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Best Herbs for Beginners

If you are thinking about growing some of your own food for the first time, I encourage you to start with herbs. The plants are the perfect combination of beauty and function so you can plant herbs anywhere in the garden. Mix them with flowers, grow them along paths, by the kitchen door, or plant them in containers both indoors or out. They are also extremely easy to grow. All most herbs really need are average soil, good drainage, consistent moisture and sunlight.

Three versatile herbs to try are rosemary, onion chives and basil.

Rosemary

Rosemary is an aromatic evergreen and has become an indispensable kitchen herb. It is a tender perennial evergreen with a shrubby form that hails from the Mediterranean region

Growing Rosemary

Rosemary is an easy herb to grow when you understand a little bit about its background. A native of the Mediterranean, it prefers a warm, sunny and dry environment.

It is not cold hardy throughout the country; most varieties will not survive below 15 to 20°F. Don't let this keep you from growing rosemary. This herb is ideally suited for container gardening. Keep a pot outside your kitchen door or plant it, container and all, in the garden. Just lift it out of the ground when temperatures begin to drop in autumn and bring it indoors.

When you bring rosemary inside for winter, put it in a sunny window (south facing is ideal) and take care not to overwater it. The roots can easily rot. An occasional misting helps if it gets too dry indoors.

Best Herbs for Beginning Gardeners

Uses for Rosemary

You can cut rosemary stems at any time. The fragrant blooms are edible too. In the kitchen I love to use rosemary to season roasted chicken. I use the stems as basting brushes and as skewers. Its evergreen foliage is an asset in the garden. Rosemary is available in several forms including upright, prostrate and trailing so it can serve as an accent, low hedge, ground cover or cascading element for containers.

Onion Chives

Onion chives are a grassy looking perennial with onion-flavored leaves and purple blooms. The mild onion flavor is a tasty addition to any savory dish. Use the flowers in salads. Plants are perfect for containers!

Growing Onion Chives

In the spring, plant chives about four weeks before the last frost; or plant in fall in mild climates. They need well-drained soil amended with compost. Chives are not finicky and tolerate neglect, but will do best if you don't completely ignore them. Water and fertilize occasionally with an all-purpose liquid plant food and divide crowded clumps every two to three years. If you harvest the leaves often, fertilize every few weeks.

After the first killing frost in autumn, cut the plants back to ground level. They will return the following spring. In sub-tropical climates they are evergreen, but you can cut them back anyway to refresh the foliage.

Uses for Onion Chives

You can harvest chives almost immediately after planting. Cut the outer leaves about ½-inch from the ground. If you cut at mid height, it will leave an unsightly stub. Chives need some foliage to stay energized, so do not cut too much at one time during the growing season.

Chives are a mild-flavored relative of (and great substitute for) onions, garlic and shallots. Their clump-forming habit makes them excellent to use as an edging and they produce an exceptionally showy flower for an herb. It's also an easy herb to grow indoors over winter.

Basil

Basils are a favorite annual for summer. Cooks like an assortment, from the tiny-leafed spicy globe and boxwood types to the cinnamon-spiced Thai, to the big leaves of Italian classic sweet basil.

Growing Basil

Set your plants out about two weeks after the last frost when the days are warm; basil can't stand cold weather. When planting, add plenty of organic nutrients from compost, blood meal or cottonseed meal to the soil. Basil is not a heavy feeder, but because you'll harvest often and it is continuously replacing the harvested leaves, feed every couple of weeks with an all-purpose, liquid plant food. Most grow about two feet tall, but the little-leafed ones are shorter.

Basil needs well-drained soil and full sun, but appreciates afternoon shade in the hottest climates. Water deeply during dry spells. Plants in pots dry out faster so water them more often. Watering is very important because drying stunts growth. Avoid splashing water on the leaves to prevent leaf spots and sunburn. In fall you can bring potted basil inside. It is quickly killed by the first cold.

Keep plants pinched and they will stay fresh and productive until fall.

Uses for Basil

Begin pinching off leaves as you need them when the plant is 6 to 8 inches tall. Remove the lowest leaves first. As it grows, harvest by pinching the tips too, to keep flowers from forming and encourage branching. Never cut the plant back into the hard woody stems; it will not re-sprout.

One of my favorite summer dishes is sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt, pepper and basil. In the garden, basil works to control pests. The aromatic oils repel thrips, mosquitoes, slugs and flies. Basil blooms are beautiful in cut flower arrangements.