Botanically, an herb is defined as an herbaceous plant without a woody stem that dies back to the ground at the end of the growing season. A much broader definition is a plant that is useful to humans. This definition can be problematic as it technically can include a wide expanse of plants that are useful for any purpose.
More commonly, “herb” is defined as a plant that has culinary and/or medicinal properties. This includes plants with woody stems such as lavender and rosemary as well as the more herbaceous annuals and perennials.
Annual herbs, such as dill and cilantro, set seed at the end of their life cycle and need to be replanted each year. Parsley and chervil are biennials, which means they complete their life cycle after two years. Many herbs are perennial meaning they return year after year such as oregano and thyme.
Herbs tend to be low maintenance and disease and pest resistant. Many are well-suited for container plantings making them a great option for a variety of gardening spaces including patios, balconies and even kitchen windows.
Some herbs are grown for multiple plant parts such as dill. Dill can be used for the leaves (dill weed) or the seeds, which are used as a spice. Mint is an example of an herb that has both medicinal and culinary value.
Rich in vitamins and polyphenols, consuming large quantities of herbs can provide similar benefits as vegetables. Other reported health benefits of herbs range from preventing motion sickness (ginger) to reducing inflammation (turmeric) and many more.
Regularly harvesting will encourage most herbs to branch out with new growth making the plants more full and healthier. For this reason, when starting an herb garden, research the uses of the herbs. Select a few that will bring the greatest value to your home. Experiment with preparing and using these herbs before adding lesser-known varieties.
If you find yourself overrun with herbs, drying is a great option. Harvest in the morning after the dew has evaporated. Rinse the leaves gently and discard any with imperfections. Tie the stems in small bundles and hang upside down out of the sun, indoors if possible. Herbs with more tender leaves such as basil and mint need to dry quickly to prevent mold. Directing a fan at the herb bundles will circulate air and speed up dehydration. For this method it’s beneficial to enclose the bundles in a paper bag with air holes to catch any leaves or seeds that drop. Dried herbs can be crumbled and stored in recycled spice jars.
Fresh herbs can be frozen for later use as well. Follow the same harvesting protocol as for drying. If using the herbs for cooking soups or stews, you can dice them up and put them in the individual cells of an ice tray. Fill the remainder of the cell with water and freeze. Once frozen, store the “herb-cubes” in a freezer bag. Alternatively, the entire sprig can go directly into a freezer bag for later use. Frozen herbs are best used for cooking rather than as a garnish.
Freshly harvested herbs can be stored in a damp paper towel in a sealed bag in the refrigerator, except for basil which prefers room temperature.
Herbs are a great addition to the landscape even for aesthetics alone. This low maintenance category of plants provides opportunities for exploration, discovery and overall well-being.
Cynthia Domenghini is an instructor of horticulture and garden management for Kansas State University’s Horticulture and Natural Resources Department.