Tender herbs are the gardener's gateway drug. They're easy to grow from seed, and they're attractive, fragrant, and versatile. Having fresh herbs on hand will inspire you to be more creative in the kitchen, and once you've learned how easy it is to maintain these low-maintenance, high-reward plants, you might find yourself completely obsessed with a new and healthy hobby.
Or, you might turn into a d*head celebrity chef.
But first things first: These are the easiest, most newbie-friendly herbs for the windowsill, patio, and kitchen gardens.
1. Chives, common and garlic (Allium schoenoprasum, A. tuberosum)
It's pretty hard to mess up with these onion and scallion cousins. Much like your lawn, you can cut what you need, and grass-like chives will keep on growing.
Both common and garlic (a.k.a. Chinese) chives are cool-season plants that can withstand cold, light frost, and — if they're not tortured by heat — a bit of drought. A pot of chives on a sunny windowsill will produce year-round. Once established, chives will put up with a bit of neglect, but they do prefer annual fertilizing (5-10-5), especially if you want them to produce their edible, pom-pom-shaped purple flowers.
Feed chives grow in the soil each spring, and potted plants every three or four months. Or...not. We've got chives that haven't been fed or repotted in four years, and they're still going strong.
Common chive foliage is bright green, tubular, and hollow and the bulbs and flowers are also edible. You'll ignore anything below garlic chives' blue-green, flat-bladed foliage, though.
Season eggs, salad, fish, or any dish in which onions (or garlic) might be overpowering. Chives are an ideal seasoning for dairy, including butter, sour cream (sound familiar?), and soft cheeses. San Francisco chef god Charles Phan made The Slanted Door restaurant famous and dim sum a mainstream thang with his "I'll murder for this in a heartbeat" chive cakes.
Ever see the meme, "Keep calm and chive on?" That chive has nothing to do with these herbs, but given how easy they are to grow, we think it's time for Allium schoenoprasum to enjoy some credit.
2. Mint (Mentha spp.)
When most people think of mint plants, they think of the crisp, cool menthol flavor. In reality, most of the best-loved herbs, including basil, lavender, and rosemary, belong to the mint family (Lamiaceae).
The "zingy" mint species best known for soothing respiratory congestion, flavoring confectioneries, and garnishing beverages are excellent beginner herbs: They can tolerate a bit of shade, prefer neutral soils, and while they definitely do best with consistent moisture they can handle short dry spells in cooler climates. Start with spearmint (Mentha spicata) or peppermint (Mentha × piperita) and add more exotic cultivars to your collection, such as pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata') and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita 'Chocolate').
Do you like mint jelly? Martha Stewart will convert you if you don't. Try this recipe the next time you "support" some kid's 4-H market lamb project! Or you, too, can become an official member of the Seed Needs family by becoming a mojito mixologist.
Heads up: Wintergreen, by the way, isn't a mint at all. Gultheria procumbens is a low-growing, berry-bearing groundcover that shouldn't be ingested. Flavoring labeled as "wintergreen" is actually a synthetic menthol mimic.
3. Basil (Ocimum species, cultivars, and hybrids)
If you can grow mint, you can easily grow basil from seed. That's because they're closer than kissing cousins. (Probably because of all that fresh breath!) The only problem with growing basil is quantity: Ounce for ounce, you're more likely to use basil than most other herbs as it's often used as an ingredient as much as it is a garnish or seasoning. Think pesto, pasta sauces, and Asian salads. Forget "a pinch here, a snip there." You might end up using an entire basil plant for a cioppino dinner, so consider successive plantings, so you always have a fresh supply.
And go ahead and co-opt your neighbor's back yard, because there are nearly 50 flavor-specific basil varieties and hybrids including:
- Italian large—the culinary standard, also called giant basil or sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- Anise basil (O. basilicum 'Licorice')
- Cinnamon basil (O. basilicum 'Cinnamon')
- Large-leaf basil (O. basilicum 'Large Leaf Italian')
- Lemon basil (O. × citriodorum)
- Lime basil (O. americanum)
- Thai basil (O. basilicum thyrsifolium)
- Spicy globe basil (O. basilicum 'Spicy Globe')
- Dark opal basil (O. basilicum 'Dark Opal' or 'Purpurascens')
- Holy basil (O. tenuiflorum, O. sanctum)
4. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
Parsley doesn't get a whole lot of respect, but it deserves a spot in your herb garden. Try curly parsley (P. crispum var. crispum) or flat-leafed Italian parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum) or both; the latter has a milder flavor than the cultivar we recognize as the crunchy, palate-cleansing garnish.
There are five core flavors in the culinary arts: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Parsley brings bitter to the table and is included in the French foundation herb blend fines herbes with tarragon, chives, and chervil, a close parsley relative worthy of its own spot on this list.
She may have been an American, but Julia Child made French cooking accessible to the average foodie back in the day, and some of her most famous recipes include parsley. Glazed Parsley Carrots is a simple but elegant veggie side that will allow you to see how these greens enhance the flavors of their fellow ingredients.
Here are a couple of things budding gardeners need to know: Parsley needs consistent moisture, and, for some reason, it doesn't grow well as neighbors. Also, growing parsley from seed means practicing patience and experimenting with stratification techniques, which we cover in "The Dirt on Successful Seed Germination." Don't be intimidated! Once parsley gets going, it really gets going and makes an attractive ornamental indoors or out.
5. Russian tarragon (A. dracunculus "Pursch")
This is one of those underappreciated herbs that's gaining a comeback among chefs and novice gardeners alike. Tarragon is best used fresh — just try to whip up a batch of Emeril Lagasse's Tarragon Chicken Salad with the dried stuff, and you'll understand what we're talking about.
No, really, don't. This dish deserves the real thing, so wait until you've got plenty of fresh, home-grown tarragon. The two true culinary species are French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus "sativa") and the milder, flowering Russian tarragon.
Only Russian tarragon is grown from seed; French tarragon is propagated from cuttings.
We recommend starting tarragon seeds indoors. Plants will require a bit of pruning to keep them the right size for windowsill gardens, but they make excellent outdoor container plants when they grow upwards of their two-foot average. They prefer soil on the dry side and actually prefer intermittent drought, a big plus for forgetful (or just damn busy) newbies.
6. Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
Oregano is yet another Lamiaceae family member, and like the other mints mentioned here, it's a super easy grower. Unlike other tender mints (but much like tarragon), oregano prefers the soil to become dry to the touch in between irrigation. That makes it a great patio container plant or option for garden spots on the fringes of your irrigation system.
Tolerant of the afternoon and partial midday shade, oregano does very well when grown from seed in bright windows or under sparse tree canopies. One of our customers reported finding a patch of oregano that had naturalized in their three-sided (open to the east) Calgary hay barn.
Oregano isn't just a traditional Italian pasta sauce seasoning. Chef Giada de Laurentiis modernizes Meditteranean cuisine with her healthy and easy Chicken Pizzaiola Slider recipe.
7. Culinary Sage (Salvia officinalis)
Sometimes called garden or common sage, Salvia officinalis is an essential kitchen and healing herb. It's easier to grow than most of its beefier, woodier mint cousins, and it gives new gardeners a lot of room for error. Just provide it with well-drained soil, plenty of sunshine, and occasional water.
If you can cook one of his recipes without imagining him screaming in your face, try Gordon Ramsey's Rolled Pork Loin with Sage and Lemon. Or, if you're a total beginner and only just learned how to unwrap a whole chicken, toss a few sage sprigs and half a lemon in the cavity before roasting it.
Level up your gardening skills with these culinary herbs
We know you were wondering why we left out the following plants:
There's no reason you can't go "all in" and experiment with these herbs from the get-go, but you'll have better outcomes if you start with more forgiving plants that do well indoors as well as out.
Remember Seed Needs when you're famous
If you happen to snag a Food Network show, we'd definitely appreciate a plug or two! We're not one of the biggest names in seeds, but as a family business, we make up for it with quality control and customer service.
Plus, we give back.
You can easily grow your own herbs and vegetables from seed and turn gardening and cooking into new passions, but there are a lot of people in the world for whom food and leisure are miles apart. That's why our little company sponsors 25 kids from around the world through Childfund.org and Compassion International. Every step you take to improving your own food security helps them access better nutrition, clean water, healthcare, and education.
And speaking of learning, if you can't find answers to your gardening questions in our blog, contact us! We've been helping (and learning from) our loyal customers since 2006. Your gardening success is important to us!