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12 Herbs Every Gardener Should Grow

12 Herbs Every Gardener Should Grow

When I was a young girl growing up on the farm in West Tennessee, I remember relatives who would tell me about picking something called poke salad. They would cook and season it as they would turnip greens, and eat it with beans and cornbread. I never really cared for poke salad, turnip greens or collard greens while I was growing up because I thought they tasted strong and I didn’t really like the flavor.  Today, I can’t get enough of them, especially if they’re seasoned with ham hock and splashed with a little pepper vinegar!  I also remember talk of eating dandelions and other forage vegetables that we all had in our backyards. Even though I didn’t want to try it as a kid, I was fascinated that people could eat food that grew just steps from their own back doors.

I guess this made sense if you think about it, though.  When you live on a farm, it’s not like you are exactly convenient to the local supermarket. It’s a planned trip, with expenses of money and time just to get back and forth, not to mention facing food prices that are usually much higher than what you’d pay for food you grew yourself.  Farmers tend to be self-reliant folks, who know the value of a dollar, and who all too often don’t have that many dollars to throw around.  Making the most of what Nature provided right off your doorstep was simply a practical solution to the questions of how to save time and stretch dollars.

When I came back to the farm in my 40’s, I knew that I wanted to grow fresh herbs. Working for the Kroger Co. after college introduced me to fresh herbs, but I still didn’t understand why they were important. The introduction of The Food Network has given many people a general understanding of how to use herbs in cooking, but most of the recipes still use the standards of basil, parsley, thyme, and chives. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with these. I knew I loved the flavor of fresh herbs but I wanted to know much more. I began to read the old Foxfire book series, which opened up a whole new world to me of learning how our ancestors used herbs in cooking, preserving and medicinally. (Olin’s Uncle, Dennis Mitchell, first introduced me to the series and I was hooked: if you can get your hands on any of these books, they are definitely fascinating!)

Another, often overlooked, reason that herbs are an integral part of a healthy garden is because many of them attract beneficial insects (“Beneficial” because they act as predators and damaging parasites on insects that will otherwise ravage your garden and your produce).  I’ll be writing about beneficial insects another time, but just know for now (if you didn’t already) that you cannot grow your food naturally (without pesticides/herbicides) unless you attract beneficial insects.

In 2010 Olin and I joined the Williamson County Master Gardeners Association (WCMGA) and we were introduced to Cindy Shapton, aka “The Cracked Pot Gardener”.  Cindy is herself a certified Master Gardener, herbalist, consultant and garden designer for commercial and residential clients, a writer and speaker. She was a past president of the WCMGA and a regular speaker, but more than that she was the most knowledgeable person I had ever met concerning growing and using herbs both for culinary and medicinal purposes. I was and remain fascinated by the sheer amount of knowledge she had on the history of herbs and their uses.

Cindy Shapton lavender

Cindy had written a book in 2007, called “The Cracked Pot Herb Book:  Simple Ways to Incorporate Herbs into Everyday Life” which has been very well received by anyone lucky enough to procure a copy. I still use Cindy’s book regularly for both the recipes and the background information and history she shares about herbs.   In 2011, when we opened Stoney Creek Farm to the public, Cindy Shapton was one of the first speakers we engaged to give a seminar specifically on herbs. She is a delightful speaker and uses humor to deliver all of her valuable information. Below are some nuggets that she has shared in her classes at our farm:

  • The Romans used coriander (the seed of cilantro) as a spice and meat preservative. They in turn adopted this practice from Eastern traders, especially those from faraway India, who had been using this herb as a preservative and medicine for centuries.
  • Dill also goes back in history to biblical times, where it was used as a medicine to remedy colic, flatulence, estrogen deficiency, digestive problems, and bad breath.
  • If you’ve never tried a small leaf of sage on a Ritz cracker with cream cheese, you are missing out!  It makes the greatest appetizer.
  • Oregano leaves makes a great tea that can soothe your throat during cold season.
  • Weeds are herbs. For instance, Chickweed is loaded with vitamins A, B, and C, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. The Dandelions you may try to kill off on your lawns are a diuretic, great for weight loss and high blood pressure, and contain mega mounts of vitamins and minerals.They may also be beneficial in cancer prevention and therapy: Who knew?
  • Lemon Balm contains citronella in the leaves and works as an insect repellent when you rub it on your skin.  Cindy also has a wonderful lemon balm bread recipe in her book.

Herb tags

There are some basic herbs that I believe everyone should have in their garden and these are the ones that I grow for the public and myself:
1. Basil – this is my favorite just because it’s so darned tasty and you can use it in almost anything, especially fresh pesto. I also love basil because it’s a companion plant for my tomatoes. It helps deter evil insects with its smell.
2. Oregano – I use it in all my Italian recipes, but just a little goes a long way. I also use it in the winter during cold season, to brew in a tea and drink hot… helps sore throats.
3. Rosemary – in our growing area only the ARP variety will sustain through the winter. Rosemary potatoes, Rosemary chicken, and sprinkling Rosemary in salad all yield very tasty recipes.
4. Lemon balm – be sure to grow lemon balm with a barrier around it because it is invasive and left to itself will take over your entire garden. But I love lemon balm to flavor water or tea, in homemade bread, and to use as an insect repellent on my skin during the summer. (Mosquitoes love me.)
5. Cilantro – I am a salsa nut and you can’t make fresh salsa without it. It hates hot weather in the summer, but just know that it will reseed itself in the fall for more fresh salsa.
6. Dill – great in salads and homemade pickles, but best of all, a host plant for butterflies.
7. Mint – any variety is great (but also very invasive) and can be used in fruit salads, jellies, and numerous drink recipes.
8. Parsley – “the herb of champions” it compliments other herbs by helping balance out strongly flavored ones.
9. Nasturtium – beautiful flowers and spicy leaves that can be eaten in salads.
10. Sage – I love the flavor all year round…in appetizers, on meat dishes, stuffing and more.
11. Garlic – I know, I know, it’s not an herb, but I grow it in my herb garden, so I think everyone should have it.   I use it sparingly in most dishes for flavor. I’ve also read that it kills bacteria, lowers cholesterol, and is a natural antibiotic.
12. Comfrey – mostly medicinal, use externally on the skin as a natural Band-Aid.  Also, comfrey leaves in a bucket with water (compost tea) makes a wonderful liquid fertilizer after it sits a few days.

Bonus Note:  One herb that is particularly helpful for people with migraines is “Feverfew”.  I grew it one year, but I do not have migraines, so I gave it to someone who did.     It’s important to know that to keep many of your herbs growing throughout the summer, you will need to trim the flowers from the herbs on a regular basis.  This practice is especially important on basil and cilantro.  The flowers are the plant’s way of starting to regenerate itself for the next season by making seed.  Keeping the flowers trimmed will prolong the life of the herb.

Preserving Herbs for the Winter:   I don’t preserve nasturtium or comfrey, but I dry most of my herbs in a dehydrator or tie I them in bundles and hang them in the garage during the winter months.  If you do this, just make sure your garage is cool and dry, not moist, because the herbs will mold in a moist environment.  Two herbs that I freeze are Mint and Basil, because I think they taste better frozen than dried.  I simply pick the leaves off the stems, wash them thoroughly, pat them dry with paper towels and put them in Ziplocs freezer bags to store in the freezer.  To use them, just take out a small frozen amount and crush into your recipe.  The leaves will be crunchy, so it makes it easy to crush them.   By now you probably realize that there is much more I could say about herbs than I have room for here, but I definitely enjoy growing them, and get a lot of use out of them. If you aren’t yet growing herbs in your garden, I’d strongly recommend you start.  We offer cuttings at our farm that can help you do this.

If you’d like to know what a real expert has to say about herbs, I would strongly recommend that you visit Cindy Shapton’s website, http://www.crackedpotgardener.com to get an astounding amount of information on her beloved herbs, as well as homesteading and organic practices.  (You can also purchase Cindy’s book on her website.)