Growing herbs

One of the best ways to grow herbs is to treat them in the same way as salads – as a quick crop to sow in quantity and cut often, to eat within minutes of picking.

The herbs that give the quickest return for your time and money are annuals and short-lived, or tender, perennials. These plants, including basil, coriander and dill, are easy to grow, quick to establish and produce large crops. If you sow them every three to four weeks, you could be picking handfuls of fresh herbs until autumn.

Of course, many familiar kitchen herbs are perennials, including woody shrubs like bay, rosemary and thyme, and herbaceous perennials such as chives and mint. It's possible to grow these from seed, but they won’t offer much of a harvest until the second year – even later for some. They are also generally used in fairly small quantities, so it's quicker and more economical to buy young plants and grow them on.

The following herbs are suitable for growing successionally through spring and summer.


Basil, Ocimum basilicum

Grow basil indoors from January to April, in a propagator or heated greenhouse. Use 9cm pots or multi-cell trays, as basil has a long tap root and doesn't transplant well. Alternatively, sow directly into the soil outside from May. Basil thrives in warm, sunny conditions and rich, well-drained soil. Water the plants before noon so the soil dries out quickly, and pinch out the tips to encourage bushy growth and stop flowers developing.

Leaves are ready to harvest after around six weeks. They're best picked young and torn, rather than cut. Varieties to try include ‘Genovese’, a typical green basil, ‘Purple Ruffles’, which has aniseed and cinnamon flavours and grows well in semi-shade, and ‘Cinnamon’, which has a warm, spicy flavour and is perfect in fruit salads and stir-fries. Add leaves to summer salads, pasta dishes and home-made pestos.

Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium

Chervil is best grown in semi-shade outside, to stop it from flowering too readily, and thrives in a light, moist soil. Grow it in pots or multi-cell trays in a cold greenhouse from late winter, or sow directly outside from early spring. Pinch out flowers to encourage leafy growth. A summer sowing will provide fresh leaves throughout winter, but cover plants with a cloche in autumn for protection.

Leaves are ready to harvest six weeks after sowing. There are no specific named varieties to try. Use leaves in soups and chicken or fish dishes.

Coriander, Coriandrum sativum

Coriander seed can be slow to germinate, so you can gently crush it before sowing, to help it along. Like basil, it has a long tap root, so either sow direct in late spring or use multi-cell trays, to avoid damaging the roots. It bolts easily, so it’s worth sowing every three or four weeks if you plan to use a lot of it. Leaves should be ready to harvest six to eight weeks after sowing.

The leaves and stems can be used in salads, curries and stews, while the toasted and ground seeds are a favourite in Indian curries. Varieties to try include ‘Calypso’, which is slow to bolt, ‘Confetti’, which has finely-divided leaves and Eastern European variety, ‘Chechnya’.

Dill, Anethum graveolens

Dill is too tall to grow on the kitchen windowsill, so is best grown outside, with support. Sow seed direct outside in late spring, or raise in pots in the greenhouse from late winter. Don't plant near fennel as the plants can cross pollinate, resulting in poor flavour the second year. Dill thrives in well-drained, light soil and partial shade. Keep plants well watered to prevent bolting. 

Leaves are ready to harvest around eight weeks after sowing. The seeds can also be eaten, although they have a sharper flavour than the delicate leaves. Varieties to try include vigorous and bushy ‘Tetra’, strongly flavoured ‘Herkules’ and compact ‘Diana’. Add leaves to fish dishes.

Flat leaf parsley, Petroselinum crispum var. neopolitanum

Flat leaf parsley has a stronger flavour than curled varieties, so is more readily used in cooking (curled parsley is more commonly used as a garnish). Sow direct outside in late spring, or in a heated propagator indoors, from late winter. Flat leaf parsley thrives in a rich, damp soil in partial shade, so dig in organic matter before sowing.

Varieties to try include ‘Italian Giant’, which is tall and vigorous, and 'Laura', which has a particularly intense flavour. Use to make parsley sauce and add to dishes to bring out the flavour of other herbs.

Summer savory, Satureja hortensis

Summer savory seeds are very small and need light to germinate, so sow in pots indoors from early spring, to aid germination. Don't cover the seeds. Plant outside in light, well drained soil once all risk of frost has passed, in a sunny, sheltered spot.

Leaves are ready to harvest eight weeks after sowing. Pick them regularly to help plants keep their shape and stop them becoming leggy. The flavour is quite strong, so add the leaves sparingly if you’ve not used them before.


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