Seven Essential Culinary Herbs

There are seven essential culinary herbs that everyone should grow, whether its in the garden or in containers. These seven are the ones most used in cooking, and by growing them yourself, you’ll add flavor to your meals as well as saving money.

Historically, herbs have been used as remedies for illness, flavoring foods, storing with linens for freshness and scent, as dyestuffs for dyeing fabric, strewing on floors, or burning for their pleasant fragrances. Early herb gardens were the major source for food seasoning, before spices were commonly available.

Today, many gardeners are rediscovering the pleasure of producing their own herbs. Herb gardens, almost an essential feature for cooking aficionados, can be placed in sunny corners near the house so the fresh herbs are quickly available to the cook.

Nowadays, culinary herbs are probably the most useful to herb gardeners, having a wide range of uses in cooking. The seven herbs I consider absolutely essential to any kitchen herb garden are oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, parsley, chives and sage.Blooming clump of chives

Chives are small, dainty plants of the onion family that grow in clumps about 10 inches in height. They are a hardy perennial with decorative, light purple flowers. One of the first to show green in the spring, chives take little care other than dividing when they become overcrowded. They are easily propagated by division or from seed and can even be used as attractive border plants in your flower garden.

Cut fresh leaves for use as they grow. Use the purple flower heads in salads. For winter use, chives can be dried, but retain better flavor if frozen. Or, if you have a sunny window, pot up a clump in the fall, and enjoy chives fresh all year long. Chives impart a delicious, subtle, onion-like flavor to foods. Use them in omelets, potato salads, and as a garnish cottage cheese.

Parsley is a hardy biennial that is usually treated as an annual. The curly leaves have a characteristic flavor and smell. Italian parsley is similar, with flat leaves and a more distinctive taste. Parsley grows easily from seed, but is difficult to transplant because of its long taproot.

The leaves are best used fresh, but can be dried. Parsley is one of the most familiar of all herbs and is used for both garnishing and flavoring. It is a good addition to tomato salads, potato salad, and leafy green salads. If used in cooking, add it just before serving. It is relatively high in vitamins A and C and iron, and chewing on a fresh leaf or two is a great breath freshener.

Basil is an attractive but tender annual, about 18 inches tall with light-green, fairly broad leaves. The flowers are small and appear in spikes. There are several species of cultivated basil, so grow a few types. Plant your basil after all danger of frost has passed. As the plants grow, pinch the stems to promote bushy, compact growth. Avoid using much fertilizer, as lush growth will reduce the flavor.


Basil in bloom.

Spicy-scented basil leaves are one of the most popular of all herbs used in cooking. Cooks favor basil for tomato and pasta dishes in either fresh or dried form. Chop up fresh leaves and add them to salads. For winter use, you can dry basil. It is best to cut leaves for drying just before flowers open. I prefer to freeze it, as the flavor retention is much greater. Another way to keep it for winter use is to make basil pesto, and freeze the pesto in small quantities (I put it into an ice cube tray).

Oregano is a hardy perennial that has sprawling stems which can grow to 2 feet tall. The stems will often root where they lie on the soil, so it will take over a larger and larger area. This plant is much coarser than sweet marjoram and smells more like thyme. It has small pink, purple or white flowers, depending on the variety.

Oregano grows well in poor soil and can be propagated by seed, layering or division. Thin the new plants 10 to 12 inches apart. Stimulate foliage by cutting back flowers. When the plants become woody in 3 to 4 years, it’s time to replant from seed or cuttings. If you are in a warmer area, you may be able to use your oregano fresh all year round.

The fresh leaves can be used in many recipes. Oregano leaves are used extensively as a flavoring on pizza. Sprinkle leaves over lamb or steak rubbed with lemon juice. Add to other Italian-type sauces. Chop a few fresh leaves into potato salad or a green salad. Preserve oregano leaves by hanging a bunch to dry, and when they’re dried, crumble just the leaves and store in a cool place, out of direct light.

Rosemary is a hardy evergreen shrub in areas where winter temperatures stay above 5F (-15C). (In our colder winter here on Canada’s west coast, my 2 rosemary bushes suffered terribly. Many branches were killed completely, so I’ll have to replant!) In colder climates, however, this perennial should be taken indoors and kept as a pot plant during winter.

The narrow leaves feel like fir needles, and have a spicy, resinous fragrance. Rosemary grows best in well-drained, sunny locations in lime-rich soil. It can be propagated by cuttings or grown from seed. Pinch the tips to direct the plant’s growth.

In areas where rosemary can’t winter over, cut branches and freeze them for use. Rosemary can be dried, but is much more flavorful fresh or frozen. Rosemary is a popular flavoring for meats and dressings, in stews or as a garnish on large roasts. The leaves can finely chopped and added to biscuit or bread dough for a flavorful bread.


Common garden sage

Sage is a woody, hardy perennial plant with oblong, wooly, gray-green leaves that are lighter underneath and darker on top.

Sage can grow 2 to 3 feet or more in height and has a tendency to sprawl. There are several varieties available, with purple leaves, variegated leaves or green leaves. Some varieties have attractive deep blue flowers.

Start sage from seed or cuttings. A slow starter, sow seed indoors and transplant. Plant sage where it will receive full sun and space 2 feet apart. Plants eventually become woody and should be renewed every 3 to 4 years. Pick the leaves before or at blooming. Cut back the stems after blooming. Sage leaves can be dried or used fresh. This aromatic and slightly bitter herb is commonly used in stuffings for poultry, rabbit, pork, and baked fish. It also can be used in sausage or meat loaves.


Thyme is a low-growing, wiry-stemmed perennial that reaches about 6 to 10 inches in height. The stems are stiff and woody and the aromatic leaves are small, oval, and gray-green in color. The lilac flowers are borne in small clusters and attract bees. This plant grows best in light, well-drained soil.

Thin the plants 8 to 12 inches apart. It is best to renew the plants every few years, as they will get woody and leggy. Propagate thyme with cuttings, divisions, or by direct seeding. There are several varieties of ornamental thymes as well as culinary ones. Ornamental thymes are attractive edging plants, and the spreading varieties are used for ground cover among and over rocks.

Cut the leafy tops and flower clusters when first blossoms open and hang them to dry, or use the fresh leaves. Thyme retains its flavor well when dried. It goes well in gumbos, bouillabaisse, clam chowder, poultry stuffing, and slow-cooking beef dishes.

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