The Herb Gardener's Handbook - Growing, Harvesting, Using & Preserving Herbs
Updated: Sep 26, 2018
Chronicles & Confessions of the Veggie Patch
An unfolding adventure tale of amateur vegetable gardening, peasant style.
-With detailed steps for establishing your own organic vegetable garden.
Series Post 6
I leaned against the kitchen counter and waited for the verdict.
“This is really good!” – they all chorused.
“I really like it,” said Mom while Dad and Pap nodded.
I made a face as they continued to eat the soup. “Yeah... I really do, too,” I agreed slowly.
“Why do you sound so sad about it?” Mom laughed.
I wasn’t sad. I was bewildered. Just what is in a regular can of tomato soup that was so different from the fresh ingredients I had used for this homemade recipe?
I have never been able to gag down tomato soup. I had only made it that afternoon because Max and I were feeding our nephews grilled cheese sandwiches and I wanted to use the basil. Although the recipe called for canned diced tomatoes, the other ingredients in the soup were fresh, and the basil was from the first herb harvest of my life.
I supposed I might now be experiencing the sentiment of gardeners that store-bought produce does not compare to the fresh, home-grown version. I was truly surprised how much I enjoyed eating that tomato soup – a recipe I had snagged online when looking up what to do with basil. I wondered why I hadn’t tried growing fresh herbs sooner! It was much easier than I had thought.
A few more meals later, lots of videos, research and pruning, I began to write this post. I now bring you a one-stop resource for all things herb. I wrote this as though writing for the "me" in the days before any herb-knowledge. My hope is that it will be exactly what you need.
From seed and back again, and all in-between, below is the Herb Gardener's Handbook. Learn how to be a caretaker of God’s gifts the herbs! Please share it, save it, and reference it whenever you want!
What Are Herbs?
Herbs. Vs. Spices
The Most Common Cooking Herbs
Growing Herbs from Seeds or Cuttings
Caring for the Plants
Using Herbs in the Kitchen Preservation Methods
Storing Dried Herbs The Winter Season
Harvesting Seeds for New Plants
The Scoop on Perfume
A Note about Herbal Medicine
What are Herbs?
“Herbs” refers to any plants with parts (leaves, etc.) that are used in food, medicine or perfume. Herbs can be perennials (die back in winter and return in spring), biennials (life cycle is two years, flowering the second) or annuals (life cycle is one year). Some perennial herbs are shrubs, like Rosemary, and some are trees. These would not be considered “botanical herbs/herbaceous plants,” like other herbs, since they have woody stems. Some herb plants are used to produce culinary "herbs," or to produce both "herbs" and "spices," such as dill weed (herb) and dill seed (spice).
Herbs vs. Spices
In general, herbs and spices are distinguished by which parts of the plant are used. Culinary herbs are primarily produced from the plant’s leafy green or flowering parts, whereas spices are often produced from other parts, such as seeds, bark, roots and fruits.
Note: When referring to herbs in a medicinal sense, any parts of the plant are called “herbs” (not “spices”), including leaves, roots, flowers, seeds, root bark, inner bark, resin (sticky substance exuded from trees and some plants, such as pine sap) and pericarp (fleshy layers of the fruit surrounding the seed).
Most Common Cooking Herbs
Below is a compilation of some of the most common culinary herbs and spices.
*Pastas, pesto, salads, and soups
*Flavoring, teas and desserts
*Leaves in salads and sauces; flowers as garnishes or salad toppings
Cilantro (the Spanish word)/Coriander (from the French word)
*Latin cuisine; or in Asian cuisine, roots are used to make Thai curry pastes.
Coriander Seeds (spice – the plant is just called “Coriander” once it has gone to seed)
*Subtle sweet-and-sour flavor; both sweet and savory dishes
*Beverages, desserts, entrees, side dishes
*Bitter, strong taste; often accompanies cinnamon
Dill (yields both herbs and spices)
*A pleasant anise-like flavor to seafood, soups, salads and sauces; dill pickling
Fennel (yields both herbs and spices)
*Slightly sweet, little-bit-spicy anise flavor; sometimes used as a vegetable
*Light spice, mellow sweetness; often used in Asian cuisines
*Sweet flavor; teas, cookies, cupcakes, scones, syrups and dressings
*Flavor meats; use in teas and baking
*Zesty lemon flavor
*Milder flavor than Greek Oregano; soups
*Pastas, pizza toppings, sauces, soups, and stews
*Curly Parsley for garnish; Flat-Leaf for flavoring pasta sauces and soups
*Flavor pork, lamb, and poultry
*Use in soups, stews, and poultry stuffings
*Spicy flavor; use in egg, chicken, and fish dishes, or in béarnaise sauce.
*Add mild tang to fish, pork, poultry and vegetables
*Slightly bitter flavor, cousin of ginger, often in Indian and Caribbean cuisine
*Used as a substitute for sugar
As with all plants, there are several varieties of each herb to choose from when deciding what to grow. For example, parsley has some main varieties, including Curly and Flat-Leaf. Curly is the most common. It is versatile and easy to grow. However, there are also several Curly varieties! - such as, “Forest Green” or “Extra Curled Dwarf.” Flat-Leaf varieties include “Titan,” “Italian Flat Leaf” and “Giant of Italy.” Each plant has its own unique look and taste, and each tolerates different growing conditions.
Growing Herbs from Seeds or Cuttings
If you do not purchase plants from the nursery, you can either start from seed or use cuttings from existing plants. Some herbs are more easily started from seed than others, such as basil, parsley and cilantro. Others are best started from cuttings or purchased as plants, such as thyme and rosemary. (A quick online search of your herb of interest will give you this information.)
Steps for Starting from Seed
1) Use potting mix, and be sure that containers have excellent drainage.
Tip: Consider using a seed-starting potting mix, which is lighter. If it is difficult for seeds to sprout due to heavy soil, they may rot before germinating.
Tip: Covering the soil lightly with milled sphagnum moss (not peat moss) may help prevent some disease issues, as it has a natural fungicide in it.
Tip: If you intend to keep plants in containers rather than transplant in the garden, use larger containers from the start. Some plants, such as parsley, don’t like being transplanted. (Research the size of container recommended for each plant.)
2) Cover the containers with plastic bags (keeping the seeds moist) and place in a warm area out of direct sunlight. As soon as seeds germinate, remove the plastic.
3) Once seeds have germinated, herbs now need sunlight. A south-facing window is best. Consider using grow lights if sunlight is a problem.
Tip: Consider making or purchasing a liquid organic fertilizer (see Post 1) that will help keep herb seedlings strong. After germination, apply a diluted solution weekly for best results.
Tip: If you plan to transplant herbs into the garden, “harden off” before doing so. “Hardening off” means moving plants outdoors for a portion of the day to gradually get them used to outdoor conditions - direct sunlight, dry air and cold nights.
Steps for Starting from Cuttings
The following process does not work for some annual herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and dill – which should be grown from seed. It does work well for soft-stemmed herbs, such as basil, peppermint and stevia. For woody herbs, such as rosemary, sage, and thyme, be sure to take cuttings from new, green growth. Old, brown stems do not sprout roots well. (Research the herb in question to know if a cutting can be rooted in water as below.)
1) Cut a stem 4-6 inches long at an angle just below a leaf “node” (the place on a stem where leaves grow). Do not take cuttings from herbs that are flowering, as the plant’s energy will go into forming flowers rather than roots.
2) Remove any leaves from the lower portions of the stem to prevent them from being submerged in water and rotting. Snip off any flowers, buds or large leaves (so energy goes into root-production), being careful not to damage the stem.
3) Stand the cutting in a glass of water. The topmost leaves need to have good airflow. No leaves should be submerged.
Tip: Use filtered or spring water. Distilled water lacks important trace minerals, and chlorinated water can hurt plant tissues.
4) Place the jar in a warm place with indirect sunlight.
5) Change the water at least every other day to prevent algae and bacteria.
6) Once roots appear (a few days to a couple of weeks), you can snip off leaves as you need them. As the plant grows, transfer it to a bigger jar, or plant it in soil.
Tip: If planting in soil, help roots to toughen by dropping small pebbles onto them each day for about a week.
7) Once the plant is established, it needs sunlight.
Caring for Plants
From seed to plant, herbs need good drainage. It’s best to water seedlings by pouring water into a tray under the container and letting it soak into the soil, then drain the tray. Water from above when herbs become larger.
When seedlings begin to grow leaves, pinching will help them continue producing well. “Pinching” means removing the main stem just above the node to cause two new stems to begin growing. This pruning encourages branching and will develop a stout, bushy plant.
Seedlings & Mature Plants
Culinary herbs require sunshine and well-drained soil to grow best. Avoid over watering. They like soil that is moist but not soggy.
Herbs love to be pruned often. (See “Harvesting Herbs” below.)
If growing in containers indoors, be warned that indoors plants can still attract some insects, including aphids, white flies and mealy bugs. Wash leaves on occasion with water to remove them. Soap sprays will deter them. (See Post 5 for a write up about soap and bugs.)
It’s important to harvest/prune regularly. Snip off whole stems rather than individual leaves to encourage bushy, new growth, but never take more than one third of a single plant at once.
“Bolting” is when a plant begins to grow quickly and flower (go to seed). When plants enter this phase, they stop producing leaves. This often happens when weather becomes very warm. If bolting begins, it cannot be reversed. Therefore, pruning before flowering occurs will keep herbs producing for longer. Bolting is inevitable though, so growers might plant several of the same herb at different times as a way to have fresh leaves for an extended period.
For some herbs, like dill, it’s necessary to harvest the whole plant.
(When it doubt, a quick online search will reveal details for how a particular herb should be harvested.)
Using Herbs in the Kitchen
This is the fun part!
Fresh or dried herbs are used for flavoring and garnishing food. The possibilities are endless. Basil is most often associated with Mediterranean foods and tomato sauce. Parsley is used in sauces and salads and sprinkled as a garnish. Cilantro is a staple of Latin and Asian cooking… and on it goes.
If unsure how to prepare or use particular fresh herbs, find out how the culinary experts do it by looking up quick videos. There are so many herbs that no one source gives details about all of them. So it takes a little bit of work to gain understanding about the herbs you choose to work with, but not too much. Don't let yourself feel overwhelmed; it's easy once you start.
(As for me, after all these years, I’ve finally discovered a purpose for kitchen shears that actually has to do with the kitchen! I’m quickly and easily snipping fresh “herb” leaves into foods.)
Note: To use dried herbs in recipes that call for fresh ones, use about half the amount. Oils in dried herbs are more concentrated.
In general, to use herbs in teas, pour boiling water over a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the dried herb (double amount for fresh), or more to taste, and steep for 3-5 minutes. Steeping for up to 10-20 minutes will create a stronger and sometimes more bitter-tasting herbal infusion.