Fresh herbs usually provide the best flavor. An easy way to keep fresh herbs handy for cooking is to grow them in containers. Set your containers outside close to the kitchen so it's easy to dash out and snip a few sprigs as you need them. You can even grow them right in the kitchen if you have a sunny window or a place to set them under a grow light. In cold climates, the outdoor containers of some herbs can be moved indoors when the temperatures drop for year-round harvest.
Most herbs need lots of sun to thrive, so first determine what areas offer the best growing conditions. Deciding which herbs to grow is the fun part! Consider growing herbs not only to use in cooking, but also for their looks. Many herbs have interesting growth habits and attractive flowers and/or foliage, earning their keep even if you don't use them for cooking.
A variety of containers can be used for herb growing. Consider strawberry pots, window boxes, and hanging baskets; pots made of plastic or clay in a range of sizes -- whatever suits your purposes, tastes, and decor. Make sure the container has one or more drainage holes. If the container is inside or on a surface requiring protection, place the container in a saucer or similar catch basin.
How frequently your containers of herbs will need watering will depend on weather conditions, the type of container, and type and amount of soil. Until you establish a watering pattern for each container, check the soil daily and determine if water is needed. (And remember that the water needs of outdoor containers will continue to vary with changing weather conditions.) The soil should not be allowed to dry out, but it also should not be soggy. A regular feeding with an organic fertilizer such as fish or seaweed emulsion will provide an added boost. Use at half-strength weekly or bi-weekly, or full strength monthly.
Check the plants regularly for insects or disease. Promptly remove any leaves and stems that show signs of disease. Remove insects by hand or with a blast of water, but not such a strong blast that the plants are damaged. Do not use insecticides or fungicides as you will be eating the leaves and/or flowers of these plants.
You can grow more than one kind of herb in a container. You can also mix herbs with other flowering or foliage plants for added interest. Just make sure containers are sized to give all plants room to grow. If you like tea, you might consider growing rosemary, German chamomile, lemon balm, feverfew, or your favorite mint. You could also grow a variety of mints or add some thyme or anise hyssop for your tea. A strawberry pot might contain a mixture of rosemary, golden sage, lime thyme, silver thyme, chives and marjoram. Parsley, both curly and Italian types, is a good container plant, as are the various kinds of basil.
Pruning and harvesting leaves encourages new growth and provides a continual source of new leaves to harvest. It also keeps the plants tidy and prevents them from spreading beyond the space you've allotted to them. Snipping sprigs off with scissors is often the best method of harvest.
You can also extend your herb harvest almost indefinitely by propagating new plants from stem cuttings. Mints, rosemary and lemon balm are just some of the herbs that lend themselves to this. Cut four to five inch lengths from the top of the plants. Dip the stems in rooting hormone and insert them in propagating mix or clean sand. Place them in a warm spot and keep the growing medium moist. In a few weeks, you'll have new rooted plants.
Teach children about the cycles of nature and the benefits of herbs as you care for the plants. If space allows, you might also give them one or more containers that are their responsibility. Use the harvest from their plants for special kids treats such as pizza, ice cream, or a minty drink.
Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.