Barefoot gardening is all about making life easy. What could be easier than plants that plant themselves – or stick around year after year with little to no help from yours truly?
Annual herbs fall into the first category, perennials into the second. And if you like to cook, few things will save you money like fresh herbs, which are so much cheaper to grow than to buy.
Not all herbs will seed themselves or survive year after year in your garden – but many will. Here are a few of my favorites:
Annuals gone wild
Some of my favorite herbs are annuals. That means that the plants don’t overwinter, but have to grow from seed each year. However that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to plant them each year. Many of them will plant themselves!
Dill is one such herb. I love it in cucumber salad, or with garlic, butter and new potatoes (see this post for more on that fabulous dish). It also goes well with cucumbers, fresh or when making pickles, and is delicious in soup.
If you do decide to use it in a hot dish, be sure to add it in the last few minutes of cooking or afterwards – its taste will be lost if it’s cooked to long. Fresh dill can help sooth the stomach after meals.
Another wonderful annual is cilantro. If you like salsa or gazpacho, this herb is for you! Funny thing about cilantro – either you love it or you think it tastes like soap. (I believe it’s genetic, depending on how your taste receptors respond to the herb’s aromatic compounds).
Even if you don’t like the taste of the fresh leaves, don’t dismiss this plant so quickly. Any fan of Chinese, Indian, or Thai food will want to use its dried seeds, also known as coriander. (Yes, a twofer herb!)
Cilantro has self-seeded itself EVERYWHERE I planted it, giving me enough fresh and dried spice to feed much of Central and South America, not to mention Southeast Asia…
I love you again and again and again…dependable perennials
Many of my favorite herbs are perennials – meaning that a portion of the plant survives from year to year.
Mint is a classic and somewhat invasive example. When I first started gardening, I planted peppermint in my parents’ backyard. For years the yard smelled minty everytime they mowed. Yes, it had spread itself all across the yard, growing in little aromatic tufts here and there…
Unlike some of the other herbs I’m discussing, mint doesn’t reseed itself. It grows roots in every direction and sends up young plants every so often. I still love mint, but I’ve learned to confine it to a planter or container. It’s great for cooking and tea. I also like to toss a few handfuls into a pitcher of water in the fridge for a great fresh taste. Mint is also good for soothing the stomach and the rest of the digestive system.
Another yummy tea herb is lemon balm. It’s a combo herb – a perennial that self seeds like crazy. Here you can see where it’s taken root all along the path. I often toss a handful of lemon balm into the water with the mint, or put both in hot water for a wonderful herbal tea (or tissane, if you’re French ).
Parsley is a biennial, meaning that it grows for two years. however, the edible part – the leaves – only grow in the first year, so I treat it as a annual. It is not great about self-seeding, but I have found it scattered here and there, including on the ground next to the compost pile.
Parsley is widely used all over the world, both as a fresh garnish and added to cooked dishes. It holds up better than dill, but not by much, so only add it in the last thirty minutes or so of cooking.
It is used to freshen the breath after meals, is very health, high in antioxidants and may have cancer-fighting properties. The Italian or flat-leaf form is tastier (IMHO) than the curly form, which is often used as a garnish.
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Simon and Garfunkel were onto something: sage, rosemary AND thyme are perennials. (We dealt with parsley above). All three four of these herbs grow in my garden.
Sage and thyme are easy and some varieties are even evergreen. Rosemary grows really well in my area (Zone 7A/ the DC area for those who are wondering) but will not survive the winters further north.
One possibility is to let it grow outside in a container (a BIG one if you can) and bring it in for the winter. All of these herbs have an earthy taste (which my husband hates) are are used a lot in southern European (Italian, Greek, French) cooking.
Rosemary is wonderful on foccacia, is high in anti-oxidants, and may have significant cancer-fighting properties. (In this photo, rosemary is the plant with the pine-looking leaves in the middle/foreground).
Thyme is good with soups and meat, is used a lot in Mediterranean food, and is the primary ingredient/flavor in zatar, a spice mix popular in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. It has antiseptic properties and its primary aromatic compound, thymol, is the active ingredient in Listerine.
Sage is good with beans and fatty meats like lamb, and it is traditionally used in Thanksgiving stuffing.
Sage’s scientific name is Salvia, which means to heal in Latin, an indication of how highly regarded this herb has been for it’s medicinal properties. It has been used as a astringent, anti-fungal and antibiotic among other things and one well-regarded study found that sage extracts were helpful in treating mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
I love you again and again and again – More wonderful perennials
Lavender takes a while to get established but once it does, you will never be at a loss for potpourri. It is also used in cooking in the south of France in the relatively new spice mix known as Herbes de Provence. Lavender is also used to flavor cheese and the honey made from lavender flowers is exquisite!
Lavender has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties an the scent is said to be calming. I like to spray a little of the essential oil on my pillow at night.(Tiny lavender flowers can be seen on the right side in the photo above. The flowers next to them are purple coneflowers, otherwise known as Echinacea, good for cold and general immunity-strengthening).
Tarragon is used a lot in French cooking. It is considered one of the four herbes fines which are used fresh. (The others are parsley, chives and chervil – of course I looked them up!) It goes well with chicken, eggs and fish. (Tarragon is the tall bushy plant that dominates the background in the photo).
No discussion of herbs would be complete without the #1 favorite of gardeners everywhere: basil. I don’t mean to slight this wonderful plant, which is easy to grow and one of my all-time favorites. It’s just not repeat performer. As an annual it must be planted every year, but it doesn’t self-seed. (Why? My guess is that the seeds of this tropical plant – it’s originally from India – can’t survive even mild winters. If you live in the south, however, it might be worth a shot). Let some plants flower and go to seed – and let me know what happens!)
However it is SUPER easy to grow. In my area the seeds germinate very easily outdoors when the weather gets hot and the leaves are ready just in time for the tomato harvest!
If you want some earlier, get a plant from the nursery or start it indoors. I have heard that it’s easy to keep basil growing in a pot indoors year-round, but have never succeeded myself. (My green thumb stops at the door – I kill houseplants regularly!)
Basil is used in Italian cuisine (duh!) as well as Southeast and Northeast Asian cuisine. (I love it in Thai food!) Basil is important in Ayurvedic medicine and has been found to have antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties and may fight cancer (as if you needed anther reason to love pesto!)
How does your garden grow?
Any favorite herbs? Self-seeders or perennials I haven’t mentioned here? Others you’d like to know more about? Fabulous recipes or medicinal uses for any of the above that I haven;t listed? Let us know in the comments below!
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Danielle Meitiv is a writer, marine science geek, gardener and mother who goes barefoot whenever possible. Danielle is also a huge fan and sales affiliate for Holly Lisle’s online courses: How to Think Sideways: Career Survival School for Writers, and How to Revise Your Novel. Follow @Danielle_Meitiv on Twitter, and on Facebook: Danielle Meitiv’s Barefoot Blog, and Danielle Meitiv.Follow @danielle_meitiv