Get Your Herb On

Herbs are becoming increasingly popular—from centuries-old apothecary cures to an essential ingredient in modern-day cocktails.

Our knowledge of herbs dates as far back as 400 BCE in literature written by herbalists about the role they played in healing.

One of the oldest herbs still used and studied today is tulsi, or holy basil. Sometimes called the “queen of herbs,” tulsi has been used therapeutically to relieve mental and physical stress. Many of our pharmaceuticals come from nature. In the late 1890s, Bayer patented their formulation of acetylsalicylic acid using salicylic acid from willow bark and called it aspirin.

Herbs support our ecosystem by attracting birds and pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects, while reducing destructive diseases and pesky insects. Lemon-scented herbs contain citronella—lemon thyme, lemon balm, and lemongrass have been known to repel mosquitoes.

When it comes to creating a garden, herbs add beauty and visual interest with color, texture, and height and can soften a hardscape, as well as add a pleasant aroma. Fragrant creeping thyme, for example, can be planted underfoot in walkways.

Herbs come in all shapes and sizes and can be left to grow naturally or can be hedged, shaped, and define a planting border. They pair well with perennials and are good companions for other edible plants. They do well in containers, rock gardens, and walkways, and can be planted vertically to conserve space. Incorporate herbs using stacking pots or strawberry pots, create a garden bar to enhance outdoor entertaining, or convert a tea cart or your child’s old Radio Flyer wagon into a clever herb garden. The companion website to the familiar PBS show This Old House provides easy DIY instructions for herb gardens. And for those who don’t want to get down and dirty, there are indoor self-contained planters equipped with grow lights, watering systems, and plant pods—green thumb not required.

Tips and Tricks

  • Consider the available space and the amount of each herb you use when selecting a container or location.
  • If space is limited, you’ll want high-value plants that you might not see every day in the supermarket. Forgo the readily available parsley and cilantro.
  • Aim to use herbs such as lavender for garnish, as ornaments in your landscaping, and for complementing flower arrangements.
  • Experiment with a few new varieties like borage for a cucumber flavor that you can freeze in ice cubes for cocktails.
  • Tuscan blue and barbeque rosemary have long stems that can be used as skewers for grilling.
  • Consider planting one of the more than 40 varieties of basil, from the classic green Genovese Italian basil we typically cook with to deep purple ruffles or amethyst used as garnish, or spicy-sweet Pluto, a small Greek basil that grows well in small or mixed containers.
  • Refrigerate fresh herbs in damp paper towels sealed in a plastic container.
  • Herbs with robust leaves like rosemary, sage, and thyme can be dried.