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The Secret Ingredient? Homegrown Herbs

Throughout history herbs have been much-loved, multitasking heroes in the home. These savory, aromatic plants have been used for medicinal purposes, to make household cleaning products or perfumes and fragrances, to brighten up window sills, and to add variety and spice to both food and beverages. While pregrown herbs can be bought at the store, growing them at home is fun and offers valuable benefits like cutting your grocery bill and having gorgeous and versatile plants always within reach. Interested in testing your green thumb and growing herbs of your own? Try these handy tips and tricks Better Homes & Gardens has provided throughout the years.

If there's one thing to know about successfully growing herbs, it's their love of sunlight and well-draining soil. When these conditions are met, herbs are generally easy-to-grow plants that don't require a lot of maintenance to thrive—sometimes needing nothing other than a watering here and there.

"If you work full-time as I do, you come to appreciate how undemanding herbs really are, as long as they have a sunny spot, the plants are happy," said Margy Terpstra in "Spice of Life," a 1990 Better Homes & Gardens article. At the time, Margy was growing a flourishing 12x15-foot herb garden with over 40 herb varieties. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Spice of Life, May 1990)

Exactly how much sunlight do herbs need? Some varieties can tolerate a bit less sun than others, but a general rule of thumb is to aim for 6 hours or more of full sunlight per day. The more rays they get, often the better they will grow. This is why herbs grown outside in the garden tend to be a bit more prolific than those grown indoors. This doesn't mean they have to be outside, however. If chosen correctly and nurtured properly, herbs can thrive in either atmosphere. They can be added to sunny patches in your garden, planted in containers in the home, and can even be started outside and moved indoors during cold winter months for a year-round harvest. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Spice of Life, May 1990)


Tips For the Chef

In 1942, Americans were faced with the dilemma of needing to add excitement to their meals in the budget-friendly way of using spices, but found a diminished supply at the grocery stores due to the war happening at the time. To fix this, many people began to grow their own herb gardens with culinary herbs like sage, dill, borage, thyme, rosemary, savory, tarragon, and sweet marjoram. (Better Homes & Gardens, Grow Herbs to Spice Your Dinner, April 1942)

While a shortage of available herbs and spices may not be a factor in American life today, a snip of fresh parsley or a handful of basil leaves is still an extremely effective, sustainable, and budget-friendly way to add an unbelievable amount of depth and flavor to both food and beverages. The key to really making an impact? Using homegrown herbs fresh from the garden.

"Most people know that garden tomatoes taste better than ones you buy at a grocery store," Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Garden, said in an article in Better Homes & Gardens August 2012 issue. "The same is true of herbs. Having lots of homegrown herbs makes a big difference in everyday cooking. We eat better when healthy foods taste better." (Better Homes & Gardens, The Herb Hunter, August 2012)

Fresh herbs generally need to be used within 5 days of buying or cutting. Once harvested, they begin to quickly lose their flavor and aroma, so the fresher they are, the better. When you have herbs growing near your kitchen, you can harvest as-needed and use the high-quality herbs for your cooking and baking needs.

Can't decide which herbs you'll use most in your garden? Don't fret! Many herbs can be substituted in recipes. For example, basil can be swapped with oregano, tarragon can add similar flavors as rosemary, and marjoram can be used in place of thyme. Interested in mixing in some herbs that aren't so average? Try unique herbs like lemon verbena, rose-scented wild bergamot, or doublemint.

Tips For the Timid (Or Unlucky) Gardener

While herbs are generally very easy to grow, there are a few tips and tricks to help ensure success. If you're thinking back to your recent succulent tragedy or your failed tomato garden and worried about attempting to grow herbs, try the following tricks.

Choose a variety that is particularly forgiving, like basil, chives, and dill. These plants all work well in both containers and the ground and require very little maintenance if grown with adequate sunlight and in well-draining soil. Chives and dill are even perennial plants, meaning they will self-seed and return every spring when grown outdoors.

Use a cutting instead of starting from seed. When the tip of an herb cutting is placed in a jar or glass of water, the cutting will begin to grow roots—sometimes in as little as a few days. Keep the water clean, and plant in well-draining soil once the roots are 2 inches or longer to skip the sometimes-tricky germination period that comes with starting plants from seed.

Harvest without hesitation. Don't hold back with harvesting from your herb plant. By harvesting often, your plant will actually produce more. It will also help prevent flowering or bolting, which often turns the plant inedible. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Incredible Edible Herbs, May 1999)

Tips for the Garden Designer

Herbs offer an array of culinary and aromatic uses in the home, but they also have aesthetic benefits like adding color and variety to gardens. When you're planning your garden, whether it's your outdoor garden, your container garden, or your windowsill or living wall, consider these tips.

Take advantage of the varying colors and textures of herb varieties. Gay and Chip Gillespie, a couple featured in the Better Homes & Gardens April 1985 issue, strategically placed contrasting colors and textures together while they were designing their herb garden to bring attention to each individual plant. By doing so, they created a garden that covered a large amount of land without it being boring or monotonous. The varying colors, textures, and heights worked together to add interest and variety. (Better Homes & Gardens, Herbs Are a Family Affair, April 1985)

Be mindful of symmetry and function. When deciding where to place a new garden outdoors, look for a place with adequate sunlight and easy access for harvesting. This is especially helpful when you decided to add some of your herbs to your dinner mid-preparation. When placing plants in your windowsill, place tall plants to the sides and shorter plants in the center so you don't obstruct your view. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Kitchen-Window Herb Garden, October 1934)

Keep plant families together. Mixing a variety of the same type of herb can result in a garden or pot with contrasting colors and sizes that work well with each other. Blending different varieties of lavenders, basils, and thymes are an example of families that look great together. (Better Homes & Gardens, The Spice of Life, May 1990)

For the Waste-Conscious Grower

Herbs grow quickly and can produce an impressively plentiful harvest. If your plant is producing more than you can use before your cuttings spoil, or if your outdoor perennials (looking at you, chives!) are about to go dormant for the winter and you don't want them to go unused, try these preservation methods to enjoy those herbs down the road.

Drying: Tie a small handful of herb cuttings together and hang upside-down in a dry, cool environment until dried thoroughly. This method works well with herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, and mint. When using dried herbs, be mindful of their sometimes more potent flavor. A 1-to-3 conversion factor can be used when deciding how much dried herbs to use when a recipe calls for fresh—meaning a tablespoon of fresh herbs usually has the same potency as a teaspoon of dried. Dried herbs also work great to make tea or to add to a relaxing bath. (Better Homes & Gardens, Preserving Herbs, August 2006)

Freezing: Many herbs can be frozen to preserve their flavor and extend their usability for up to one year. Herbs that work great when frozen include oregano, basil, and parsley. Wash and dry herbs, then either place in a single layer on a pan or in an ice cube tray (and fill with either water or oil). Once frozen, place the herbs or cubes in an airtight container. When cooking with frozen herbs, use straight from the freezer without thawing them for optimal quality. (Better Homes & Gardens, Preserving Herbs, August 2006)

Extra herbs can also be used in unique ways that might surprise you. Try infusing your liquors with fresh herbs—like rosemary-infused vodka—or infusing your vinegars and oils.