The Edible Garden

Great Annual Herbs

by Joan S. Bolton

Growing annual herbs from seed is one of the easiest, most rewarding tasks you can tackle in the garden.

Annual herbs grow fast. In a matter of weeks you’ll be able to snip your first flavorful leaves. From seed you’ll find a greater selection than from transplants, and the seed packets will cost less. Sow a few plants every few weeks, and you’ll have your favorite herbs—fresh—until next winter. And up close, many annual herbs bear beautiful leaf colors, patterns and textures. Let some flower, and beneficial insects will be attracted to your garden as well.

A Need for Speed

Unlike perennial herbs, which are in it for the long haul, annual herbs do their business in a season. Theirs is a simple life. They germinate, send up stems, branches and leaves, then produce buds and flowers. Soon after, they go to seed, collapse and die.

One advantage to this brief dance in the spotlight is that most annual herbs don’t take a lot of space. That’s why they flourish in cute little pots; they don’t typically produce much root mass. Another plus is that you don’t have to make a lifetime investment in an herb that you might not like. With such fast results, it’s easy to experiment without risking much time, money or effort.

Getting Started

Fast-draining, fertile soil and plenty of sunshine are key. The easiest way to control the planting medium is to grow your annual herbs in containers. Fill with premium potting soil then add a balanced, slow-release, granular fertilizer. On a windowsill or table, you can use small, terra cotta pots. Or fill larger bowls or containers with an assortment of herbs. In the ground, unless your bed is already rich and loamy, plant in raised beds or mounds. Supplement the existing soil with generous amounts of loose, well-aged organic material to create a fine, crumbly mix.

The Best

Basil. If you grow only one annual herb, let it be basil. The tender herb is the most exquisite complement to homegrown tomatoes. From seed you’ll find an array of flavors, including sweet, lemon, anise, cinnamon, Italian, Thai and Greek, each with a different leaf shape and fragrance. Most varieties grow a foot tall and wide. They perform best with heat, fluffy soil and frequent water. Seeds have a high germination rate, so sow them a few inches apart then thin the seedlings to 12 inches apart. Harvest the foliage throughout the growing season. Or wait until the flower buds begin to form, which is when the leaves will contain their most concentrated oils.

Borage. This fuzzy, blue-blooming herb hit the big time when edible flowers became fashionable a decade ago. Both the flowers and leaves taste like mild cucumber. In the ground, the knee-high plants may run rampant, seeding out exuberantly into poor, dry soil. Instead, contain your borage in a pot, where it will happily bask in full sun or part shade. Honeybees love the flowers, too.

Chamomile. This soothing sun lover comes in two flavors. Annual German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an upright herb that bears white, button-sized daisy flowers for brewing a mild tea. (Discard the narrow white petals and brew the yellow button centers.) Perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) forms a low, fragrant mat and fits well between stepping-stones. Its pungent flowers may taste bitter and are better in potpourri.

Cilantro. The fresh, chopped leaves of this dual-purpose herb are a must-grow for salsa, while its coriander seeds are a key component in curry. Cilantro is best suited for sowing directly in the garden, as it sends down a deep taproot at the same time that it quickly stretches 1 to 3 feet tall. Plants may look weedy, especially if they get blown about by the wind or go dry. Harvest the newest, freshest leaves and plan to sow new plants every few weeks through the end of summer. Let a few specimens flower, to attract beneficial insects. Harvest the coriander when the seeds turn brown.

Dill. Related to cilantro, dill also sends down a taproot. Sow it where you’d like it to grow. Have patience; seeds may take a few weeks to sprout. Dill will bolt if it’s too hot or too crowded. Provide some shade and thin the seedlings to 6 to 8 inches apart. Harvest the wispy leaves for everything from fish to potatoes then gather the seeds for pickling cucumbers.

Parsley. This wavy-leaved herb prefers cooler spots, too. Be warned that its seeds can be balky to germinate. You may have better luck buying transplants. Curly parsley is an attractive, ankle-high edging in partial shade. Flat, broad-leaf Italian parsley yields stronger flavor and grows up to 3 feet tall.

Summer Savory. With dainty pink flowers lining its upright stalks, summer savory is one of the prettiest annual herbs. Its slender, aromatic leaves and flowering tops complement perennial oregano, rosemary and thyme in herbes de Provence mixes. It grows about a foot tall and prefers full sun.

Joan S. Bolton is a freelance writer, garden coach and garden designer who confesses to a lifelong love affair with plants. She and her husband, Tom, have filled their four-acre property in western Goleta with natives and other colorful, water-conserving plants. They also maintain avocado, citrus and fruit trees and grow vegetables and herbs year-round.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on Pinterest
Categories Spring 2009