Do you love cooking with fresh herbs? Or have you never tried it? I feel like I can’t live without fresh herbs. My mother always kept an herb garden. The last 7 years, I have kept a number of herbs growing indoors and outdoors, as well, and they feature in a regular part of our diet. It is such a happy thing to run out the kitchen door and snip a few sprigs of thyme, parsley, or basil for dinner!
If you haven’t tried fresh herbs, you are missing out! Try some and taste the difference. If you cook with herbs but don’t garden, consider which may be best for you, and try growing an herb or two!
Read on to discover the perfect fresh herbs to grow at home. In this post I’ll cover these topics:
Why Fresh Herbs Are Better
How to Grow Fresh Herbs
Choosing the Best Herbs to Grow for your Space
How I Use Fresh Herbs (including links to several of my favorite recipes)
Why Fresh Herbs Are Better
Flavor—There is no comparison to dried herbs
Easy access—Snipping what you need from your windowsill or kitchen garden saves extra trips to the store
Less waste—Herbs last longer on the plant than in the refrigerator
Cheaper—Over time, growing your own herbs saves money
Beauty—Herbs can freshen up a windowsill, beautify a vegetable garden, or even compliment a flower bed or border
How to Grow Fresh Herbs at Home
There are several effective ways to grow your own fresh herbs.
Purchasing Herb Seedlings
The easiest way to start growing fresh herbs is to buy the seedlings at a nursery, greenhouse, or other location that sells spring flowers and garden plants. They may cost several dollars per plant. That isn’t a problem if you only want one plant (seed packets cost more than $2 anyway) or it is a perennial (so it will be a one-time purchase), or you simply don’t want to mess with starting seeds.
I always buy rosemary seedlings. One of these woody, perennial plants is enough for my needs, and I can start using the leaves right away.
Depending how much time or patience I have, I sometimes buy basil, thyme, or parsley seedlings. Parsley seeds can be hard to sprout, and sometimes basil takes a long time to germinate and get established.
Starting Herbs from Seed
The cheaper way to start fresh herbs is to purchase the seed packets and start them yourself. This may be the route to go if they are annuals, easy to grow, and you want multiple plants of that variety.
I bought a pack of dill seeds way back when and have never had to again. They reseed and come up in the garden every year. Also way back when, I started chives by seed, and they come up faithfully every year since then (in fact, last summer I thinned them out).
Fresh basil I often start myself. The seeds sometimes have trouble germinating, but then I can have several plants which grow sturdier in the garden than in the greenhouse.
Other than dill, I find more success in starting herbs seeds in potting soil and transferring the seedlings to the garden when they are established.
Growing Herbs Indoors
Probably any herb can grow in pots, but some do better than others indoors. Rosemary is a perennial, but doesn’t survive the winter here in zone 6. After losing a few plants to the cold, I now grow rosemary in a pot on my south-facing kitchen windowsill, placing the pot on the porch in the summer and bringing it back in for the winter. Since it is slow-growing, it always stays healthy without outgrowing the planter. Small, globe basil plants have also done well in a pot, especially when regularly pruned.
Growing Herbs Outdoors
Some herbs take up space and perform better outdoors outdoors. My sage plant (which I started from seed) grew to a monstrous 3-foot bush, spilling out of the border bed onto the sidewalk. Even when I’d prune it back, it would grow back the next year. Regular basil plants, given the space, can also grow 2-3 feet tall, branching out and taking up garden space.
Choosing the Best Herbs to Grow for your Space
I’m sure if you had the space and the inclination, you could find reasons why you should grow every herb fresh for yourself. But few of us have the time or space. So choosing the best fresh herbs for you maximizes your space—and your enjoyment. Consider these eight questions in choosing the best herbs to grow yourself.
1 What herbs do I cook with the most?
I cook using many herbs, but basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, chives, and cilantro are my go-to herbs.
2 Which taste most amazing fresh—and cannot be substituted?
BASIL!!! Basil is the one herb that we look forward to every summer (as much as fresh tomatoes and watermelon!). Once winter comes and the basil is gone, things just don’t taste the same. Dried basil is good for seasoning soups or casseroles, but it just doesn’t cut it for certain recipes.
CILANTRO is a close second!!! A jar of dried cilantro hardly has any aroma, so how can it deliver that unique flavor component of Mexican or Thai foods?
PARSLEY is another—if not for the flavor, then for the texture and vibrant color, parsley flakes do not substitute.
These herbs, in my opinion, are the must-haves for fresh herbs, though I enjoy many other herbs fresh, as well. Consider your own palate and preferences.
3 Which herbs are available fresh at the store or market?
Many herbs are sold fresh at large grocery stores chains. Parsley and cilantro are sold in large bunches at places like Walmart, while other herbs like mint, rosemary, basil, and oregano may also be available. Specialty herbs such as tarragon may be harder to find.
Aldi, my primary source of groceries, finally started carrying cilantro in its fresh produce section. This is a life-saver for me, since my husband loves it and I use it frequently. Unfortunately, they do not yet carry parsley, which I also use fairly regularly. Therefore I prefer to grow my own so I don’t have to make a separate run to Walmart just for parsley.
4 Which fresh, store-bought herbs are most expensive?
Parsley and cilantro cost less than a dollar a bunch at Walmart; similarly, cilantro currently costs only 79 cents a bunch at Aldi. I focus on growing herbs like basil, dill, mint, and rosemary which are roughly $2 for a half-ounce sprig at Walmart.
5 How easy are these herbs to grow?
I have had some success with most herbs I have tried growing EXCEPT cilantro. I don’t know if it’s cilantro’s fault, or if I just have the wrong soil (or lack of expertise) to make it worth it. I’ve tried cilantro indoors in a pot, outdoors in a pot, and straight in the garden. The seeds usually sprout, but the seedlings go quickly from spindly, pale, and spotted (never lush and green) to bolting (starting to produce flowers, which also affects the flavor) before there are ever enough leaves to harvest.
(On the other hand, I have seen cilantro grow well before. My first introduction to cilantro was the year my mother planted a whole row of what she thought was parsley seeds. Right by the compost pile. Every time we’d take a trip to dump the compost, we brushed against the leaves and this horrid, acrid smell filled our nostrils. My mother never liked cilantro because of that. In adulthood, I have discovered its use in ethnic dishes, and now I love it. Somehow it thrived in my mother’s garden when she didn’t even know what to do with it!)
So because cilantro doesn’t grow for me and I can get it cheap at the store, I’m going to spend my time on the ones that DO grow well for me.
Dill, on the other hand, takes no effort whatsoever. I planted dill once, years ago. Now it grows every year in my garden, reseeding itself for the next spring (and maybe again later in the summer). I let a few plants grow where I can, and I have fresh dill throughout the summer.
6 Will the herbs fit in the space I have?
Rosemary and thyme stay rather small, in a pot or in the ground. Cilantro is small, if you can get it to grow. So is parsley.
Sage, on the other hand, grows into a bush. Mine, started from seed years ago, outgrew its one-foot-deep border along the house, spreading at least 3 feet wide and spilling across the sidewalk. Ever year or two, I would chop it back to a stubbly, 1-foot spread of woody branches. I love roasting a whole chicken with a couple fresh sprigs of sage tucked inside. But it took up too much space for the amount I used, so I dug it out. Perhaps I might grow sage again in another location someday.
Oregano also takes over. My first year of gardening at this house, I started oregano from seed. It became a spreading carpet that grew 2-3 feet along my house border bed. Every summer it sent up 12-18 inch shoots for blossoms, spilling out over the sidewalk like the sage. I used fresh oregano too seldom to be worth the space it took (in my opinion, fresh didn’t hold enough value versus dried) so I ripped it out.
7 Can I provide the right conditions for growing these herbs?
If I could, I would grow many herbs in pots on my kitchen windowsill over the winter. However, thyme always seems to dry up on me. It has only ever thrived outdoors (for me). Rosemary, on the other hand, is satisfied to stay in a pot over the winter. It needs minimal moisture, so it’s fine if I forget to water it one week.
8 Do they add beauty?
This may be a minor point, but beauty can lift our spirits as much as comfort food. If you only care to grow edible plants that also provide beauty, many herbs can do double-duty. Many herbs add color and texture to any garden space. Some provide attractive flowers. Dill, left to grow, adds color (and attracts pollinators) to a garden. Both chive blossoms and sage flowers have figured prominently in cut bouquets on my dining room table.
How I Use Fresh Herbs
Chives—garnish for dip, topping for baked potatoes or chili, substitute for green onions (scallions) in recipes like Asian Shrimp Egg Custard with Scallion Oil Drizzle
Dill—a must-have garnish and/or ingredient for Russian cooking, along with parsley, green onions, and sour cream; also good in potato salad
Note: This is the ferny fronds of young dill, NOT the mature flower head used for dill pickles.
Basil—topping on sandwiches, ingredient in fresh tomato salads or roasted vegetables, garnish for pasta or chicken, paired with anything using garden-ripe tomatoes
Parsley— key ingredient in Marinated Lentil Salad (I reviewed this recipe last year), topping for baked potatoes, minced and added to chicken salad or tuna salad
Rosemary—minced and added with fresh garlic to roasted potatoes, baked with Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken Thighs
Sage—stuffed in cavity of whole chicken for roasting, simmered with chicken bones to make chicken stock
Thyme—addition to roasted vegetables, meat, or soups
Herbs are fun and beautiful to grow. If you are a gardener, they are a no-brainer. If you are not particularly fond of gardening but still want some fresh herbs at home, use these questions to choose one or two to try. Find what works for you. My recommendations are based on my experiences, not empirical knowledge!
Ultimately, find what you love and try it. (Or try a few and find what you love!)
And if anyone has any other tips about growing cilantro, or growing annual herbs over winter, please share. I’d love to learn!