Growing Culinary Herbs

A master gardener gives tips on growing herbs at home.


Buy started basil and cilantro for a quicker start on the season. (All photos courtesy of Maureen Gilmer)

You need a lot of basil for homemade pesto and bunches of fresh cilantro for Mexican salsas. Those delicious meals depend on fresh herbs, and those grown in your garden will impart the richest flavor.

Oil in the plants carries the marvelous scent, and the moment they are cut, the oils begin to evaporate. To cut your herbs and use them immediately ensures that your culinary creations will retain all the scent and flavor of the plant.

If you've never grown culinary herbs before, or if you've never grown much of anything, this group of plants can seem daunting.

The best place to get started is with the annuals. These herbs grow to maturity for just one season, like any other veggie crop. There's no waiting around for year two or three. With annuals you get big, fast-growing plants the first year — enough to season many meals.

While the herbs die at the end of the season with the first frost and must be replanted every spring, they are big bold plants that offer a long period of fresh harvest.

Basil is the No. 1 one annual herb. You'll find it for sale as seedlings in most home improvement centers and all garden centers. There are some named cultivars that offer a slightly different taste if you're interested in experimenting. See them online at The Cook's Garden, The two main groups are green basil and purple-leaf basil. The purple-leaf form adds distinctive color to sauces and salads, in addition to flavor.

Basil grows into big bushy plants through the growing season. It slows down after forming little flower spikes that mature to produce seed. If you nip the spikes off as soon as they appear, you can fool the plant into growing for a much longer time.

The herb once known as coriander is far better known today as cilantro. This herb that figures so largely in Latin American cuisine is as easily grown from seed as it is nursery seedlings. The species develops two types of leaves, the wide juvenile and more wispy mature foliage.

Juvenile foliage is the best for cooking and remains in a dense tuft until temperatures exceed 75 degrees. With the warm weather, or after eight to 10 weeks from germination, the plants bolt into a tall stalk. They bear the feathery mature foliage, then flower on top with a flat umbel similar to that of carrots or dill. Save the seeds and use them for next year's crop.

It's important to start early with cilantro. Savvy gardeners will sow it from seed because nursery grown starts may already have been exposed to warm temperatures in the greenhouse and may bolt too quickly. They may start a few seeds each week so that there are always younger plants to compensate for earlier sowings at that 10-week bolt stage. That gives you the longest usable period of juvenile foliage. Although mature leaves are also good for seasoning, they have far less mass and you need considerably more of them for a dish.

Because cilantro prefers cool temperatures and basil loves heat, you can stagger your crops. Enjoy your cilantro in the early summer, then switch to your basil dishes later on. Save seed from both if you wish to start crops next year.

Provide both these plants with plenty of water and organic fertilizer to stimulate foliage production. Pick them often to encourage a dense, compact growth habit. Whether you have a tiny city yard or a country estate, cilantro and basil will keep you cooking up a storm while the perennials are just getting started.

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