Many culinary herbs are annual plants (or are treated as annuals in some regions), while others just keep on keeping on for years!
The best of the longer lived culinary herbs also serve other useful purposes in the garden, such as companion plants, pest repellent plants, hedging plants, or simply as attractive plants dotted through the garden.
Obviously the following is only a list of common favourites – there are many more to choose from. You may wish to refer to the references below for more information and inspiration.
Most herbs (except where noted below) require full sun and some can be quite drought tolerant once established (especially Rosemary, Sage and Thyme). And most can also be grown in containers.
What’s more, they are the easiest of plants to grow and propagate! Most will strike readily from cuttings (which is the quickest way to propagate new plants) but also from seed.
Bay Tree (Laurus nobilis)
It is a tree and can grow to 12 metres in height, and although it can be a slow grower, in the right conditions it will grow pretty quickly. Consider confining to a pot or be prepared to regularly prune. It has a dense canopy so conditions are very shaded underneath and it also has a dense fibrous root system, which makes it difficult to grow plants underneath. Bay Tree can be pruned quite hard and it looks good as a standard. It is often used as a topiary specimen too (so if creating shapes is your thing, give this one a try).
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
Closely related to onions and garlic, chives grow in grassy clumps. Harvesting is simply a matter of chopping off a few leaves as required. Ideal for growing in pots as well as in the garden, chives are easily maintained and new plants can be started by dividing clumps or growing from seed. There is also a garlic flavoured species known as, you guessed it, garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)!
Marjoram (Origanum majorana) and Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
These two are so closely related and grow so similarly, we’ve lumped them together. Oregano has a sharper flavour than Marjoram. Both are spreading plants, more like groundcovers than clumping plants and both look fabulous spilling over walls, terraces, pots and the like. There is also a golden coloured Oregano.
Mint (Mentha spp.)
It can become a messy and invasive plant in the garden (as can be seen in the image here, where it’s taken over an entire garden bed), so mint is best confined to a pot. It requires shade and a damp situation. Mint can be grown very easily from pieces of stem – in fact it’s so vigorous the stems will sprout roots growing in a vase of water!
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
It can’t possibly be true that you have to be wicked to grow parsley well, but that’s the old saying! There are two commonly grown varieties of parsley – the common curled parsley and the stronger flavoured Italian parsley, with its flat leaf. Parsley is biennial, which means it will last a couple of years, but it is notorious for dropping dead or running to seed if conditions don’t suit it. It doesn’t tolerate dry conditions and has high nutrient requirements. It will grow in dappled shade as well as full sun.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary is a great hedging plant, great pest repellent plant, and great companion plant for carrots especially. It can get woody and messy if not pruned regularly, and once it gets very woody, severe pruning can mean an end to it. It is best grown in full sun but will tolerate semi-shade. It can be easily propagated from cuttings, which strike very readily. Prostrate or low growing forms are available, and look out for specimens with the most vivid blue flowers (colour intensity can vary a lot).
Sage (Salvia officinalis)
In cooler climates Sage has a tendency to die back over winter, but it bounces right back in spring. It needs full sun and it is very drought tolerant once established. Sage is an attractive herb in the garden as it has silver grey leaves and produces tall spikes of violet flowers. Please note that there are other Salvia species that are purely ornamental.
Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus)
This herb is more a spreading groundcover, although it can grow to 90cm tall. Its soft, dark green leaves look delightful weaving through the vegetable garden, and the licorice smell and flavour is even better. Tarragon needs full sunlight and in cooler climates it will die back during winter. It can be divided or grown readily from seed.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme can vary a bit in appearance. Some plants clump and others are more like groundcovers. There are many varieties available including Lemon Thyme, which, as the name suggests, has a distinct lemon smell. Thyme is great in containers, as a garden border plant and for spilling over walls and terraces etc. It requires full sun and is quite drought tolerant once established.
One to avoid growing in your garden:
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Unfortunately fennel is a garden escapee of some importance and its escape is widespread, so this is one herb to buy as either seed or fresh leaves and plants. If you do have to grow it, don’t let your plants set seed or try placing bags over the maturing seed heads to ensure you collect them and they aren’t distributed far and wide. Florence fennel has a bulbous base which is cooked and eaten as a vegetable called finocchio.
Yates Garden Guide, 42nd Edition, 2006, published by Harper Collins Publishers.
Useful reference books:
Penny Woodward’s Australian Herbal, published by Hyland House.
Woodward, P., Asian Herbs & Vegetables, published by Hyland House.
Jackie French’s Household Herb Book, available from www.greenharvest.com.au
For design inspiration:
Bartley, J.R. 2006, Designing the New Kitchen Garden, published by Timber Press (but beware, this is a USA book, so specific plant information or plant species may not be appropriate – always check for local weediness too).
All pics © Elaine Shallue (SGA)