How to Grow Your Own Culinary Herbs
Our interest in using farm-fresh ingredients for cooking continues to increase, as do the prices for organic products in grocery stores and at farmers markets. Growing your own food is a great way to cut costs, but not everyone has the time or space to have their own garden, and community gardens aren’t always convenient, especially when you want a last-minute item for your meal.
Fortunately, there’s one way to add that just-picked freshness to any dish without requiring a lot of time or space: Grow your own culinary herb garden. There is nothing more savory than cooking with freshly harvested herbs, and it’s easy to slip outside and snip off what you need for a delicious meal. Here’s what you need to know to get started.
It’s all about location
As with most plants, location is key to growing herbs. With the exception of mints and a few other shade lovers, the majority need six to seven hours of sunlight each day in order to produce the essential oils that give them their flavor and aroma. In the Southwest, where the sun and heat can scorch plants, some afternoon shade in the summertime is also appreciated.
Accessibility should be considered, as well. The closer your garden is to your kitchen, the more likely you are to use the herbs you grow. Whether they are part of the landscape or restrained in their own bed, make sure all plants are easily reached by placing them along edges or adding strategically placed stepping-stones within. Also keep in mind the plant’s ultimate mature size and growth habit so that larger perennials don’t overtake smaller annuals.
If you don’t have the space or desire to create an in-ground herb garden, you can grow culinary herbs in containers. Consider making a simple window box. It should be about 12 inches deep and contain drainage holes. Herbs can also be kept in pretty planters set on a table or rack, and they’re excellent for hanging baskets and strawberry pots.
Herbs do not like to sit in soggy soil, so good drainage is essential. If planted in the ground, dig up the soil in the area to be planted and amend with organic matter, such as compost or well-aged horse manure. Organic matter should be added each planting season. Mediterranean herbs, such as rosemary, sage, lavender, thyme and oregano, are exceptions and don’t need organic matter.
In containers, mix commercial potting soil with perlite or pumice 3:1. Because you are working with edibles, make sure any fertilizer is organic and labeled for use on edible plants. Frequent and heavy fertilization will result in lush foliage with low levels of essential oils and little aroma. Overwatering will also affect the flavor and scent.
To keep growth dense, pinch your herb plants often. For annual herbs, the height of flavor is before flowering, also known as bolting. Once flowering occurs, leaves often become bitter.
What to plant when
Arizona has two planting seasons—a cool season (September through mid-November) and a warm season (mid-February through March). Cool-season annuals include cilantro (coriander), dill, German chamomile and garlic and; while basil, epazote and summer savory are warm-season annuals. Most perennials can be planted in fall or early spring. This includes such herbs as lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage, thyme, tarragon and mints. Mints can be invasive, so they should be grown in containers.