It's time to plan your garden or your pots for summer growing. Herbs are becoming more popular as people learn more about them. They are great for cooking, cleaning, aroma, medicinals, and beauty. I can not possibly touch on the benefits of specific herbs here, there are so many, but I will discuss some general good information to use and be aware of in growing and using herbs.
What makes herbs so delicious, so healthy, and so aromatic are the essential oils they produce. These oils are the plant's protection. This is important to know, because in order to have good oils available in the plant, the plant has to grow well. If you are buying a plant, a medicinal, or a sprig from the super-market, then you need to buy organic for the best flavor, aroma, and medicinal benefit. Non-organics are almost always grown hydroponically, the water fertilized with man-made fertilizers, and the light artificial. While the herb can grow in this setting, it is not ideal and therefore the very best of the plant is not made available to you, the consumer!
Herbs don't need a lot of care once you get them settled into a spot they love. Most like sun, but some can tolerate some shade, check the specific needs of the plant. Almost all herbs like a nice compost or sandy soil that drains well. They like to have the soil around them dry. That doesn't mean they don't need watering, but like the water to drain off the root system. So make sure you have a well-draining pots, if using pots. They also like their space, so be sure to give them the room recommended.
How to use an herb is about as complicated and at the same time simple as it gets. I say complicated because there are so many ways to use! In many herbs, the leafy part is used for cooking and the root then used medicinally. Or, both can be used for cooking. Often, the roots are good for a certain type of remedy or flavor and the leaves and stems another. Sometimes flowers are used as well.
Herbs are best used fresh, but can be dried. If you have a full harvest of an herb such as basil and can't use it all, chop it and put it in the food processor with some oil and then freeze in ice cube trays to be stored in plastic bags later. This is as close to fresh as it gets! I do this will most of my favorite cooking herbs. Herbs can be steeped as teas (roots, leaves, stems, all!), added to flavor water and other drinks as a sprig. The list goes on and on! So many things you can do with the herbs you grow and yet not a lot of work goes into these uses!
In thinking about what herbs to grow, consider what you end up buying first. I buy a lot of parsley, cilantro, and basil. These 3 are terrible in dried form once you've had fresh and so I have to grow enough to get through the winter (in frozen form). Others I grow for use are oregano, thyme, mint, dill, and chives. Be careful with this list. All have spread to areas where I don't want them and I have learned to contain as much as I can. My dill from last year re-seeded itself and I literally have hundreds of tiny dill growing in my herb garden!
To harvest herbs, do so early when the oils are optimal, rather than when the bright sun sends the oils hiding. You can store your cut herb sprigs in a cup or vase of water and cover loosely with a plastic bag to keep fresh in the fridge, if necessary. Basil does not like the cool of the fridge, but most are fine in the fridge.
I recommend a book for medicinal uses, there are many. My favorite expert on the subject is Dr. T. Low Dog. A great book for general use and really helpful planning is Herb Gardening From the Ground Up: Everything You need to Know about Growing your Favorite Herbs. Not ready to grow your own? Many CSAs have herb and flower shares, farm markets have herbs readily available and of course, most super markets are carrying the most popular herbs in fresh source.
What fresh herb will you try?