Skip to Main Content

LuEsther T. Mertz Library
Plant & Research Guides

Library Home Plant Help Research Support All Guides

Library Home Plant Help Research Support All Guides

Herbal Delights: Home

Photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Rhonda Fleming Hayes
Photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Rhonda Fleming Hayes

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.

Thyme is a perennial herb; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Thyme is a perennial herb; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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.

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) are a nice addition to herb butters; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) are a nice addition to herb butters; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

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:

  • Bouquet Garni:

    A dry bouquet garni, a mix of dry herbs tied together, is commonly used in soups, stews and sauces. Fresh herbs work just as well. Tie together your choice of herbs (bay leaves, parsley, thyme and lovage are all good candidates) with an assortment of flavorful vegetables (a carrot, a leek and celery). Drop this bundle into your concoction and remove once the dish is finished. You'll add oodles of flavors to your creations.
  • Herb Mayonnaise:

    Tarragon makes a wonderful complement to mayonnaise, as do basil, chervil, dill and chives. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of herbs per cup of mayonnaise and let infuse for at least one hour before serving. A tablespoon of curry powder will add additional flavor and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper or dried chili flakes will add a kick.
  • Herb Dips:

    Same concept as herbal mayonnaise, with a base of sour cream or sour cream and mayonnaise. Parsley, basil, chives, dill and cilantro are some of the stars of these dips. Add scallions, spinach, pressed garlic, lemon juice and salt and pepper to complement the herbal flavors. All the ingredients can be tossed into a blender to mince and blend.
  • Salad Dressings:

    Simple salad dressing can be turned into something special by adding fresh herbs. Chopping up a tablespoon of basil, chives, parsley or dill and adding it to vinaigrette can swiftly elevate your culinary skills. Marjoram has a sweeter flavor than its spicy cousin oregano and also makes a wonderful addition to salads. Yogurt-based dressings are excellent with either mint or dill.
  • Herb Butters:

    Soften butter and mash in a variety of chopped herbs. Pot marigolds (Calendula) are a nice, edible addition that adds color. Lemon juice and garlic are often added to these recipes but are not essential. Herb butter will last up to 6 weeks in your refrigerator and 6 months in your freezer.
  • Pesto:

    Pesto doesn't have to be basil-based any more (although you can make a delicious 3-basil pesto using lemon basil, bush basil, Italian basil and parsley). Experiment by making pesto with parsley, marjoram, thyme, coriander, rosemary or chives. Pine nuts are tasty but can be expensive; try substituting walnuts or almond slices. If you are making pesto to freeze, leave out the cheese in the recipe and add it at the last minute.
  • Herbal Vinegars:

    Herbal vinegars are simple to make. First sterilize your jar for 10 minutes by submerging it in a bath of boiling water. Remember that vinegar corrodes metal, so avoid metal lids. Suitable vinegars to use are white wine, red wine and cider. White wine vinegar is particularly fun if you have purple basil or chive blossoms that will color the infusion. Let it steep and strain the vinegar when it is to taste, and enjoy.
  • Herbal Teas:

    Some herb flowers and foliage make wonderful tea. Generally, use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs or 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs per cup of water. For your desired flavor, steep tea for up to 15 minutes. German chamomile, lavender flowers, lemon balm, mint, bee balm and calendula all make good teas.

Ask a Plant Expert

Contact Us

with your plant questions by email

Find a Plant at NYBG

Find a Plant at NYBG

Map of NYBG

Related Plant Society

Noteworthy Books on Herbs