If the thought of gardening seems overwhelming or too high maintenance for your lifestyle, herb gardens are the perfect place to start. They take very little room and can be grown in pots or vertical containers on the patio, or in a sunny window indoors; they are low maintenance and require only periodic watering and pruning; they offer a tremendous cost savings over buying fresh herbs at the grocery store with very little waste; they add fresh, flavorful and healthful benefits to your meals.
Herbs Fight Disease
According to research published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, fresh herbs contain high levels of polyphenols. These act as antioxidants and combat cell damage and inflammation in the body, and potentially protect against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
“All plant foods tend to be high in polyphenols, but culinary herbs are an especially rich source,” said Bonnie Buckingham, RD, who provides nutrition counseling at Samaritan Weight Management Institute. “For example, one teaspoon of fresh oregano has as much antioxidant activity as an apple.”
Adding herbs is an easy way to increase the nutrition of your diet, especially if it replaces salt or chemical seasonings. Buckingham notes that dried herbs also contain high levels of polyphenols, so don’t be shy about cooking with those if you need.
Growing & Caring for Your Herbs
To grow your own herbs, find a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. If you’re growing in a pot, a larger size will allow the dirt to hold more water and increase the amount of time you can go between watering. Look for a pot at least eight inches deep, and give each plant about a six-inch diameter to grow, more for some varieties.
Plan to water daily while the plants are young, or twice daily in really hot weather. Within a month you may be able to taper off watering to two or three times a week depending on the plant.
Don’t torture yourself trying to grow from seed if you are new to gardening. Garden centers and grocery stores offer a great selection of starts that you can plant and begin harvesting from quickly.
The best herbs to grow are the ones you will eat. Start with three or four that regularly show up in the meals you already cook.
Herbs That Grow Well in Oregon
Basil — This herb is a staple in Italian dishes. Harvest from the middle of the plant. Leave the large leaves at the bottom to help the plant grow and pinch off any white blossoms to keep it growing and from becoming bitter. Harvest all your leaves before the first frost and make a large batch of pesto for the freezer, or dry them to use during the winter.
Parsley — Parsley goes well with just about everything. Harvest by cutting about halfway down the stem and new shoots will keep coming from the base. The leaves and stem are both flavorful and can be used in cooking. Parsley will often survive mild winters and come back in the spring.
Thyme — Also compliments Italian dishes, you will be able to harvest thyme year-round. It grows and spreads, so give it lots of room if you like thyme or cut it back to the size you want. Harvest by cutting the stems about halfway down and stripping the leaves to use.
Oregano — Often used in Italian and Mexican cooking, you will be able to harvest oregano year-round. It grows and spreads, so give it lots of room or cut it back to the size you want it. Harvest by cutting the stems about halfway down and stripping the leaves to use.
Tarragon — This subtle herb is a great addition to vegetables, chicken and fish. Harvest by pinching off the leaves, leaving a few to help the plant continue growing. It may survive a mild winter and come back in the spring.
Chives — A mild substitute for green onion. Harvest by snipping stems at the base with scissors. The plants will grow pretty purple flowers that dry and spread seeds for a new crop next spring.
Sage — A staple at Thanksgiving for turkey and stuffing, sage will grow with very little help. You’ll be able to harvest year-round by pinching off leaves as you need them. Keep it pruned to the size you want.
Dill — The feathery leaves are tender and best for salads and fresh eating, but the stem is also flavorful and can be used for seasoning pickles or other cooked dishes. Harvest the fronds to the stem. Pinch off flowers for a longer harvest. Once the flowers bloom and dry they will sow new seeds for next spring.
Cilantro — Popular in Mexican and Asian dishes, cilantro is happiest if you harvest it regularly. Cut the stems about halfway down each week. The leaves and stems are both flavorful and good to use. Allow the plant to flower to sow more seeds for next year. It may prefer a more shaded location.
Rosemary — A robust herb that quickly becomes a shrub. Harvest year-round by clipping the top one-third of the stem and removing the leaves to use. Prune as needed to maintain the right size for your garden.
Mint — This plant will spread, so grow it in a pot by itself rather than in the ground or with other herbs. Harvest by cutting stems at the base of the plant and removing the leaves to use.
Buckingham notes that fresh herbs have a milder flavor than dried herbs. If a recipe calls for dried herbs you can easily replace it with fresh, but double the amount called for. When using dried herbs, many recipes will have you add them in the beginning with some fat like olive oil to help release the flavors throughout the dish during cooking. If you’re using fresh herbs, use them toward the end of the cooking process so the leaves retain a little bright color and freshness.
Ways to Use More Herbs
Buckingham offers these tips for incorporating more herbs into your diet:
- Garnish soup with a handful of fresh parsley or basil before serving.
- Add herbs to potato and macaroni salad — dill, chives and parsley go well together.
- Mix herbs into fresh salads and sandwiches— cilantro, parsley and basil, or tarragon.
- Add oregano, thyme, basil and parsley to canned tomatoes, sautéed onion and garlic for a flavorful spaghetti sauce.
- Lots of basil, toasted pine nuts or walnuts, fresh garlic, olive oil and a dash of salt blended together make a quick pesto sauce for pasta or as a sandwich spread.
- Use sage in savory gravy.
- Grill fish with fresh dill and sliced lemon.
- Fresh thyme leaves sprinkled over grilled veggies is delicious. Thyme is also a tasty accompaniment to pork and beef.
- Tarragon, chives, thyme, garlic and a little lemon juice mixed with melted butter makes a great dip for artichoke.
- Add herbs to iced tea, lemonade or water. A sprig of mint will take your homemade ice tea to a whole new level!
Get helpful nutrition tips from Samaritan Weight Management Institute in their quarterly newsletter, Eat. Move. Connect.