Most herbs are herbaceous, which means a plant without a permanent woody stem. However, the broad term of “herb” often includes flowers, vegetables, grasses, and even trees. Plants can look just as good in the perennial or shrub border as they do in the herb garden and most are very water thrifty.
Below on this page are some of our favorite herbs at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center. There are so many more. For a complete list of herbs, landscape ideas and edible flowers, consider looking over these publications:
- Culinary Herbs (PDF)
- Landscaping with Herbs (PDF)
- Edible Flowers (PDF)
- Lavenders for California Gardens (PDF)
Most herbs are fairly problem free, but there are a few pests and diseases to watch for. The following links will take you to the UC Integrated Pest Management website (each opens in a new window):
Basil is a member of the tropical genus Ocimum which originated in Africa and domesticated in India. It is an annual that typically grows 8 to 24 inches tall, requires full sun, moderate watering and does best in rich soil.
Basil does well in our warmer climate but can’t tolerate the winter frost. It can be grown as an indoor plant in a south facing window with a minimum of 5 hours of sunlight or florescent lights 6 inches above the plants for 14 to 16 hours a day.
To grow it outdoors, basil is best started from seed (which germinates in 5 to 14 days) sown indoors in late March or early April and moved to the garden after danger of last frost has passed. There are many basil varieties.
Best used fresh. Pick the leaves when they are young, and always pick from the top to encourage new growth. Harvest before flowering. Prune basil to first leaf bud below the flower to encourage more leaf production.
Most gardeners treat all basils as annuals and buy new plants in spring after the last frost.
Look for basil in the FOHC Herb Garden’s Mediterranean aromatics bed along with other great herbs!
One of the culinary flavorings often used in soups and stews is the Mediterranean Laurus nobilis also known as sweet bay or Grecian laurel. The plant can be grown as a tree, multi-trunked shrub, or container plant.
Leaves can be harvested year round. Its leaves are rich with the heady, aromatic scent of the essential oil ceneole. Historically a garden and culinary favorite, ancient Greeks made garlands and crowns from the branches and leaves to honor bravery, victory and heroics. The commonly used phrases “resting on your laurels,” poet laureate and baccalaureate also originated from old Greek roots.
Sweet bay is a member of the Lauraceae family, which includes avocados, cinnamon, camphor and the California native bay laurel, Umbellularia californica (although more pungent than Laurus nobilis, can also be used in cooking).
Bay laurels grow well in Sacramento with some afternoon shade to protect from sunburn. Although not overly picky about soils, they do prefer well drained, slightly acidic locations. Small bay trees do well in pots due to their slow growth but can reach 20 to 40 feet tall in landscapes. Flowers are insignificant and berries are often overlooked. Although very water-wise, a deep watering every 2 to 3 weeks in the summer will help the tree maintain vigor. Trees can be subject to sooty mold.
German chamomile is an annual of the composite family Asteraceae. It prefers slightly alkaline soil, full sun to partial shade and low water.
Plant seeds early in the spring when soil temperatures are about 55°F. Scatter the tiny seeds directly on the soil surface where you want them to grow. Gently tap down with the flat side of a hoe or a gloved hand. They will germinate in 7 to 10 days. Thin plants to 1 to 2 inches apart. Once plants reach 1 to 2 inches in height, transplanting is not advised. Young seedlings will withstand a mild frost. They will reach 1 to 2 feet in height.
Small white daisy flowers with a pleasant pineapple flavor appear in late spring. They attract beneficial insects and self-seed so you have a steady supply next year.
Lavender is a perennial shrub that enjoys full sun, well-drained soil and low water. Space plants 1 to 2 feet apart. Depending on variety, they will reach 2 to 4 feet in height.
While it can be used as a culinary herb, it most often used as a scent. Plants attract butterflies and other beneficial insects.
Lavenders can be grown from seed or cuttings taken in spring or fall. For drying, harvest buds just as flowers are about to open. Prune lavender after flowering to keep plants from becoming woody.
There are numerous varieties featuring different flower colors and heights. English varieties (Lavandula angustifolia) are considered number one for scent. French hybrid varieties (Lavandula x intermedia) such as ‘Provence’ or ‘Superior’ do well in our region. Spanish varieties (Lavandula stoechas) have a distinctive flower form. ‘Otto Quast’ is a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star selection.
When fall weather arrives, it is easy to imagine sitting down to a warm bowl of Thai coconut soup or a hearty curry stew. Lemon grass is a primary ingredient in these and many other Asian comfort foods. The leaves can be used to make a flavorful tea. Lemon grass has graced the Herb Garden at Fair Oaks Horticulture Center for many years, and we always get questions about how to grow and harvest it.
With its lush, pampas grass-like appearance, it is hard to believe it is even an herb. Lemon grass is easily grown from cuttings taken from the base of the plant. Make sure to plant the cuttings with plenty of space because the plants get big fast. Lemon grass prefers soil with good drainage. It is susceptible to root rot.
Considered a tropical herb, Lemon grass is grown as a tender perennial. In Sacramento County, many gardeners grow lemon grass in containers so they can move and protect the plant from frost. Lemon grass does well in containers, provided the container is solid. Lemon grass is a large willowy plant that can grow up to three to four feet high. It can quickly outgrow its container and become top heavy.
Lemon grass prefers full sun, but will tolerate some shade. At FOHC we grow our lemon grass under a tree canopy from the Water-Efficient Landscape, and it is doing well. Lemon grass can be harvested throughout the growing season. Simply pull at the base with a trowel to remove the outer shoots. Like lemon verbena, lemon grass leaves will turn brown with the first serious frost. In early spring vigorously cut it back to about a foot in height. The roots are trimmed around the base using a sharp spade. Very quickly it presents new shoots.
'Hot and Spicy' is noted for its intense, somewhat spicy flavor. It is a sprawling, rhizomatous perennial that typically grows to 12 to 18 inches tall and spreads to 18 inches wide or more. Dark green leaves (to 1 inch long) are strongly aromatic. Tiny, white to purple-pink, two-lipped flowers (typical of the mint family) rise above the foliage in July and August in terminal or axillary spikes. Flowers are conspicuous but not of high ornamental value. Leaves are used either fresh or dried to flavor food dishes, particularly in Italian and Mexican cuisine.
Culture: Easily grown in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun. It does very well in gritty, sandy loams. Good heat and drought tolerance. It's best to shear plants back regularly before flowering to keep the plant tidy and to induce growth of new leaves.
Noteworthy characteristics: Origanum is a genus of about 20 species of herbaceous perennials, and deciduous and evergreen subshrubs. They are native to the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia. Some are used as culinary herbs.
The genus name probably comes from the Greek words oros meaning mountain and gamos meaning beauty, in reference to the physical appearance of this plant which is sometimes native of mountain areas where it is appropriately referred to as “beauty of the mountain.”
What is the one herb that goes into just about all of your stews, soups, sauces, dressings and seasonings recipes? That modest but ubiquitous herb, parsley, Petroselinum crispum! It’s a natural breath sweetener too, due to its high chlorophyll content. What better herb to grow in your garden for a fresh, ready supply when you need it?
Parsley grows in two distinct varieties you’ll probably recognize—curled parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) is the go-to garnish on many dinner plates, but you’ve probably also used Italian flat leaf parsley (P. c. var. neapolitanum) in your recipes. Italian flat leaf parsley is said to have a stronger flavor that holds up better in cooking than curly parsley, but both are lush and vigorous year- round plants for your garden.
Parsley is a hardy plant in all Sunset zones and USDA zones of 7 or greater (that’s Sacramento County), frost-tolerant and a great winter garden plant for herb and flower beds, borders, or containers with other winter color.
Parsley needs cool weather to germinate, so plant in spring and fall to ensure a fresh supply throughout the year. The herb prefers full sun to part shade, with afternoon shade in our hot Central Valley. Italian flat-leafed parsley is more tolerant of hot weather than curly parsley, which can experience slow growth during the hottest days of summer. It grows best in rich, moist, well- draining soil. Soak the seeds in warm water for 24 hours before planting to encourage germination. Be patient—they may not come up for several weeks, even with soaking. Thin seedlings to 12 to 18 inches apart for flat leaf parsley, 6 to 8 inches apart for the curly variety. Both varieties will grow to 1 to 2 feet tall.
Keep soil moist after planting until plants are well-rooted. Once established, the plant needs moderate water (weekly). In containers, irrigate whenever the soil is dry. Plants can rot if mulch is piled too deeply against stems, so give them a little breathing room. Watch out for whiteflies, a common pest.
Pick leaves any time in the growing season once the plant reaches a height of about 8 inches. Cut stems back to the base of the plant. It is best used fresh, as parsley loses flavor when dried.
Parsley is a biennial, growing during its first season and blooming during its second season. White flowers appear during the second summer, causing leaf flavor to turn bitter – that’s the time to pull plants and start over. Many gardeners prefer to grow parsley as an annual.
Mentha x piperita
Peppermint was first cultivated in the mid-1700s near London and is a hybrid between watermint and spearmint. Now you can find it growing almost anywhere in the world.
Peppermints are fast-growing, herbaceous perennials that do well in Sacramento. They can tolerate light frost and are generally pest-free. They grow between 18 to 36 inches tall. Peppermint loves rich soil with good drainage and it is often found naturalized by ponds and rivers and will grow in partial sun.
There are two main cultivated varieties. White peppermint is light green and has a mild flavor, while black peppermint is deep purple and green and has a higher oil content. Small, lavender-colored flowers bloom in mid to late summer.
It does have a tendency to spread, but it’s not as invasive as some of its other mint relatives. Because it grows from underground roots (rhizomes), many gardeners choose to plant in containers or confined beds to prevent the roots from spreading.
To prolong the life of the plant, move it to a new location every 3 to 4 years or take cuttings and start new plants when it starts to weaken or become spindly. Cuttings root quickly in a jar of water. Peppermint flowers are nectar producers and attract a variety beneficial insects.
When the conversation drifts to edible landscaping, how can you not lavish love on rosemary ‘Tuscan Blue’? Tough, drought tolerant, and a dazzling, evergreen beauty, ‘Tuscan Blue’ doubles as one of the best culinary herbs. Snip the piney-tasting, needle-like leaves for any number of scrumptious dishes.
‘Tuscan Blue’ is a versatile choice for the garden with its upright growth and showy, lavender-blue flowers. It can be used as a foundation planting, a hedge, a screen, in containers or mixed borders, as a stand-alone stunner, a rock garden star and is a favorite for topiaries. It’s deer resistant and attracts butterflies, bees and birds. Blooms appear in spring, linger into summer and sporadic blooming can break out the remainder of the year.
Growth is taller than spread – 5 to 6 feet tall, if you allow it, and 3 to 5 feet in width – but it is easily shaped or pruned if desired. Prune after the main bloom period. Plant in full-sun and well-drained soil. If soil conditions aren’t conducive to ‘Tuscan Blue,’ plant in a large container. Water regularly the first year, until established. In winter, ‘Tuscan Blue’ can survive temperatures as low as 15 degrees.
Rosemary can be grown as an indoor plant in a south facing window with a minimum of 5 hours of sunlight or florescent lights 6 inches above the plants for 14 to 16 hours a day.
We just can't get enough of sage in the garden! Sages are low maintenance perennial herbs that grow in part or full sun. They are sturdy, hardy, prolific, and drought tolerant. They attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.
The Latin name salvia comes from salveo, which means “I save” or “I heal.” In 1737, Benjamin Franklin invented the art of nature printing from leaf casts, via a copper plate press, for transferring a sage leaf image onto the back of paper money bills, a technique intended to thwart counterfeiters of paper money bills.
In the FOHC Herb Garden Mediterranean bed, varieties we love include:
Salvia officinalis 'Berggarten' - This highly valued culinary sage produces large, round gray-green leaves that are more flavorful than common sage. Bloom time: late spring to mid-summer, shy-bloomer, produces few short spikes of violet/lavender blue flowers. It makes an outstanding edging plant, growing into a low, compact mound to only 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide.
Salvia officinalis 'Purpurea' - Referred to as common sage this a compact variety that stays under 2 foot tall and wide forming a dense mound of smoky grey and purple leaves-perfect for adding contrast to the edge of a bed or container. In summer, 2 foot tall flower spikes support lovely hummer-attracting purple blooms lasting several months.
Salvia is the largest genus in the mint family. Foliage is often fragrant, stems are square, and two-lipped flowers are produced in whorls on flower stalks, which may be crowded and appear like a dense spike. Flowers bloom in many colors including white, yellow, pink, red, lavender, blue, and purple.
Sages grow best in areas with full sun and good air circulation. They thrive in well- drained, sandy, loamy soil, and prefer a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Provide rich, well-draining soil for a happy plant and to prevent root rot. Wait until the soil is dry to give it a thorough watering. Resist the temptation to over-fertilize; the sage might grow a little faster, but its flavor will be less intense.
Sage can be propagated by seeds, but more easily by cuttings, layering, or root division of older plants. Or look for transplants at your nursery or garden center.
Harvest by snipping leaves. Prune lightly during the growing season to shape plants. Pruning before bloom will delay flowering. After the second year the plant needs to be trimmed in spring to avoid the center becoming woody.
Although many of the perennial herbs at Fair Oaks Horticulture Center (FOHC) die back in the winter, salad burnet is a cheerful reminder that some herbs are still available for use on even the coldest days. Its feathery leaves taste much like cucumber. The young leaves are often tossed in salads, soups and vinegars. It has been rumored that the original colonists brought salad burnet over from Europe. It is a hearty herb, with virtually no issue with pests or diseases.
Salad burnet is an easy plant to grow and self-seeds easily. We have grown two salad burnets at FOHC – Sanguisorba officinalis, which has medium green leaves, and Sanguisorba minor, which has grey-green leaves. Only the Sanguisorba minor remains today. It is growing in a pot in the Mediterranean beds. The plant itself has a clumpy low growing habit and dainty serrated oval leaves. In late spring the plant shoots out long stemmed pink/purple clover-like flowers that are also edible. Because the plant self-seeds so readily, flowers are quickly removed after they are spent. Salad burnet needs ongoing pruning during the summer to encourage new growth.
Although our salad burnet is growing in full sun, it will tolerate some shade. It can readily be grown from seed, and prefers well-drained soil. It is considered drought tolerant. The mature plant reaches up to 18 inches (before flowering). Salad burnet’s “four season” status and its feathery shape make it an asset for any herb garden.
Satureja montana and Satureja hortensis
It is fun to have a culinary herb name that actually says what it is, which is the case with winter savory (Satureja montana) and summer savory (Satureja hortensis). Both herbs have been synonymous with beans and meat cookery for centuries.
Winter savory is a perennial and has a stronger flavor than summer savory, which is an annual. Both herbs are fairly low growing, up to 18 inches tall, and have delicate white or lilac colored flowers that attract bees. For border plantings consider Satureja montana ‘Nana’ which is a winter savory dwarf groundcover cultivar, which grows to less than a foot tall.
Winter savory can be propagated by division or through soft wood cuttings; summer savory is generally grown from seed. Look for transplants at your nursery or garden center.
Harvest as needed throughout the growing season. Even the flowering shoots can be used either fresh or dried.
Shiso is an annual member of the mint family Lamiaceae. It is generally known in Europe as Perilla, where it is used as an ornamental. Its striking red-purple or green leaves resemble coleus. However, in both Japan and Korea shiso is used in cooking. In Japan, shiso can be found in norimaki sushi rolls and in Korea it is often used in a marinade.
The taste of the red-leaf varieties is somewhat astringent or bitter. The green leaves have more of a cinnamon taste making them a favorite for recipes.
Shiso can be grown from seed in the spring or bought as young plants at Asian markets or herb nurseries. Seeds must be soaked 24 hours before planting. Like basil, shiso is frost tender, thrives in sun or partial shade, and likes well-drained soil. Both red-purple and green varieties have lovely spiked flowers that reseed. Plants can get big—up to 3 feet tall if grown as an ornamental.
Look for shiso in the FOHC Herb Garden’s Asian aromatics bed.
Sorrel is a hardy perennial herb that winters well in Sacramento, and is especially robust in the spring. At the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center we grow two types of Sorrel - French Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and Red Veined Sorrel (Rumex sanquineus).
Sorrel is an edible herb that has a long culinary history. Anyone who has tasted Sorrel will not be surprised that the word “sorrel” translated into French is “sour.” When harvesting, be sure to pick the young tender leaves for uncooked dishes. The older leaves can be used in soups and sauces, but be aware that the bright green leaves will turn grey when cooked. French Sorrel is generally less bitter than the Red Veined Sorrel. The Red Veined Sorrel with its bright colorful leaves is often grown strictly as an “ornamental.”
Sorrel can be grown from seed, but it will take a season to become established. Once established it is drought tolerant. Sorrel will tolerate shade and prefers well drained soil. Sorrel can become aggressive. At the FOHC we grow our Sorrel in containers, and we thin the plants on a regular basis. We also remove the flower spikes that shoot up during the growing season. Powdery mildew and snails are the major issues we have with this herb. Unsurprisingly, the snails prefer the less bitter French Sorrel.
For gardeners desiring a ground cover that thrives in full or partial shade, does not require frost protection, and resists pests and disease, Galium odoratum or sweet woodruff is an attractive option. Native to Europe, North Africa, and Siberia, this perennial evergreen is a woodland herb growing to a height of 6 to 12 inches.
The New Sunset Western Garden Book describes sweet woodruff as having slender, square stems encircled every inch or so by six to eight emerald green leaves and with clusters of tiny white flowers appearing above the foliage in late spring and summer. When dried, the leaves become aromatic, releasing a sweet smell reminiscent of mown hay and vanilla.
The Cornell Book of Herbs and Edible Flowers notes that sweet woodruff likes acid soil and does not require fertilizing, but should be cut back after blooming to encourage bushiness. This source also emphasizes that sweet woodruff, can be greedy for garden space, spreading readily enough to be called invasive.
In the Sacramento area, sweet woodruff is a moderate water user. Propagation is by division or stem cuttings in the spring.
Traditional uses of sweet woodruff: in Germany the dried stems and leaves are added to Rhine wine to make the ‘Maibowle” or May wine. In previous eras, the dried stems and leaves were added to sachets for scenting linen drawers.
Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa
One of the herbs in our Mediterranean beds at FOHC is French tarragon. This culinary herb is known for its distinct “anise” flavor, needle-like leaves, and rangy growth. Like its Mediterranean neighbors, French tarragon dislikes wet feet and prefers full sun. It will tolerate a little shade and will grow in most well-drained soils. It is a perennial in Sacramento and it will die back after first frost. A little bit of mulch will protect it over the winter.
An unusual aspect of French tarragon is that it doesn’t flower. If you have tarragon that is flowering it is likely that you have Russian tarragon in your garden, which is inferior in flavor to the French variety. Because they now share the same Latin name, it is important to be careful when purchasing French tarragon at a nursery.
French tarragon can be divided in the spring, but be aware it has shallow roots. Once established, it can grow up to three feet. It is generally disease and insect free.
This evergreen perennial prefers rich soil, low water and full sun to part shade. Space plants 1 foot apart. They reach a height of 8 inches and make a lovely ground cover or border plant.
There are a dizzying number of varieties of thyme grown for ground cover (20+) or culinary uses (10+). Familiar ground cover ornamentals are woolly thyme and creeping thyme. Common culinary varieties include English thyme, silver thyme and lemon thyme. Check local nurseries for what’s new.
Plants will root where stems touch soil making an expanding mat. Harvest leaves before blossoms open for best flavor.
Thyme can be grown as an indoor plant in a south facing window with a minimum of 5 hours of sunlight or florescent lights 6 inches above the plants for 14 to 16 hours a day.