaves don’t have a lot of fragrance. Can be planted in the fall or spring.

Rosemary for remembrance — and cooking

Golden Rain rosemary has green and yellow foliage, and grows to about 2 feet tall. It is also a good plant for attracting pollinators in your yard.

Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Spice Island’ will surprise you. Its broader leaves contain so much oil that the leaves are sticky. Fresh or dried, it’s sensational in food. Plant any time.

Chives, the zippy herb

Chives is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It can be grown both indoors and out, and can tolerate wet or dry conditions. Snip it and sprinkle it over your mashed potatoes, egg salad, smoked salmon or pretty much anything that needs a little zip. Plant in early sping.

Trans-Atlantic tarragon

French tarragon is the perfect herb for chicken, fish and summer vegetables. It needs excellent drainage, even when it is dormant. It dies back in the winter, but returns in the spring. It’s best grown in a raised bed or container, instead of native clay soil. French tarragon never blooms, so if yours is, you’re growing an imposter, Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides), which has no flavor. Plant in the spring.

Mexican tarragon has a bit more zing. Plant in the spring.

Lovely lavender

Lavenders often are paired with roses in the garden, but they take less water than roses, so grow them in mounds to help keep their “feet” dry. Lavenders can get leggy if not pruned. Cut them back up to 50 percent after you’ve harvested the flowers. Here’s just a sampling of varieties, some for culinary use, some for decor and others better suited to craft projects and bouquets.

Lavender blooms in aromatic splendor. (Courtesy George Kiernan)English lavender ‘Hidcote Blue’ is a great culinary herb and a good one for your herb garden. But if you’re looking for a lavender for craft projects, bouquets and potpourris, Lavandin ‘Grosso’ is the one to grow. Plant in the fall.

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