Growing Herbs: 5 Easy Plants for Cooking

D.R. McElroy

You’ll love the flavors of these culinary favorites. · 6 min read

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Gardening, particularly growing edibles, intimidates a lot of beginner gardeners. While it’s true that some veggies are tricky to grow well (looking at you, cucumber), others will literally grow from an errant seed dropped into a sidewalk crack (hello, tomato.)

Still, there are choices to be made when it comes to which food plants are the easiest for beginners, and herbs have to be at the top of that list. Mainly used as seasonings, many herbs originated in Mediterranean climates and bring their survivalist genes to the garden.

Here are five of the easiest, tastiest herbs for a beginner to grow for cooking.

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  1. Rosemary. If there’s one herb every cook should have on hand, it’s this incredibly fragrant, incredibly tough perennial shrub. Rosemary tolerates both heat and drought, as well as freezing temps — as long as the soil drains well. Rosemary can’t tolerate wet roots, especially in the winter, so be sure to plant it where it gets maximum sun. A pot or raised bed is perfect for this dry-loving herb, and hot days bring out the best of the essential oils in its leaves. Use on meats, in gravies and stews, on bland veggies like carrots and potatoes, and even in baked goods. It dries well and holds its flavor for a long time in a sealed jar. Grow rosemary from purchased plants, not seed.
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2. Basil. If you love pesto, then you know the heaven that is fresh basil; nothing else comes close. This herb is an annual, so you’ll have to replant it every year. But it’s completely worth it, and yearly planting allows you the opportunity to try different varieties. ‘Globe’ is a standard for pesto, but ‘Thai’ or ‘Thai Sweet’ offer a unique taste somewhat similar to cinnamon. Basil does best when planted before the hottest part of the summer arrives; it can go to seed (“bolt”) quickly in the heat, robbing the leaves of nutrients and flavor. Planting in waves a few weeks apart helps extend the harvest season. The plant needs full sun and lots of water to do its best. Leaves are best used fresh. Pick the leaves in the morning, before the essential oils are lost to the air, and pat them dry before storing in the refrigerator as they are prone to mold if too wet. When the plants flower, let the flowers remain as they are beloved by bees and butterflies. Basil will set seed, and can reseed itself if conditions are right.

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3. Sage. While most people’s idea of sage is formed by old Westerns, the plant is actually a versatile herb when harvested young; eventually, it will become a woody shrub in the right conditions (cool, dry.) Sage is deliciously fragrant when its leaves are bruised, and the tenderest leaves come from young plants that haven’t formed woody stems yet. Like rosemary, sage can’t tolerate wet feet, so make sure the soil drains well. You can also grow it in raised beds while smaller varieties do well in pots. Full sun and soil that stays on the dry side will keep this plant happy. Leaves can be used fresh or dried, simply crush to release the flavor. Sage is wonderful on mild meats like poultry (especially game birds) and pork. It’s also wonderful on potatoes, root veggies, and in savory breads. Sage flowers are usually lavender in color and appear on short spikes. Sage is commonly sold in dried bundles for holistic and spiritual purposes. Buy sage plants for the garden as growing from seed is difficult.

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4. Parsley/Cilantro. We’ve all seen this on restaurant plates, and while most of us think of it as only decorative, parsley is a useful cooking herb for flavoring as well. Commonly used on bland foods such as potatoes, root vegetables, and fish, parsley is also wonderful chopped fresh in salads and dips, and dried for use in the kitchen blend known as “bouquet garni.” Parsley’s close cousin cilantro is very similar in appearance, but the flavor is much more pungent, making it capable of standing up to foods with stronger flavors like cheese dishes; it is a common seasoning in Mexican recipes. Cilantro and parsley are easy to grow from seed, and benefit from being planted in waves over a period of weeks. Both are quick to bolt, and the leaves lose much of their flavor afterward. Leaving the plants to go to seed will often result in fresh waves of the herb the following season without you having to buy more seed. As all herbs do, these two love lots of sun, and more water than either rosemary or sage. Use fresh for best flavor; the dried version (particularly of cilantro) has little to offer in the way of taste. Lots of butterflies lay their eggs on parsley; Black Swallowtail caterpillars feed almost exclusively on this plant, and they’re beautiful!

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5. Oregano. If there’s a truly unkillable plant on this list (and they’re all pretty hardy), oregano is king. This is a small shrub that stays close to the ground, has slender woody stems, and can survive heat, drought, frost, snow, rain — whatever Mother Nature can dish out. Oregano is aggressively hardy and will take over whatever space you plant it in. For this reason, it is often grown in pots. However, it makes a tough ground cover in areas that receive light traffic and can be mown to a height of about three inches. You can’t kill this herb, I promise. Oregano has a pungent fragrance, but its flavor mellows in soups and stews and other slow-simmered dishes. Spaghetti sauce with fresh oregano is magical. The herb is also fantastic on oven-roasted vegetables and most meats, including wild game. Try stuffing your Thanksgiving turkey with fresh handfuls — yes, it will still be alive under the snow! Like other woody herbs, the plant requires full sun and prefers to be on the dry side. Bees of all types go nuts for oregano; it’s like crack to them, and it flowers well into the fall.

So, there are five of the easiest to grow herbs for cooking. Bon appetit!

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.

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