Essential Culinary Herbs of the Seasons

Essential culinary herbs are best planted in spring.

Stylish and serviceable herb gardens are a delight through the growing season when they appeal to the eye and senses and provide fresh herbs. In winter, stores of dried and frozen herbs make cooking a pleasure. If you don’t already have a culinary herb garden, you are missing out. And, there’s no reason not to grow one. Essential culinary herbs are the easiest plants in a food gardener’s repertoire.

Every culture relies on essential herbs to flavor its foods. In past blogs, we have written about French herb gardens, Indian herb gardens, herbal tea gardens, herb containers, lemon-scented herbs, and apothecary gardens, but oddly enough, we have never written about growing herbs essential to Western cuisine. These are the common (and pricy) herbs that homeowners buy at the grocery store (even though they grow like weeds). Herbs are yawn and water garden plants unless you want to make a show and create a formal herbary or knot garden.

Essential Herbs of Spring

Chives are lightly oniony and very springy. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The first chives of spring are so bright and welcome when added to fresh vegetables and salads, as are the tender leaves of parsley when they begin to unfurl and are at their sweetest. Fine cilantro and dill–both cool-season annuals–are two other spring herbs no garden should be without. In late spring, count on chamomile to produce its sweet daisies that are harvested and dried to make delicious, soothing tea to enjoy year-round. These are the spring herb essentials.


Chives (Allium schoenoprasum, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8): Chives put forth tidy clusters of oniony, grassy foliage in spring. Pompons of edible mauve flowers bloom in mid-spring, rising above the upright foliage. Harvest them fresh, when they are most flavorful. In summer, chives wane in the heat but will often perk back up in fall.

Chamomile (Matricaria retutica, Zones 2-8) is a winter annual or short-lived perennial to sow in fall. It will overwinter as a ferny green rosette and then bloom in full glory with a flurry of small white daisies in spring. Harvest the flowers for drying when they just begin to open. Allow some plants to set seed to encourage new fall seedlings.


Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a leafy annual that likes it cool and starts producing stems of white flowers and seeds as the weather heats up. But, that’s a good thing because its seedheads, which dry by summer, are crushed to make the spice coriander. Harvest the leaves while you can for guacamole, salads, and salsas. Also, consider cilantro a fall herb to seed in no later than early September.

Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a true spring annual herb that you only need to plant once. Harvest the ferny green leaves to flavor salads, spreads, and pickles, and


let the yellow-green umbel flowerheads dry for flavorful dill seed. Let some seeds fall to the ground and sprout for a second dill harvest in the fall.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) comes in curly and flat-leaved forms and lends fresh flavor to sauces, salads, and meats. Lush clumps of parsley leaves flourish in the cool spring weather and give way to flowering in the heat of summer, after which the plants die. If you replant parsley in the fall, it will often survive through winter.

Essential Herbs of Summer

Oregano continues to stay green and flavorful until frost.

Sweet basil tastes like summer–whether used to flavor sauce, pesto or added to a citrusy summer drink. Mints of all kinds grow rampantly and need containment, but every gardener should have at least one pot of good mint. Thymes, especially lemon thyme, is a summer staple at my home that lends itself well to chicken, fish, salads, and vegetables. Oregano and piney rosemary are necessities for grilled meats and vegetables. These are the summer herb essentials.


Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a warm-season herb that’s grown as an annual. The key to keeping it sweet and flavorful is to clip off the flower heads as they appear. Grow it in the garden or in containers. (See the video below to learn how to care for container-grown basil.), and clip the leaves all summer to keep plants tidy and flavorful. (Click here to learn how to grow basil indoors in winter.)

Mint (Mentha spp.) leaves flavor summer mojitos, tabouli, and fresh mint tea. The plant is so easy to grow you can plunk a stem in a glass of water, and it will root in a week. Its aggressive nature is a mint’s only downfall. One seemingly harmless plant can take over a garden in no time, so plant it in a big pot filled with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil to keep its roots from roaming. When it starts to


outgrow the pot, divide it, and give the spare to a friend (with fair warning).

Oregano (Origanum vulgare, Zones 4-10) has rooting stems that tend to spread, so be sure to give it space to grow. You can also contain oregano in a pot. Clusters of edible purple flowers bloom in midsummer, which attracts bees. Use the leaves to flavor meats, vegetables, and sauces in summer. In the fall, dry or freeze the leaves for winter cooking.


Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, Zones 8-10) is a drought-tolerant, shrubby, evergreen herb with resinous needle-like leaves that taste great on meats and in sauces. Bees are attracted to its violet-blue flowers that bloom in late spring. The cold-tolerant variety ‘Arp’ (Zones 6-10) is a hardier option for northern gardeners. Dry the leaves for winter use.

Thyme (Thymus spp., Zones 5-9) has small, aromatic leaves that are evergreen. In late spring, the low, spreading, shrubby herb bears small clusters of flowers for bees that may be pink, purplish, or white. Plant it along a patio edge where it can spill across the pavement or in a pot. Harvest the leafy stems any time of year to add to many dishes or dry the leaves for herbal mixes.

Essential Herbs of Fall and Winter

Bayleaf is a great indoor/outdoor potted herb.

Sage tastes of turkey stuffing and pairs well with pumpkin. And bean soups never taste quite as good without the complement of winter savory. A big pot of bay leaf should be a winter houseplant for every gardener who cooks. Just be sure to take the pot outdoors in summer to let the Mediterranean tree to enjoy the sunshine. Spicy ginger is another indoor/outdoor tropical herb that will grow well in a sunny window. These are the essential herbs of winter.

Sage in winter

Bayleaf (Laurus nobilis, Zones 8-10) will grow as a 20-30 foot evergreen tree where it is hardy, but if kept pruned in a pot, it will stay compact. Harvest the leaves for soups, sauces, and meats, but keep in mind that new leaves will not be produced until spring, so be sure not to strip the plant of all greenery and kill it. Pot-grown specimens thrive in OMRI Listed®Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. (Click here to learn more about growing bay leaf.) 

Ginger (Zingiber officinale) grows very well as a potted house plant in a brightly lit spot with good humidity. Its roots can be harvested as the plants grow and used to make sweet and savory dishes. As with bay leaf, bring your potted ginger outdoors in summer to allow it to grow to its fullest. (Click here to learn more about growing ginger.)

Winter savory in summer

Sage (Salvia officinalis, Zones 4-8) has felted, gray-green, evergreen leaves with a pungent flavor. The hardy shrubby perennial bears pretty lavender-blue flowers in summer, which are also edible and attract bees. It is best to harvest and dry leaves in the fall for winter cooking, but if you run out, you can always pick off a winter leaf or two without harming the plant.

Winter Savory (Satureja montana, Zones 6-8) The low, semi-evergreen winter savory looks attractive throughout much of the season. Its peppery leaves add flavor to green beans, soups, and stews. In summer, it has clusters of white or pinkish flowers that attract bees. Plant it along the edge of an herbal border.

Growing Herbs

Perennial herb borders are attractive and have permanence.

To make it easy, all of these essential culinary herbs grow best in full sun and fertile soil with good drainage. Most are not too demanding when it comes to fertilizer, but a little all-purpose plant food at the beginning of the season never hurts. Spring is the best time to plant them, aside from tender indoor/outdoor herbs. Before planting, amend your garden soil with good compost, such as OMRI Listed® Black Gold Garden Compost Blend, to encourage good rooting and drainage.

When planning an herb garden, it’s smart to keep your annual and perennial herbs apart. Perennial herb borders are attractive and have permanence. They look right at home in raised beds or even pretty herbal rockeries. Just remember to reserve mints for big patio pots. Annual herbs are nice to plant among complementary vegetables. Dill is right at home planted alongside cucumbers, and almost everybody plants their sweet basil around garden tomatoes. Chamomile looks pretty when planted in a row beside spring greens or cabbages. Then keep your herbs harvested and well-tended to make the most of them all year round. (Click here to learn how to harvest and store herbs.)

What Herbs Repel Deer?

“I read that Thyme can repel deer from your veggie garden. Is it true?” Question from Sylvia of Belle Plaine, Minnesota

Answer: Thyme is a mint, and on the whole, deer dislike the strong smell of many plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae), so mints, like thyme, can repel deer. But, I cannot say whether repellent mints would keep deer away from vegetables that they really love, like sweet potato vine. I recommend experimenting with a few to see if they help.

Here is a list of seven great minty perennial garden plants–both herbal flowers and culinary herbs– known to repel deer.

  1. Hyssop (Agastache spp.): These sun-lovers have pretty flowers that bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds will visit. The pretty ‘Blue Fortune‘ will survive to zone 4.
  2. Mints (Mentha spp.): Hardy peppermint, spearmint, and pineapple mint are all great options, but these fast-spreading plants must be grown in large pots (never the ground!) to keep them from taking over.
  3. Monarda (Monarda hybrids): These beautiful summer flowers for pollinators have a strong smell that deer cannot stand. Plant them alongside your vegetables.
  4. Catmint (Nepeta hybrids): The blue flowers of these hardy, bushy perennials (Zones 3-8) add great color to gardens. Proven Winners’ Cat’s Pajamas‘ is especially pretty.
  5. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): For northern gardeners to successfully grow this favorite Mediterranean herb, I always recommend the hardier variety ‘Arp’ (Zones 6-10). If you live in a colder zone, bring it indoors in winter.
  6. Sage (Salvia officinalis): Pots of hardy sage (Zones 4-10) should help protect your vegetable garden and help flavor your favorite winter dishes.
  7. Thyme (Thymus spp.): All thymes are repellent to deer, so plant away.

I hope that they do keep deer out of your vegetable garden!

Happy gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Ornamental Spreaders, Cascaders, and Creepers for the Garden

Creeping thyme has the benefit of being both culinary and a wonderful ornamental creeper for bees.

Tired of weeding the cracks in sidewalks and the places around stepping stones?  Plant creepers.  These ground-hugging perennials are small but mighty, working proactively to keep untidy grass and weeds from taking over. Creepers fill in along edges and around stepping stones, and some are tiny enough to thrive in the narrow cracks of sidewalks. And, if you plant them along the edges of containers or walls, they transition to elegant cascaders in a snap.

Creeping Speedwells

Georgia Blue Creeping Veronica looks at home along a flagstone walk or growing from the cracks in a stone wall. (Image by Dinkum)

Lesser known than their tall-flowered relatives, the creeping veronicas–also known as speedwells—form 1 to 5 inch tall, dense mats that tolerate light foot traffic.  The perennial veronicas on this list are evergreen, deer-resistant, and tolerant of both drought and heat.  Some are extremely hardy, and all are spring flowering.

Georgia Blue Creeping Speedwell (Veronica peduncularis ‘Georgia Blue’,  USDA Hardiness Zones 6-9) will creep steadily outward to form a 2- to 4-foot carpet. Very early spring flowers bloom a vibrant violet-blue with sparkling white centers. Easy to grow, tolerant of light shade, and quick-spreading but not invasive, Georgia Blue’s foliage turns purple-bronze in winter.

The bright green foliage of Tidal Pool Creeping Speedwell (Veronica x intermedia ‘Tidal Pool’, Zones 4-8) is more compact than that of Georgia Blue. A carpet of bright blue flowers with white eyes covers this ground hugger in mid-spring.  Tidal Pool will spread steadily outward to 3 feet. It handles light foot traffic, humid conditions, and stays evergreen.

Sunshine Creeping Speedwell (Veronica repens ‘Sunshine’, Zones 6-9) is called golden creeping speedwell for the low, bright yellow foliage that spreads slowly outward to form 1-foot-wide patches. Under an inch tall, Sunshine covers itself with small white flowers in late spring to early summer.

Creeping Jenny

Golden Creeping Jenny has very brightly colored leaves and likes shade and moist soil.

Another yellow ground hugger, Golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Zones 3-8) grows 2 inches tall, spreading ever outwards, rooting as it goes to form patches that glow like sunshine on the ground. It tolerates some foot traffic and thrives in evenly moist soil in partial-sun to partial-shade. Yellow flowers bloom in June. Plant this only where you want ample coverage because it can easily spread out of bounds if given a chance. There is also a green-leaf form, which is equally vigorous.

If you like creeping Jenny but dislike its aggressive growth, try the Proven Winners variety Goldilocks Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Goldilocks’, Zones 3-10), which spreads to just 14 inches with all the same good looks and vigor.


A silvery dichondra spills over the edge of a container composition. (Image by Proven Winners)

Where it is hardy in the subtropics and tropics, the tough silver nickel vine (Dichondra repens, Zones 10-12) can serve as a lawn. Where it is tender, grow it as a fast-growing bedding or container annual or even a house plant. The tiny, circular, bright green leaves creep along the ground, swiftly filling in the tiniest of cracks. The finest garden variety is the pure silver Proven Accents® Silver Falls, which looks spectacular creeping along a sunny bed edge or dramatically spilling from a pot. Although dichondra is persistent, weeding out the taller competition in its path will speed coverage.

Creeping Mazus

The fast-spreading Mazus reptans has beautiful little flowers early in the season.

The tiny creeping mazus (Mazus reptans, Zones 5-8) is an utterly carefree 4-inch-tall spreader that multiplies quickly in moist, well-drained soil in the sun or shade. Durable and tolerant of tough conditions, including foot traffic, it spreads into a dense mat of bright green that can be contained easily if necessary.

In late spring, mazus is studded with purple blooms that are reminiscent of monkeyflowers. There is also a white-flowered form called ‘Alba’.

Blue Star Creeper

Blue star creeper has very pretty, delicate little flowers.

At a half inch-tall, blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis, Zones 5-9) is a creeper of many talents, including its role as a ground cover that tolerates deer, drought, and rabbits and can eliminate the need for mulch at the base of shrubs. Tiny sky blue flowers bloom sporadically throughout the summer.


Wooly thyme, Breckland wild, and other thyme varieties are commonly sold at nurseries.

There are many creeping fragrant thymes that have the added bonus of being culinary herbs. The gray-green woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosis, Zones 5-8) thrives in a bright sunny place where it slowly expands outward but remains just under 3 inches tall.  It is charming, cascading over rocks and walls.

Another is Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme (Thymus serpyllum ‘Pink Chintz’, Zones 5-8), which grows to just a few inches high and produces spectacular shows of pink flowers in late spring to early summer. It spreads so well that it can also be used as lightly used lawn out West. (Click here to read an article about establishing thyme lawns.)

Creepers are best planted as small plants or plugs when nesting among stones or along walkway edges. Mix in a little Black Gold Garden Soil at planting time for better establishment. Not only does it contain needed organic matter, but is contains an all-purpose fertilizer that feeds plants for up to six months. Larger specimens can be planted in containers filled with Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix. Be sure to give newly planted creepers enough water in their first weeks post-planting for good establishment.

While creepers successfully crowd out weeds, they are more than simply workhorses. Highly ornamental, they provide a neat, unifying effect to the garden’s edges, cracks, and bare spaces, and add cheerful flowers into the bargain.

The white-flowered mazus ‘Alba’ really glows when it is in full bloom. (Image by Carole Ottesen)

Help! I Can’t Keep Herbs Alive.

“I can’t keep any herbs alive.  I’ve killed 3 basil plants and a thyme plant.  I’m also not really sure how to cut them to use them.  Do they grow after you cut them?  Please keep in mind I live in Arizona and have killed several cacti.  I guess I need major help.” Question from Denise of Mesa, Arizona

Answer: One of the most common killers of herbs (and cacti) is overwatering. These plants are prone to root rot if watered too much. Underwatering will also kill herbs quickly, especially if you live in a really arid climate, like Arizona.  Let me cover all the growing basics for basil and thyme, so you can determine where you may be going wrong.

Basil and Thyme Growing Conditions

Basil is a warm-season annual that will survive just one season, and thyme is a hardy perennial that should survive in the ground for years. Many herbs like these, including basil, French thyme, lavender, and sage, are the Mediterranean in origin and require full sun and well-drained soil with a neutral pH and moderate to low fertility. In very hot climates, like Arizona, you should provide your plants with shade in the early afternoon when the sun is highest and temperatures are hottest. Water in-ground plants deeply and allow them to get a bit dry between watering. If your garden soil is very dry, amend it with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend for better growing results. If you get poor leaf development, fertilize sparingly with a slow-release fertilizer.

If your plants are container-grown, choose large pots, which hold more water, and fill them with well-drained potting soil for organic gardening, like Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. Make sure your pots have drainage holes and bottom saucers to catch water. When you water, water thoroughly until water runs from the bottom of the pot. Then let the soil become dry down to a 2-inch depth before watering again. (Just stick your finger in the soil until it feels lightly moist to a 2-inch depth; then water again.) This is most important for indoor herbs. Those growing outdoors will dry out a lot more quickly and should need daily water in your arid climate.

Please watch this video to learn more about growing herbs indoors.

Harvesting Herbs

Both basil and thyme are cut-and-come-again herbs that can be clipped for harvest over and over again. When harvesting leaves and stems, just be sure to leave enough behind for the plant to feed itself and rejuvenate. For further guidelines on how to harvest basil, please watch my video below.

Let me know if these tips help with your herb-growing success!

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

One-Pot Herb Garden – Anywhere!

Repurposed wood crates become one-pot herb gardens featuring thyme, rosemary, cilantro, chives and more

Fresh-from-the-container culinary herbs turn a New York loft, a Chicago studio, or a Los Angeles condo into flavor central.  Nothing is quite like fresh mint in your mojito, just-picked basil on a mozzarella sandwich, or cilantro in your salsa.  No store-bought herb carries this intense flavor, because once cut, the essential oils immediately begin to lose pungency.  Cut and eat immediately, and you’ll find intense herbal resonance in every dish you make.

In a single good sized pot or any other repurposed vintage container, it’s possible to plant a garden of culinary herbs today and start tasting in just a matter of weeks.

‘Pesto Perpetuo’ basil is a great container option.

Choosing the Right Herbs

Blending the right herbs that share similar preferences makes care and watering a snap.  Most herbs need direct sun, so choose a bright planting spot, such as a fire escape, a window box, a terrace, or balcony. Just beware of direct exposure to the heat of intense afternoon sun, and be sure to water heavily on a daily basis at the height of summer.

In cities like Chicago, winds whip through downtown creating challenges for rooftop gardens and other plants exposed to such conditions.  As we approach summer, the wind combines with the hot sun, causing herb garden to struggle for moisture.  It dries herb’s tender, oil-rich leaves if moisture is inadequate.

Choosing Potting Soil

Thanks to the amazing ability of Black Gold Moisture Supreme Container Mix, contained herbs will stand up to the rigors of urban life without fail.  This amazing moisture-holding potting soil ensures that when your pot heats up, your plants don’t suffer wind damage due to the strengthening effects of RESiLIENCE®.  Despite its absorptive qualities, this potting soil also provides adequate drainage to ensure there’s plenty of oxygen in the root zone.

Parsley - Pam- Beck
Fresh parsley and thyme are easily contained in pots, window boxes, or small beds.

Annual Herbs

An annual herb garden typically features two popular summer plants: cilantro and basil.  Both are annuals grown fresh from seed each year and mature into large plants.  These blend perfectly with chives for a triad of often used and delicious foliage.  If perennially nipped and cut, they remain small for a time, but with rising heat and extended days, they will stretch out to flower and their flavor will become stronger and less palatable.

Perennial Herbs

The second group is the smaller, long-lived perennial herbs sized for a grand herb pot.  In-ground gardeners treat these as landscape plants, enjoying new growth and harvest each year without replanting, though overwintered plants may lose verve and require some replacement in the future. Key to success is growing the right herbs that won’t become too large over the season.  Start with those you use most often and organize them in pots by form with spreaders around the edges and upright herbs toward the center.

Thyme is one of the best cascading herbs that will spill over the edge of the pot, buying room for more upright plants in the center.  Oregano is spreading too, but since this herb is so often used in the kitchen, it manages to retain a modest size from frequent pinching.  Sage is very slow growing and loves the sun, so place this fuzzy-leaved fellow on the hot side of the box.  The same is true for creeping groundcover rosemary that spills off the face of the box.  Plant purple fennel in the center for an incredible bronze-colored haze that yields lots of anise-flavored cuttings for cooking and baking.

Everyone can dive into herb gardening no matter where they live by selecting a large, well-drained container, and using high-quality potting soil to reduce watering demands.  Once planted, begin dreaming of all sorts of herbal dishes, then snip your way to fresh and easy all summer long.