8 things to know before growing your own herbs

Lessons learned from "Herb: A Cook’s Companion," a new book that celebrates the joys of cooking with herbs

By Emma Wartzman
Published May 28, 2021 7:59AM (EDT)
 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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There are few things more satisfying than picking food that you grew yourself. But nurturing fruits and vegetables can be a tricky business. It takes trial and error (no matter how much you read on the subject), and requires time, energy, and some amount of space to get a worthwhile harvest. Herbs, comparatively, are quite simple to bring up. No one knows this better than Mark Diacono, who put it most succinctly when he said, "The leaves are the prize and the plant's job is to grow them to survive."

That sentence comes from the food writer's new book, "Herb: A Cook's Companion," a glorious encyclopedia of information on how to grow — and then subsequently cook with and preserve — more types of herbs than you have probably ever heard of before. There is a whole section dedicated to the nitty-gritty particulars of each (the varieties of fennel, the ideal conditions for lovage once winter comes, how to space marjoram seeds). But throughout, there are tips that apply more broadly to the vast majority of herbs, because it is Diacono's belief that they are powerhouses of the garden and kitchen, requiring little work and little space for maximum reward.

Here, he lays out the fundamentals. Read through it, and you're well on your way toward growing success.

1. Most herbs enjoy plenty of sun, to be kept out of harsh winds, a good amount of water, and soil that drains the water well. 

If you stick to these four tenets, you should be able to grow almost any herbs you choose, no matter where you live. Giving your plants plenty of sun throughout the day is an easier feat in the spring and summer, as is keeping them out of the wind. Diacono also recommends watering in the morning. This way, the plants can drink up before it gets too hot out and the moisture is sucked away.

As for soil, you'll want to buy potting soil, which comes ready-made with ideal conditions for planting in pots (more on that below). Throughout the season, every couple of weeks or so, you should replenish the nutrients by sprinkling new compost or soil on top of the existing surface (you can also fortify with a not-too-strong liquid feed, like fish emulsion).

2. Speaking of pots, you should grow your herbs in them. 

Of course, you can grow them in the ground if your natural environment is well-suited for edibles, but individual containers allow you to control the environment so particularly that achieving the above four conditions is easy. Plus, you can place pots anywhere you like for maximum picking convenience.

3. But you should also mind the size of your pots.

Don't put a tiny sprout in a large vessel. "It'll flounder in a sea of soil and the roots won't know where to go without support from the sides," Diacono says. Every time you water, you'll be wasting both the water itself and the nutrients in the soil, which will leech out before the plant can reach and absorb them. Start small and re-pot as your herbs grow. Then reuse the smaller ones to begin something new.

4. Get to know the difference between perennials and annuals. 

Perennials last for multiple seasons: They may lose all their leaves when winter comes, but if treated right, they'll grow back with a vengeance in spring. These generally include heartier varieties, like rosemary, thyme, and sage. Annuals give all that they've got over the course of one season before they are spent. They're typically softer varieties, like basil, parsley, and cilantro. "Perennials are typically well-suited for beginners," Diacono says. "They're naturally strong and vigorous, so your main job is to not overwater them, and to not hammer them too hard when they're young" (aka don't overharvest).

5. Contrary to standard advice, try growing what you use less of. 

Usually, people tell you to grow what you eat on the regular, which . . . makes sense. But Diacono likes to grow herbs he only uses on occasion, generally ones that are not commonly found in his local grocery store in the U.K., like Korean mint and Vietnamese coriander. "It's a way of throwing your larder door open," he says. "I don't use those all the time, but when I do, they really stand out. No generic mint or coriander could take their place to the same effect." Besides, if you go through parsley like nobody's business, it might not be the smartest use of space in your garden.

6. Learn how to propagate your herbs. 

Propagation is the act of growing baby plants from parent plants, whether through cuttings, transplanting roots, or division. Diacono gets into the more minute how-to in his book for each method, but essentially you take a piece of a fully-grown plant — whether it's a branch (say, of rosemary), a root (like with tarragon), or half to quarters of an entire bursting, sprawling specimen (such as chives or lovage) — and give them a new home elsewhere. "It's a way of getting plants for free," as Diacono puts it.

7. Also learn how to prune them. 

In its most dramatic sense, pruning is a necessity as plants grow bigger in order to keep them an ideal size and shape—and productive all the while. When it comes to herbs, pruning often happens as harvesting. This simply means that when you pick leaves off of a plant to take them into the kitchen, do so thoughtfully, and then you may also call it pruning. Plucking leaves from the top (and not too many of them, especially in the beginning) before plants flower, prevents stems from growing leggy. (When they do flower, most of a plant's energy then goes toward that pretty part, instead of towards the edible leaves you use most commonly in cooking.) Pruning encourages growth outward so that herbs become bushy and abundant instead of skinny and sparse.

8. If you're going to grow edibles, choose something you've never eaten before. Or maybe two or three things. 

This is never easier than with herbs, which — in case you didn't pick up on it yet — are an especially flexible way to experiment, given their low-commitment, small-space nature. Diacono planted lemon verbena for the first time 20 years ago, shiso for the first time 10 years ago, and Korean mint (which falls somewhere in the middle of generic mint and aniseed in flavor) for the first time about five years ago. All of them are now staples in his garden every year. Worst case, you don't like something. Best case, you've given a small amount of real estate to a plant that will totally transform the way you cook and eat.

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Emma Wartzman

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