What are Herbs & What is Herb Gardening

Herbs are one of the most versatile plants around. They’re beautiful to look at, fragrant and can be used in many different ways.

While they’re most commonly used as flavoring in cooking, many people also use them in essential oils, as medicine and scents.

The best thing about them is that you can grow your own herbs at home. Then, harvest and store them for long periods of time.

Here’s how to do it.

What are Herbs?

Herbs are plants that are grown for their fragrance, ability to add flavor to food and medicinal qualities. Additionally, they’re also used for dyes, cosmetics, insect repellents and cleaners. Often, herbs specifically refer to the leaves and flowers of these plants. That’s because these parts are the ones with these properties.

In the garden, herbs add variety. Outdoors, they add color and are used for borders and landscaping. Indoors, they’re primarily grown near the kitchen so they can easily be reached when cooking.

It’s also worth noting that in many textbooks and definitions, you’ll also see herbs described as herbaceous plants. As such, they’re defined as plants that have soft stems, not woody ones.

Interestingly, this definition leaves out many of the plants we consider herbs.

Below is a chart of the common herbs, their types, common uses and description

CHART of types of herbs and their uses
chart of common herbs, types of herbs, description and their uses

 

Herbs vs. Spices: What’s the Difference?

Herbs and spices both offer flavor. But, the main difference between them is which part of the plant they come from.

  • Herbs are made from the leafy parts of plants. That’s why herbs are green in color.
  • Spices come from other parts of the plant, including the stem, flower, fruit, seed, and roots.

Some plants are both both herb and spice. For example, the Coriandrum sativum.

Its leaves are used as cilantro while its seeds are used as coriander.

 

Herb Life Cycle

One of the most important things to understand when starting with herb gardening is that herbs have different life cycles. That is, the time it takes for them to go from seed-to-seed varies.

Knowing this allows you to plan your garden ahead of time.

  • Annuals. Annuals do everything in one growing season. The seeds germinate, flower then set seed and die all in one season. Thus, they grow quickly. And, most will flower through the summer. By winter, they’ll start dying. So, you need to plant them every year. Some examples include cayenne pepper, dill, cilantro, borage, calendula, German chamomile, basil and summer savory.
Chart of the list of annual herbs (types of herbs), scientific name and common uses
Chart with list of annual herbs (types of herbs), scientific name and common uses

 

  • Biennials. As the name suggests, biennials will last for 2 growing seasons. During the first season, they germinate and then grow foliage. In the second season, they focus on flowering and setting seeds before dying. Depending on the kind of herb you have, you may harvest them after year 1, such is the case for parsley. Thus, it’s a biennial that’s treated more like an annual. Examples of biennial herbs include angelica, caraway, woad and clary.
  • Perennials. Perennials live for more than 2 seasons. That said, some perennial herbs, like foxglove, are short-lived. These live at the lower end of the range. Meanwhile, long-lived perennials like mint, thyme, oregano and some sage varieties live up to 50 years or more. In addition to lifespan, perennial herbs are also categorized as herbaceous and woody. Herbaceous plants, in general, have soft, tender stems. Just as importantly, they die during the winter grow back come springtime. On the other hand, the stems of woody (hardy) plants turn hard as they age, much like that of trees. Herbaceous perennials include tarragon, pennyroyal, sorrel, catnip, lemon balm, oregano, mint and beebalm. Woody perennials include sage, lavender, eucalyptus, willow and germander.
Chart with list of perennial herbs (types of herbs), scientific names and common uses
Chart with list of perennial herbs (types of herbs), scientific names and common uses

 

Related

 

What Parts of an Herb Can You Use?

Like all things gardening, it is important to understand what you’re planting. As such, in this section, you’ll learn about the different parts of an herb.

While this sounds like you’re going back to elementary or middle school biology class, it’s a simplified explanation that’s tailored for gardeners.

Knowing the different parts and their functions goes a long way in understanding how to keep your herbs alive later on.

So, let’s get started.

 

Roots

Roots are the foundation of your herbs. More importantly, just because they’re out of sight doesn’t mean they should be out of mind.

Like most plants, your herb’s roots will be growing under the ground (soil). As such, it’s easy to forget about them because you don’t see them.

But, they’re also the most important part of the plant if you want to keep it alive.

That’s because the roots:

  • Anchor the plant to the soil. This prevents it from getting blow away by strong winds or pulled out easily.
  • It is what seeks out and absorbs water and nutrients from the soil. Thus, it’s where your plant’s food and water come from.

When it comes to your herb’s root system, you’ll find 2 different varieties. Some have fibrous roots others have a taproot.

  • Fibrous root. These come in the form of multiple roots that are similar in size extending downward from the stem of the plant. This allows the plant’s root system to cover a large area of space underneath the soil to seek out food and water. But, the thinner roots aren’t able to penetrate as deeply as the taproot does.
  • Taproot. There is one main root going down into the soil. From it, there are only a few, very small roots coming out. Its size allows it to dig deep into the soil to search for more water and nutrients. Some examples of plants that grow taproots are turnips, radishes, carrots, and beetroots.

Just as importantly, some herbs are grown specifically for their roots. Among the most popular ones are horseradish and ginger.

 

Stems

From the roots, the water and nutrients make their way up to the rest of the plant via the stem. Often, the stem is the longest part of the plant.

Additionally, the stem holds up the plant, including the leaves and flowers.

Stems of herbs are often used for medicinal purposes as well as cooking. Although, only a handful of herbs are grown for their stems.

 

Leaves

The leaves of an herb are undoubtedly the most useful parts of the plant. Most herbs are grown for their leaves. And, it’s the part that’s most often used for cooking as well.

From a gardener’s perspective, leaves have a more important function. They catch light from the sun or other artificial sources. And, via photosynthesis, turn the light into food to provide energy for the plant.

The combination of a plant’s stem and leaves determines its growth habit, which refers to its form or how it looks. This includes its shape, appearance and height among other things.

 

Flowers

Besides leaves, some herbs are grown for their flowers. In many cases, it’s for their scent, since the flower is where the lovely fragrances come from.

That said, an herb’s flower is also used for teas, medicines and other purposes.

As a gardener, it’s important to also keep in mind that flowers provide your plants with a means to reproduce. This allows them to continue after they die.

Of course, flowers are best known for providing beauty to your garden. Their lovely shapes and bright colors are the main reason why people enjoy growing them.

 

Invasive Herbs

Unfortunately, not all herbs play nice. Some bend the rules, while others break them outright.

How?

They’re invasive.

These plants don’t stick to their own space. When it comes to gardening, space is essential. Each plant kind of gets its own “space” to grow. This way, you can see it for all its beauty.

Invasive plants, are species that grow and spread aggressively to the point where they displace other plants. As such, they don’t care about the imaginary lines that separate one plant from another.

And, in doing so, they can ruin an entire section of your garden.

That’s because they’ll dominate that entire space, covering or destroying other plants beside them.

A few examples include mint, lemon balm, chamomile, and catnip. These are all fast, aggressive growers than can easily take over your garden if you don’t watch or control them.

 

Poisonous Herbs

Finally, some herbs are dangerous. As such, it’s a good idea to avoid them altogether, especially if you have pets and young kids. These plants are toxic enough to kill humans.

Thus, not having them around at all prevents your kids, dogs and cats from chewing or consuming any of them, even accidentally.

A few examples of  toxic herbs include pennyroyal, foxglove, rue, water hemlock, hellebore, aconite, deadly nightshade and comfrey.

 

What is Herb Gardening?

Now that you know what herbs are, you can probably guess what an herb garden or herb gardening is all about.

It’s a garden where you grow herbs. That’s it, just herbs.

You decide which herbs you want to plant, where you want to plant it and how you want to enjoy your garden. Additionally, you get to design and plan the garden yourself.

There are no rules.

As such, your herb garden can be big or small. It can be made up of 3-5 plants or 10-20 of them.