Herbs have an enormous popular appeal. They are easy to grow and can turn the average cook into a master chef with seemingly little effort. All you need is to use your imagination and follow your good culinary impulses.
The rule of thumb with most herbs is the more you neglect them the better they grow. Most people kill their herbs with kindness by over-watering and over-fertilizing them. (Basil is an exception; it likes to be fed.)
In the garden, you can fertilize your herbs at the onset of the season with an organic granular fertilizer, or alternatively give them a mid-season boost with fish emulsion, liquid kelp or a liquid fertilizer with low numbers (or leave them alone). Basil can be fed either every other week or monthly with fish emulsion or another foliar feed. Herbs grown in containers will have to be fertilized more often, monthly for most herbs and every 2 weeks for basil. Again, low numbers are best.
Herbs generally thrive in well-drained soil and full sun. The only work they require is that you pinch them back so that they don't get leggy and go to flower (unless you want them to). Cut back perennial herbs by 1/3 to harvest and annual herbs by 1/3 to 1/2.
While most herbs prefer a sunny site, some thrive in a slightly shady spot. Candidates for afternoon shade are parsley (Petroselinum crispum), mints (Mentha), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) and tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus).
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) and dill (Anethum graveolens) are short-lived annuals. They go to seed after a few weeks, so multiple sowings a few weeks apart will ensure a good supply. They prefer the cooler seasons of spring and fall. Basil, dill, and cilantro are all easy to sow from seeds.
Sage (Salvia officinalis), thyme (Thymus) and lavender (Lavandula) are perennial herbs that generally make a happy home in your garden if they have proper drainage (particularly in the cold, wet winter months). They need to be trimmed and cleaned up in the spring, but don't cut them back until you see the buds swell and new growth is visible.
Mints (Mentha) tend to be slightly invasive. In the garden, place them by the edge of paths, where they are given limited space. A nice trick is to plant them in the ground in a large nursery pot. Sink the plastic pot in the ground so that the rim rests just above the soil line. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is stronger and spearmint (Mentha spicata) is sweeter; the choice is yours.
The best time to harvest herbs, in general, is just before they go to flower; that's when they have the best flavor. If possible, pick your herbs on the day you'll use them. Cut in mid-morning, before the heat of the day. Clean off and pat dry with a paper towel.
Cooking with Herbs
Herbs are best when used fresh. If substituting fresh herbs for dried herbs in a recipe, multiply the quantity by 3, unless the herb is particularly pungent--then use twice the dried amount. Some herbs such as oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme and bay respond well to heat and should be added at the beginning of cooking recipes. Fresh basil, chives, parsley, tarragon, marjoram, mint and tarragon are best added at the last minute so that they retain their flavor, texture and color.
Have too many freshly cut herbs that you need to use immediately? Here are a few ideas: