Wishing for Spring, Growing Herbs

While we are still in the midst of February those of us who garden are leafing through seed catalogues and are making plans for our gardens this summer.  I thought I would share 6 plants that are my favourites for a herb garden.   Basil, Chives, Parsley, Rosemary, Sage and Thyme are all easy to grow and fun to use in lots of recipes. 


I wish I could take credit for this Rosemary plant, but it belongs to the house my son lives in Waitomo New Zealand where the temperature never gets below 0.  This plant is over 20 years old and gets pruned back every year to keep its new growth edible.  Alas in Ontario we will never see Rosemary plants this big.

Some basics about growing herbs, before I talk about my favorite 6.  It is best to plant herbs in a sunny location. The oils that account for the flavour in herbs need to get at least 6-8 hours of sun per day. Also herbs will grow in any good garden soil with good drainage.  Of the six plants on my list Chives, Sage and Thyme are the herbs that are perennials in Ontario meaning they can survive out winters and will grow again the next spring.  The others need to be planted every year, every other year or moved inside in the winter to protect them from the cold.   


Basil is an annual that has either green or purple leaves.  We use a lot of basil in our house in the summer time.  A couple of recipes are to make pesto for pasta or a fresh tomato basil and mozzarella salad.  I usually plant a couple of basil plants each year and harvest leaves as I need them in the summer. Dried basil keeps very little of the wonderful aroma and flavour of fresh basil so I use fresh basil whenever I can. If you keep potted basil on your deck it is said to repel mosquitos.


Chives grow in clumps of long thin green blades which are hollow inside.. The plants produce purple flowers in the summer.  Chives are the smallest and most delicate member of the onion family. The flavour is similar to baby spring onions or young leeks. A nice thing about chives is you can use them as an ornamental plant that you can see in the picture.  This chive plant grows in Shannon’s front yard. In the summer I add chopped chives to potato salad.  If you are really adventurous you can also use the purple flowers in with greens for a difference twist on a salad.

The rest of the pictures in this blog were taken in February at the Local Community Food Centre Greenhouse in Stratford. The Centre is growing herbs for their classes all year round. 

Parsley is a biennial plat that lives for 2 seasons.  The ancient Greeks used it as cure for stomach ailment.  We now know this plant is a rich source of Vitamin C and A.  I use the leaves in soups, sauces and salads. The picture shows Italian flat leaf parsley which is has a strong flavour. At home I prefer the look of the curly leaf kind which also makes a nice edging plant in the garden and which has a milder flavour when eaten. Parsley is often used to flavour soups and stews and I often make a cheese and parsley omelette for lunch on a Saturday or Sunday. 




Rosemary was eaten in the Middle Ages as a cure all for headaches.  It is a robust very versatile herb with a flavour that works well with many other ingredients and dishes.  This plant originated in the Mediterranean Region and it's bittersweet  green leaves resembles pine needles.  It is used a lot as a seasoning in cooking meats such as chicken or lamb.  When you cook with dried rosemary it is a good idea to crush it before adding it to a dish as it is hard fish it out after it is cooked. This is more likely the size of Rosemary plant I have in my garden.



Sage is a woody plant with oblong leaves that are grey green in colour.  The leaves are a stong aromatic and slightly bitter herb that can withstand long cooking times with losing flavour.  The strong flavour of sage means that a lttle goes a long way especially if you are using dried leaves so use it sparingly.  I once had to send an emergency email to one of my children reminding them to use less dried sage in a recipe when they couldn't get the fresh I used in the recipe at home.  Sage is the herb used most often to add flovur to pork sausages and most recipes for turkey dressin will include sage as one of the herbs.


Thyme The thyme plant is slow growing, very wiry and woody.  As you can see from the picture thyme leaves are small and gray green in colour.  Although the plants are perennials it is my experience that I need to replace my thyme every 3-4 years.  The intensely pungent flavour complements most meat dishes.  Its robust nature means that it can withstand long cooking times and it is a good faddition to slow cooked dishes such as stews.  Its flavour also works well with other strong flavoured herbs such as Rosemary and Sage.  I add sprigs to marinates for vegetables, meat or fish.  I also tuck a few sprigs of Thyme with half a lemon inside a chicken before I roast it.


So if you are thinking about growing herbs now is the time to plan your garden and decide what you want to include for this summer. With names like Golden Sage and Red Opal Basil have fun with plant catalogues and websites planning for warm summer days.  Next week I will write about how best to harvest and dry your herbs so you can have the pleasure of these flavours all year round.

Margaret Ann RD