The word herb is a loose term that means any plant grown for flavour or medicinal purposes, including various leafy greens and flowers that contain strongly smelling and tasting compounds and plants that help our bodies heal or maintain balance and health. Wise women (and men) have known about the ability of certain herbs to heal for centuries.
Common herbs include low shrubs with woody stems, as well as more delicate annual plants. Many are perennials, meaning that they will grow from year to year without being replanted. Although some are more cold tolerant than others, the herbs can generally be grown over winter either outdoors or in containers and overwinter with a bit of protection. Growing herbs is an easy way to start gardening for the new gardener.
One of the best sources for herbs plants and seeds is Richters, based in Goodwood, Ontario. Their extensive print catalogue lists more than 1500 seeds and plants that they offer to growers across Canada, and around the world. The company’s website can be found at Richters.com for online ordering and they will be happy to send you their compact, printed catalogue. We are lucky to have such a diverse and committed enterprise here in Canada.
Richters distributes a huge assortment of herbs from all over the world, along with some vegetable seeds. The familiar herbs they offer include basil, chamomile, chives, cilantro, cress, dill, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, savory, sorrel and thyme. Among the easiest to grow in a northern climate are these eight:
Chives are part of the onion family. They are a compact type of bunching onion, that grows in clumps, while constantly budding off new plants at the edges. If you plant one plant in rich soil, you will have a dense clump within a few years. Chives are easy to grow, somewhat invasive and a true perennial that overwinters nicely with little or no protection. Some varieties (for example garlic chives) are spicier than others. You can start chives from seed or ask a friend for a piece of their already growing clump. Chives form lovely papery purple flowers each summer, but it is the thin leaves which we harvest for food, cutting them and adding them to soups, salads and other dishes. Easy to grow, chives are a great starter and a good plant for indoor gardens.
Chamomile is a small, compact member of the daisy family (Asteracea) grown for its beneficial properties that include calming, sleep support, digestion and blood sugar control. The smell of chamomile flowers is distinctive, sweet and memorable. Chamomile is grown mainly for the flowers, well known as a soporific (sleep inducing, calming). It is easy to harvest and dry. We are lucky to have a form of wild chamomile that grows in disturbed areas and along roadsides each fall. You will find an article about pineappleweed on our Foraging page. The cultivated varieties, from England and Germany, are native to Northern Europe where it grows wild. Once established, chamomile is a perennial that will reseed if you allow some flowers to remain on the plant.
The plant we call cilantro produces the dried herb known as coriander, which is the dried seed. Grow cilantro as an annual, replanted yearly. This is the best approach in our climate, and once seeds germinate, cilantro does very well in a sunny well drained spot. The plants are part of the Umbelliferae, a family that includes carrots, dill and Queen Anne’s Lace. Both the leaves, used in Mexican cooking, and the dried seeds stored and used as a cooking spice, can be harvested. Some people love the taste of cilantro while others are repelled by the smell. Cilantro grows all over the world, and is easy to grow in the north. If you harvest your own seeds, you will be able to replant from year to year.
A tall, fast growing plant, dill must be planted yearly and can reach up to three feet tall, if grown in rich soil with full sun. The flowers form as umbels, or clusters of flowers on a single stem. Dill is generally grown for its seeds, that form after the flowers are pollinated. The flavour of dill, commonly used in making pickles is piquant and sharp. The feathery leaves are also used in soups and stews for flavouring. Like its relatives celery, cilantro and carrot, the dried seeds are easy to harvest and replant the following year.
Grown as a perennial, oregano is a warm spice used extensively in Italian cooking and valued for the flavour it adds, pairing well with tomato-based sauces. A member of the mint family, oregano is native to Eurasia and has been grown there for many centuries, since being brought into the garden from the wild. One useful quality is that dried oregano leaves are even more fragrant than fresh, and may be stored in a cool dry container for several years before losing their flavour. However, for gardeners, it is wonderful to have fresh leaves growing, whether in a pot on the windowsill in a sunny kitchen window, or just outside the back door, where it can be grown in the ground or in a container. Once established, it will overwinter and will spread, unless contained.
Grown both as a salad green and as an herb that can be dried, parsley is a biennial (takes two years to go to seed) that came from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea but is now grown all over the world. It has a gentler flavour than some of the other herbs listed here, and comes in a range of sub-types from the more strongly flavoured Italian variety to gentler flat-leafed types. If you plant parsley in a container, it will be good for two years before going to seed. It has a wide range of uses, thanks to its gentle flavour that blends well with a variety of main ingredients.
Sage is a lovely plant to grow in the garden where its grey furry leaves provide a nice accent nestled among the greens. Some varieties have variegated (yellow and green) leaves and there are also greener varieties. It will grow as a perennial if protected with a layer of mulch or row cover over winter. The dried leaves are easy to harvest, either by cutting branches when green and hanging hem to dry indoors, or by stripping them in the Fall when the plant is dormant and leaves have dried on the plant. Sage is a secret flavour in Italian tomato sauces, adding a piquant, musty flavour. Richters lists more than thirty different varieties grown all over the world!
Thyme is a low growing herb that can be planted as a ground cover using a variety known as “creeping thyme.” If planted in walkways it releases a pleasant herby odor when it is crushed underfoot. It is a hardy plant that can take this punishment, that will grow perennially once established in your garden. Harvesting is easy: just trim off growing tips with a pair of scissors or pinch them off with your fingers. Thyme is a standard herb used in traditional recipes from across Europe. Among the twenty-six varieties available in the Richters catalogue are versions that have lemon or orange flavour.
While there are hundreds of other culinary and medicinal herbs, including many which are our favourites, these eight are chosen for easy cultivation and will help you pass through the door into the world of medicinal plants, whose healing powers have been known by humans for millennia.
Good luck with your growing and don’t be afraid to try a new plant or two every year!