Along with the growth in our culinary diversity, there’s been quite a resurgence in the demand for fresh herbs to add new flavours and zest. They not only have delightful and useful foliage, but their fragrance and flowers can also be a welcome addition to any garden or patio. One of the key things to understand about herbs is the difference between perennial varieties that come back year after year and annual herbs that are more tender and should only be planted out in late May/early June. Perennial herbs can be harvested all year round while most annual herbs will finish in late September or early October.
In the new reality of small space and balcony gardens, herbs adapt easily to both situations. They are among the easiest of plants to grow and some are incredibly tolerant of a bit of neglect. Even so, they will perform and look far more beautiful with a little care and attention.
We’re big fans of growing herbs in containers (they look particularly nice when combined with other annuals or perennials, particularly if those plants offer edible blooms!). One of the first considerations, however, is the style of the container. Size does matter, and the larger the better. Good-sized containers hold more soil and moisture and require less watering, a bonus during the hot, dry months of summer. If you intend to grow the hardier herbs year-round, make sure you purchase a frost resistant container. Move containers under eaves to minimize excessive moisture in the soil from winter rains and to prevent your pots from cracking.
The soil you select for your containers should be both well draining and moisture retaining. Shop for professional soil blends rather than shopping for the cheapest fill you can find. Adding about 20 percent organic matter, like composted manures and ‘Sea Soil’, to the soil will help nourish your plants over the growing season, just make sure your soil is still well-draining after the addition (you don’t want to make it too heavy).
Two important considerations are nutrients and pest control. Weekly applications of an organic fertilizer will do the trick, but in hot summer weather an application at each watering will make a huge difference. Fortunately, most herbs are not troubled with many insect problems, except for aphids that can be easily washed off with a gentle spray of water or kept in check by a few doses of ‘Safer’s Soap’ products. Powdery mildew is always a challenging disease for herbs, especially in wet weather. Safer’s ‘Defender’ is a great control; remove affected leaves and spray the remaining foliage. Keeping your plants a little drier, rather than too wet, and watering in the morning at soil level so the foliage is dry at night is the best way to prevent diseases and keep your herbs clean and fresh.
When choosing herbs, select the varieties you know and use most frequently. Let’s start with the perennial herbs:
Chives are some of the hardiest and most ancient of all herbs. In spring, the pink puffy flowers of chives are edible and nice to sprinkle on salads, and pollinators love them. Garlic chives have a flatter leaf and garlicky flavour, and are terrific added to cheese dishes, salads, herb butters and sour cream dips. Chives are hardy to zone 3.
Mint can be invasive so keep it in containers. Today, we have many varieties of mint, ranging from apple and chocolate to orange and spearmint, and they are very popular as garnishes and in drinks and teas. Mojito mint anyone? They will also spice up salads, soups and meats. Mint is tolerant of lower light levels, so if you’ve got a shadier spot, a large pot of mint would do nicely here. Mint is typically hardy to zone 4.
Oregano and marjoram are plant cousins and very similar in flavour. Both are used in Mediterranean and Middle East cuisines. As with many of the other herbs, they dry quite well. Greek oregano is hardy to zone 5. Common marjoram is also hardy to zone 5, but sweet marjoram is only hardy to zone 9.
Thyme has a unique perfume, and lemon thyme is becoming very popular because of its wonderful flavouring in soups and sauces, especially in Italian dishes. Thyme will also enhance the flavour of fish, poultry and pork. Despite it’s delicate look thyme is quite hardy, to Zone 4!
Rosemary is one of the most beautiful of all herbs with its many trailing and upright forms and captivating perfume. A few sprigs of rosemary will lift meats, like lamb and pork, stews and stuffing to a new level. Rosemary is not hardy for our area (it’s Zone 8) so it must be placed in a sheltered area in really good, well-drained soil, in a south or west facing position. In warmer areas, zone 6 and higher, it can stay out all winter with a little protection, but you do have to watch for forecast cold snaps, and protect your rosemary ahead of time. Rosemary ‘Arp’ is one of the hardiest varieties!
Parsley, both the curled and the single leafed ‘Italian’, is delightful in a range of dishes from soups and stews to lightly braised vegetables and egg dishes and refreshing tabbouleh salad. Parsley is a biennial.
Now for the annual herbs, which will give you tonnes of flavour… for one season only!
Basil is the most sought after annual herb because of its great relationship with the tomato and all its sauces. Basil should never be planted out before early June as it needs to have hot, dry weather to minimize damping off. Basil is happier on the drier side of things, so water thoroughly but let dry lightly before watering again. Basil does not do well with overwatering, or cool temperatures.
Cilantro (coriander) has been cherished for thousands of years. For a continuous crop, you can collect its seeds as it bolts, and it reseeds easily in containers. For a fresh supply, you need to keep planting every few weeks all summer long.
Dill is another hugely popular annual herb. Foliage is delightful in dips, with fish and can be harvested when foliage is about 6” high. Harvest heads when the seeds start to brown. Dill loses a lot of flavour when it is dried, so if you want to save some of your plant for later use, consider freezing the greens instead.
These are, by far, the most popular and delightful of all herbs, and it’s hard to imagine a small balcony or garden without them! While you’re in, be sure to check out some of the less common herbs that we have in stock, like sweet stevia, brilliant pineapple sage, earthy bay laurel and more!