It’s easy to get focused on growing big, luscious summer vegetables. After all, who can resist just-picked succulent tomatoes, glossy peppers, sweet corn or tender zucchini?
But don’t overlook growing a few warm-season annual herbs, too. Fresh basil, dill, cilantro and the like are tasty in summer dishes. Dried, their leaves flavor winter meals. And while still outdoors, they attract beneficial insects and repel pests.
It’s Time to Get Growing
From seed or transplants, annual herbs grow fast. They’re quick to harvest, since you typically snip leaves, rather than wait for flowers. And they’re not terribly fussy, once you know what they need.
Some of these fair-weather herbs have shallow roots and grow well in pots; others send down tap roots and are best in the ground. Some insist on plenty of sunshine; others, a bit of shade. Watering needs vary, too, as does soil. A few require the fluffy, vegetable-quality stuff, while others are fine with whatever is on hand.
But regardless of their location — container or vegetable bed — they must have soil at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Don’t keep them in 3-inch or 4-inch pots, no matter how cute those pots might be. Tiny pots simply don’t provide enough room for roots below to sustain abundant growth up top.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is one of the best reasons to grow annual herbs. Its aromatic leaves are the perfect complement to flavorful tomatoes and an absolute necessity in many Italian dishes.
Grow your basil in the ground or in a pot at least 6 inches wide. Either way, provide loose, fertile soil, frequent water and lots of sunshine. Sweet, purple and Thai basil are usually available as transplants. For anise, cinnamon, lemon and other flavors, sow seeds. Basil is often short-lived, so sow or plant every few weeks from now through August. Plants turn to mush in cold weather, although occasionally one might survive winter.
Oil is most concentrated in the leaves when flower buds begin to form. But pinch off fully formed flowers to prolong your plants’ lives. Once those flowers mature, your basil will decline.
Borage (Borago officinalis) is a beautiful garnish and edible flower, with both its fuzzy leaves and blue, star-shaped flowers tasting of mild cucumber. Or leave it in the garden next to tomatoes, squash or strawberries, where it will deter tomato hornworms and cabbage worms and attract green lacewings, which lay their eggs in the foliage, and bees.
Borage plants are difficult to find, but they’re easy from seed. Indeed, plant one and you may have borage for life, as it joyfully volunteers throughout your garden. Fortunately or not, it grows well in most soils, including poor and dry. To contain it, grow it in a pot surrounded by a paved surface.
Chamomile in its annual form (Matricaria recutita) makes a nice herbal tea. The dainty, upright plants sprout easily from seed, volunteer freely and bear small, white daisy flowers. For brewing, snip off the flower petals, then dry the yellow button centers.
Note, there’s also a perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), which forms a low mat and is popular grown between stepping stones. But it tastes bitter and is best used in potpourri, rather than as a seasoning or tea.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) does double duty, providing fresh leaves for salsa and fish early in the season, followed by coriander seeds for baking and making curry later on.
One of the tap-root annuals, it sulks in a pot. But in the ground, it grows up to 3 feet tall, albeit with a rather spindly look. However, with a touch of afternoon shade, decent soil and regular water, there will be plenty to harvest. Let it flower to attract beneficial insects, then harvest the coriander seeds after they go brown. A companion plant for both edibles and ornamental plants, it repels potato beetles, aphids and spider mites.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) is another tap-root annual, so again, plant it in the ground. It favors moist soil, especially early on, and some afternoon shade. Interestingly, the wispy plants do not like to be crowded and are prone to bolting if they’re not at least 6 to 12 inches apart.
From seed, dill may take several weeks to sprout. For transplants, choose the tiniest seedlings possible so that their fast-growing tap root isn’t stunted in the nursery container. Harvest the delicate, bluish-green leaves for seasoning and collect the seeds for pickling.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is technically a biennial, since it takes two seasons to run its course. But it’s generally grown as a warm-season annual. Curly parsley, a popular garnish, is attractive in the garden, where it makes a nice, ankle-high, ornamental edging around flower or vegetable beds. Italian parsley bears flat, broad leaves and is much larger, stretching up to 3 feet tall.
Parsley is finicky from seed. You can eliminate the fuss by buying transplants. Like basil, it needs fluffy soil and regular water. It also prefers morning sun and afternoon shade.
Summer savory (Satureja hortensis) is surprisingly uncommon, given that it’s just as pretty as borage and certainly better behaved. Dainty pink flowers travel up erect, foot-tall stems all summer long.
Give summer savory full sun, occasional water and average soil. Harvest the aromatic leaves and flowering tops, then blend them with fennel, marjoram, rosemary, sage and thyme to create an herbes de Provence mix.
This article was first published in the Summer 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.
Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.