If you're looking for a way to take your cooking to the next level, growing your own herbs is a great way to start. Popular herbs like basil, cilantro, and oregano have an amazing fragrance and taste when grown fresh at home. Home-grown herbs can be added to delicious sauces, salsas, or even dried for future projects. Plus, herbs are a fun and easy plant to grow whether you have a large outdoor space or just a sunny windowsill.

What are herbs?

An herb is any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for food, medicine, or fragrance. Specifically, in the culinary world, an herb is any green or leafy part of a plant that can add flavor to a recipe without being the main ingredient. Spices and herbs differ in that while herbs are always derived from the leaves or other green parts of a plant, while spices come from the bark, roots, berries, seeds, or twigs of plants.

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Cooking with Herbs

Herbs are often used in cooking to add flavor, color, and freshness to a dish. When using herbs, make sure whether your recipe calls for fresh or dried herbs for best results. Dried herbs are often added in a marinade or during the cooking process for adding flavor. Fresh herbs, however, are often added right before serving so that they retain their green color and crisp texture.

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Basil is a fragrant, warm-weather herb that's frequently grown by home gardeners. Most people are familiar with sweet basil, which is often found in Italian dishes, but purple basil, lemon basil, and Thai basil are also fun to grow.

Basil loves warm, sunny weather. If you want to grow it outdoors, wait until the soil is at least 50 degrees f. Plant seeds or seedlings in well-drained soil in a spot that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sun daily. Make sure to keep basil plants well-watered for best growth. To keep the plant productive, pinch the flowers off when they appear.

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Cilantro is an annual herb that prefers the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. While the entire cilantro plant is edible, the leaves and seeds are most frequently used in cooking. The name cilantro refers to the leaves, while the seeds are usually called coriander. Cilantro adds a fresh burst of flavor to recipes like salsas, guacamole, and spring rolls.

Plant cilantro in an herb garden or in the corner of a vegetable garden so it can self-seed. Plant the seeds in light, well-drained soil about 1-2 inches apart. If you want a continuous supply, allow the plant to bolt and self-seed, or plant new seeds every three weeks or so to make sure you have enough mature plants to harvest the leaves.

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Oregano is a herb with rose-purple or white flowers and a pungent taste that adds zest to Italian and Mexican dishes. When dried, it is a great addition to tomato sauces or salad dressings. Oregano is a perennial, meaning that it will return year to year and does not need to be replanted as long as it is well cared for.

Oregano should be planted in a sunny spot and loves warm weather. Wait until any danger of frost has passed before planting seeds or cuttings in well-drained soil. Once the plants have grown about 4 inches tall, you can trim the plants to encourage fuller, less leggy growth.

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Long used as a garnish or breath freshener, parsley is a bright green herb with feathery leaves that can also be used in sauces, salads, or soups. Like many herbs, parsley is a nutritional powerhouse with lots of antioxidants, iron, and vitamin C.

Plant parsley 6 to 8 inches apart in moist soil about a month before the last spring frost. Don't be discouraged if you don't see sprouts right away; parsley sprouts can take up to three weeks to appear. When the leaf stems have three segments, you can start harvesting your parsley.

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Rosemary is a perennial herb that grows into a beautiful bush or shrub. Its flowers are blue and fragrant. Rosemary likes well-drained soil, even when somewhat rocky or sandy. Rosemary is often used in Mediterranean cooking and is ideal for seasoning chicken, potatoes, and lamb.

Wait to plant rosemary until the soil has reached around 70 degrees. Make sure you've picked a spot where your rosemary plant has plenty of room to grow. Since it comes back each year, rosemary can form a shrub that is four feet tall and four feet wide. Trimming the plant helps it keep it nice and bushy and prevents legginess. The best time to trim it is after the plant flowers each year.

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Thyme is a perennial herb that features fragrant light purple or pink flowers. Like rosemary, thyme grows into a bush or shrub and is very aromatic. Though there are many different varieties of thyme, English thyme is most often used when cooking, though lemon thyme is also popular for adding a citrusy taste to dishes.

While it's possible to grow thyme from seed, due to slow germination it's often easier to start with plants or cuttings. Plant about 8-10 inches apart a few weeks before the last spring frost. The plants won't grow very quickly until the soil reaches 70 degrees, however. Thyme will eventually grow to about a foot in height.

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If you want to make your own pickles, having your own fresh dill on hand is really helpful. Dill, an annual plant with feathery green leaves, is also used to flavor salads, sauces, dressings, and soups.

In the springtime, sow dill seeds only about 1/4 inch deep in rich, light soil. Gently rake the seeds into the soil to avoid planting them too deeply. Once the dill plant has four to five leaves, you can start pinching leaves off or trimming them off with scissors to use in your recipes.

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Sage is a perennial herb with attractive grey-green leaves that are soft and slightly fuzzy. Sage is hardy and can put up with a little neglect, making it an excellent choice for a beginner. Sage is often used to season savory dishes like meat or beans. Frequently featured in holiday stuffings, sage leaves can also be fried or sauteed in brown butter to make a delicious sauce.

Sage prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Most gardeners prefer starting with a small plant or cutting rather than seeds. Plant in a pot or a garden at least 2 feet apart and keep it well-watered. Every year, trim back the woody stems for more even growth.

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