If you want to begin a garden this year, but have only room for a few pots or a tiny plot tucked beside the patio, try an herb garden. No matter how small your garden is, you have room to grow some herbs for fresh consumption, and you probably have enough room to grow enough to dry for use during the winter.
Some of my favorite herbs are rosemary, sage, oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, and cilantro. Rosemary is somewhat tricky to establish in the garden but once it is happy you will not have to worry about it. Plant it somewhere the soil is not soggy, but water it regularly, allowing the soil to dry some between waterings, until it’s established. When rosemary wilts too much, it will die; it doesn’t seem to recover from the shock like some plants. I have killed many more rosemary plants than have lived in my yard, but because I persevered, I have several healthy, trouble-free plants. If you kill rosemary in one place, move it somewhere else until you find a good spot. They like sandy soil.
Sage, in my experience, is also difficult to establish and likes conditions similar to rosemary’s preferences. My mother was kind enough to give me starts from her plant until some survived. I put dried sage in dressing, and I like using the fresh sage in other dishes.
Basil is very easy to grow as a crop among your other vegetables. Sow the seed directly in the ground and cover it, and you will have a crop in about 2 months. Basil likes evenly moist soil, although it can wilt and recover from the strain. Three plants are enough for me to use fresh, to dry, and to make pesto. Turning mounds of fresh basil into pesto is the most efficient way to preserve basil. I make bulk batches of it and freeze it in small plastic bags. When I need a quick meal during the winter, I can boil some pasta, thaw the pesto, and have a nutritious meal in the time it takes the pasta to cook.
Cilantro is more of a winter crop in SC than a summer crop; naughty cilantro didn’t realize we needed it to use to make fresh salsa. One year I made salsa completely out of ingredients from my garden except for the cilantro I had to buy because mine had bolted to seed in the heat. By vigilantly planting bolt-resistant varieties and by cutting off flower stalks as they appear, last year I managed to make the cilantro last until some tomatoes came in.
Thyme is useful as an attractive ground cover, and it will meander happily among the other plants in your garden. It blooms during the late spring and early summer, and it attracts beneficial insects to the garden. Oregano also acts as a ground cover, although it’s taller than thyme. Like rosemary, thyme and oregano need well-drained soil.
Thyme, oregano, rosemary, and sage are perennial plants, which means they come back year after year; if you put them in the ground, try to put them somewhere they won’t have to move. Ask gardening friends for starts of any of them, because if they are happy in the garden, they lay down their stems, produce roots, and make more plants. Cilantro and basil are annuals, which mean they produce seeds and die every year.
It’s best to pick herbs for drying when they are actively growing. Pick them on a dry morning, and shake off any bugs. I do not wash mine because I do not use pesticides on them. I spread them on a wire rack or on paper towels on a cookie sheet, and I make sure there is ample room among the leaves for air circulation. When the leaves are crunchy, and completely dry, I store them in zip-top plastic bags in the cabinet.