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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Great Annual Herbs

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Siam Queen basil

Growing annual herbs from seed is among the easiest, most rewarding tasks you can tackle in the garden.

Annual herbs grow fast. In a matter of weeks, you’ll be able to snip your first flavorful leaves.

From seed, you’ll find a greater selection than from transplants, and the seed packets will cost less. Sow a few plants every few weeks, and you’ll have your favorite herbs — fresh — until next winter.

Up close, many annual herbs bear beautiful leaf colors, patterns and textures.

Let some flower, and you’ll attract beneficial insects to your garden as well.

A Need for Speed

Unlike perennial herbs, which are in it for the long haul, annual herbs do their business in a season. Theirs is a simple life. They germinate, send up stems, branches and leaves, then produce buds and flowers. Soon after, they go to seed, collapse and die.

One advantage to this brief dance in the spotlight is that most annual herbs don’t take a lot of space. That’s why they flourish in cute, little pots: they don’t typically produce much root mass.

Another plus is that you don’t have to make a life-time investment in an herb that you might not like. With such fast results, it’s easy to experiment without risking much time, money and effort.

The Best Annual Herbs

Basil

Dark purple Opal basil and grassy chives top this strawberry pot.

If you grow only one annual herb, let it be basil.

The tender herb is the most exquisite complement to home-grown tomatoes.

From seed, you’ll find an array of flavors, including sweet, lemon, anise, cinnamon, Italian, Thai and Greek, each with a different leaf shape and fragrance.

Most varieties grow a foot tall and wide. They perform best with heat, fluffy soil and frequent water.

Seeds have a high germination rate, so sow them a few inches apart, then thin the seedlings to 12 inches apart.

Harvest the foliage throughout the growing season.

Or wait until the flower buds begin to form, which is when the leaves will contain their most concentrated oils.

Borage

Borage and bees.

This fuzzy, blue-blooming herb hit the big time when edible flowers became fashionable a decade ago. Both the flowers and leaves taste like mild cucumber.

In the ground, the knee-high plants may run rampant, seeding out exuberantly into poor, dry soil. Instead, contain your borage in a pot, where it will happily bask in full sun or part shade.

Honeybees love the flowers, too.

Chamomile

This soothing, sun lover comes in two flavors.

Annual German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an upright herb that bears white, button-sized daisy flowers for brewing a mild tea. (Discard the narrow, white petals and brew the yellow button centers.)

Perennial Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) forms a low, fragrant mat and fits well between stepping stones. Its pungent flowers may taste bitter, and are better in potpourri.

Cilantro

The fresh, chopped leaves of this dual-purpose herb are a must-grow for salsa, while its coriander seeds are a key component in curry.

Cilantro is best suited for sowing directly in the garden, as it sends down a deep taproot at the same time that it quickly stretches 1 to 3 feet tall. Plants may look weedy, especially if they get blown about by the wind or go dry.

Harvest the newest, freshest leaves, and plan to sow new plants every few weeks through the end of summer. Let a few specimens flower, to attract beneficial insects.

Harvest the coriander when the seeds turn brown.

Dill

Dill

Related to cilantro, dill also sends down a tap root. So sow it where you’d like it to grow.

Have patience: seeds may take a few weeks to sprout. Dill will bolt if it’s too hot or too crowded. Provide some shade and thin the seedlings to 6 to 8 inches apart.

Harvest the wispy leaves for everything from fish to potatoes, then gather the seeds for pickling cucumbers.

Parsley

This wavy-leaved herb prefers cooler spots, too. Be warned that its seeds can be balky to germinate. You may have better luck buying transplants.

Curly parsley is an attractive, ankle-high edging in partial shade. Flat, broad-leaf Italian parsley yields stronger flavor, and grows up to 3 feet tall.

Summer Savory

With dainty pink flowers lining its upright stalks, summer savory is one of the prettiest annual herbs.

Its slender, aromatic leaves and flowering tops complement perennial oregano, rosemary and thyme in herbes de Provence mixes. It grows about a foot tall and prefers full sun.

Perennial Herbs

Lemon thyme

Perennial and shrub herbs generally require more space and a longer-term commitment.

Chives are an exception, growing well in 6 to 8-inch pots.

Grow your mint and oregano in pots, too. Otherwise, their invasive roots may rapidly overtake unsuspecting neighbors.

Lavender, rosemary, sage and thyme have better manners. While often grown in large containers, they perform even better in the ground. With our mild, Mediterranean weather, they’re content to become permanent members of the garden.

Getting Started

Silvery culinary garden sage (Salvia officinalis) contrasts beautifully with chives, sweet William and snapdragons.

Fast-draining, fertile soil and plenty of sunshine are key.

The easiest way to control the planting medium is to grow your annual herbs in containers.

Fill with premium potting soil, then add a balanced, slow-release, granular fertilizer.

On a windowsill or table, you can use small, terra cotta pots. Or fill larger bowls or containers with an assortment of herbs.

In the ground, unless your bed is already rich and loamy, plant in raised beds or mounds. Supplement the existing soil with generous amounts of loose, well-aged organic material to create a fine, crumbly mix.

This article was first published Edible Santa Barbara.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

6 responses to “Great Annual Herbs
  1. Lydia is so right! I love starting them from seed but sometimes my timing is off or life gets in the way and have to buy the starts at the nursery. In any event having fresh herbs in the garden is so welcome and so much fun. Even the little wild rabbits love some of them.

    • Barb,

      My, you’re accommodating of your rabbits! We don’t have much trouble with ours (probably due to a healthy population of coyotes), but a number of my clients have lost swaths of their gardens to the adorable little guys this year.

      • They are so cute Joan. But I do object to having all my veggie plants eaten so I’ve made little short PVC enclosures that I can set in any of the raised beds and those keep the furry ones out. I just attach Aviary wire to the PVC skeleton and it works like a charm. I don’t glue the PVC either just friction fit the enclosure and that way I can change the size in a second. I have 12 raised beds. My beds average size is 4′ X 12′. Last year the little critters ate my garden right down to the dirt. We have been overrun with the little creatures again this year.

  2. Barb,

    Your PVC enclosures sound like a great solution.

    And it sounds like your rabbits wreaked the same havoc on your veggies that the deer did in our garden. Last spring, we finally installed a deer fence. It was expensive, but I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to be able to again harvest what we grow!

    (Of course we still have to net our blueberries and tomatoes to thwart the birds, but that task is considerably easier to do.)

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