The cultivation of herbs spans millenniums, with the historical focus toward using the plants for medicinal purposes. While today we use most herbs for cooking, it can be argued they still are providing health benefits in the form of healthful alternatives to salt and fat.
Fresh herbs pack the most punch, but can be pricey to purchase at the grocery store, especially as they deteriorate quickly once cut. The good news is they are easy to grow and are highly adaptable.
Finding a spot to grow herbs should be fairly easy. They have attractive foliage, and most flower, so they can be incorporated into a flowerbed. Even without a yard, herbs adapt easily to pots, allowing placement in a nice sunny (or even part-sun) location. Ideally, a spot near the kitchen is best to make it convenient to harvest some for tonight’s dinner. While we find their pungent aroma pleasing, most wildlife does not and tends to leave herbs alone.
Botanically, herbs can be annual or perennial, however, our harsh winters often necessitate annual planting. One notable exception is mint, whose aggressive reputation is well-deserved; it should only be grown in pots or a contained garden space to keep it in check.
Once planted, herbs are easy to tend, needing only regular watering. Fertilizing is not recommended, as fast-growing plants tend to lack the flavorful oils that slower growth creates. Mostly, herbs do best when they are used regularly, as harvesting encourages more branching and leaf regeneration.
While some herbs do have attractive flowers, it is the leaves that are prized, so the flowers are usually removed. Basil has a strong habit of wanting to flower, but removing one-third of the plant sets this process back for weeks.
By having plants nearby, fresh herbs are available for use for at least four months of the year. As the weather cools, some herbs can be potted and brought inside, but many are difficult to keep alive over winter. Fortunately, herbs are easily dried and stored, or even frozen. Search on the University of Illinois Extension website for detailed instructions on storing herbs. Given the wide availability of herb transplants in stores, and their ease of care, there is no reason not to give them a try.
Jim Stendler is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.