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Herb Gardening How-to
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

May 27, 2007


Herbs are hot: they add zest and aroma to your cooking, and in the garden, they love basking in the heat of summer.
Most herbs are surprisingly easy to grow – thriving with minimal care and in small spaces. Container grown herbs look attractive on decks, patios and balconies, and because most of them hail from Mediterranean regions, they thrive in summer’s heat and sun. Even better, they have few insect and disease problems, and most grow best in average garden soil, rarely needing added fertilizer.

Herbal pointers to get you started:

  • Give herbs well-drained soil and full sun (6 hours daily). A few herbs like part shade, (see chart), and some, such as mint, prefer moist soil.
  • While many herbs thrive in hot and dry conditions, they need watering to get established and in times of drought.
  • Herbs can be annuals, such as dill and cilantro, generally harvested 2 to 3 months after sowing from seed. (You can buy them as transplants, but you get stronger plants from seed.) Annuals go to seed quickly, and that’s when their leaves tend to lose flavour. For a fresh supply, replant every 3 weeks into early or mid August. To harvest, snip off leaves, or pull entire plant.
  • For perennial herbs, such as French tarragon, sage or thyme, buy small plants. Allow a couple of months of growth before harvesting. (You can grow some perennial herbs from seed, but it takes a season or two to get a harvest.)
  • Avoid removing too many leaves or stems at one time – plants need leaves to grow and thrive; keep 15 cm of growth intact.
  • To harvest, snip a portion with sharp scissors, pruners or a knife; don’t tear or pull stem off – to avoid injuring or even dislodging roots.
  • Once herbs are established, regular pruning promotes lush new growth, which has the best flavour.

Growing herbs in containers

Growing in containers is a great way to have kitchen herbs close to hand in a small space. Some herbs such as mint grow too exuberantly and are easier to control in pots. And in the case of rosemary – a tough woody perennial in warmer climates but not hardy in cold Canadian winters – growing in a pot makes it easier to take the plant inside. (See below.)

To grow well in pots, most herbs need:

  • Full sun (6 hours minimum)
  • Containers 25 to 30 cm deep with one or more holes for good drainage
  • Purchased soil-less potting mix; don’t use garden soil, although you can add a little compost or bagged manure for enrichment
  • Watering. How much to water depends on the weather, the plants and the size and type of pot. Terra cotta containers dry out quickly and usually need daily watering high summer. The larger the pot, the easier it is to keep moist.
  • Fertilizing. Like all container plants, herbs need fertilizer. Slow release fertilizer pellets added to the top layer of soil at planting are easy: they feed constantly over the growing season. Or give soluble fertilizer with watering once a week.

What about taking herbs indoors?

Remember the bit about herbs coming from the hot and sunny Mediterranean? It’s tempting to take your plants indoors for winter, especially perennial types. Unfortunately, in northern winters even a south-facing window gets a lot less sun than the plants need, and central heating keeps the air very dry (Mediterranean winters are moist). And your herbs won’t be as flavourful in winter – they seem to need heat and sun to create the aromatic oils that make them zesty.

If you’re still keen to try, the keys to success are:

  • A sunny south-facing window, plus a florescent grow light for extra brightness. Growth will slow, so harvest small amounts only (if your goal is to keep plants for next year); or continue to harvest until you use leaves up and then discard plant.
  • Water when soil feels dry to touch.
  • For best winter survival of rosemary, move plant into shadier spot outdoors in early fall to acclimatize to lower light; indoors, keep in a cool bright window with a florescent grow light. A bright, unheated sun porch can be ideal, as long as temperatures don’t dip below -6ºC.


Top 10 kitchen herbs

Food partners

How to grow Harvesting & using


(Varieties include sweet green, purple & Thai)

Sweet basil: tomatoes, salads, pesto, Italian sauces, ratatouille; licorice flavoured Thai type: Thai & Asian dishes Loves heat; buy seedling plants or grow from seed; set into containers or garden in full sun when all danger of frost is over Snip leafy stems mid-summer; pinch off flowers for better leaf production. To freeze, chop in blender or food processor; put into ice cube trays; store in freezer bags, use 1cube per recipe
Chives Perennial hardy to Zone 3 Scrambled eggs, omelettes, salads Full sun/part shade; remove flowers for better leaf production & to prevent excessive self-seeding. When overgrown, give clump a haircut. Use fresh; harvest with kitchen scissors from spring through summer. Ready early spring; edible flowers garnish salads. Round-leaved onion chives onion flavoured; flat-leaved garlic chives onion/garlic flavoured
Cilantro (fresh coriander) Annual Pungent leaves used in Asian and Thai, Indian dishes & Mexican dishes (salsa, corn salad) Easy from seed, full sun/part shade. Goes to seed quickly; for continuous supply replant every 3 weeks in summer Harvest by cutting off what you need, or pull out plant when about 20 cm tall; use fresh, quickly loses flavor in fridge
Dill, fresh, (sometimes called dillweed) Annual Fish and seafood, potato salad; salad greens, cucumbers; egg dishes, adds zest to vegetable dishes e.g. new potatoes; seeds flavor pickles Easy from seed in early spring; sow more every 3 weeks for season’s supply; full sun. For small spaces or containers, choose dwarf ‘Fernleaf’ variety (container should be 25 cm deep). Snip off leaves when plants are 15 cm tall; most flavorful before flowers develop. Harvest flower stems for pickles when most flowers are open.

Perennial hardy to Zone 4

Fruit salads, iced tea, lemonade, mint tea; new potatoes, lamb, green beans Full sun, moist soil. Aggressive grower, to avoid rampant spread grow in container or sink 35 cm tall bottomless plastic nursery pot or clay tile into soil Harvest leaves through summer. Cut back frequently to encourage fresh growth. Dry leaves for winter on trays or byhanging branches upsidedown in warm, dark, airy place.
Parsley Biennial, (usually treated as annual) Garnishes, soups, salads, salad dressings, sauces Set seedling plants in full sun; good foliage plant in containers; varieties: curly leaved, flat leaved Italian Harvest larger outer leaves first, leaving inner shoots to grow; keeps well in refrigerator; can be chopped in food processor and frozen for winter use


Perennial hardy to Zone 7 with winter protection (e.g. mulch)

Lamb, chicken, pork Italian dishes; great with eggplant and roasted potatoes Full sun. Woody evergreen shrub; not winter-hardy in most of the country, but terrific in containers; bring indoors in fall into bright airy place To harvest snip off tender stem tips; new growth will branch out from cuts.  Dries well, hang in bunches in a dry dark airy spot.
French Tarragon Perennial hardy to Zone 4 Salads, egg dishes, fish/seafood, chicken, sauces, vinegars, Purchase plants (tarragon from seed is the non-flavorful Russian type). Full sun/part shade, well-drained soil. Cut back to prevent flowering, keep to 60 cm tall to prevent flopping Use leaves fresh in summer. Freeze for later use. Drying also works, but dried tarragon can lose flavour if left too long

Perennial hardy to Zone 5

Turkey and chicken Set plants into full sun, moist but well drained soil. Plants may lose vigour after a few seasons, so dig up replace them with new ones Harvest sparingly in 1st season to help plants get established. Pick leaves anytime over summer. Easy to dry, keeps well: hang branches in dry, dark airy spot
Thyme Perennial hardy to Zone 4 Ranks as one of the fine herbs of French cuisine; flavours meat, chicken dishes, herbal butters & vinegars, fish, sauces, stews Plant in full sun; well-drained soil. In very cold winter areas, mulch plants after ground freezes with a light layer of pine needles. Trim back in early spring to remove browned stems & winter dieback Snip leaves and sprigs all summer. Dries well for winter: tie several sprigs together, hang upside down in warm, dark, airy place

For more on herbs: Visit to buy herbs online. For more herb-growing information, click on “Richters Info Centre”.

A version of this article originally appeared in the May 2003 issue of Chatelaine.



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