The Best Herbs to Grow for Gardens in the North

Plant the best herb garden for a tricky northern climate that you will use to make herb syrups and teas.

  • munstead lavender
    Munstead lavender is abundant in the north and capable of leaving your garden with a sweet and calming scent.
    Photo by Walters Garden Inc.
  • culinary sage
    Sage is perfect for adding texture to your garden, especially this variegated variety called Icterina.
    Photo by Minnesota Historical Society Press
  • book cover
    “The Northern Gardener” by Mary Lahr Schier is a compilation of tips, techniques, and stories from gardeners over the years about successfully growing plants and flowers in the wretched winters, humid summers, and tough soils of the north.
    Cover courtesy Minnesota Historical Society Press

  • munstead lavender
  • culinary sage
  • book cover

The Northern Gardener (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017) by Mary Lahr Schier is an A-Z resource guide for reader’s wishing to garden in the north that may not have grown up with a garden or family members with green thumbs.  Complete with a little history, how-to, and many accounts of trial and error, this book is for anyone looking for information and advice on what to plant and how to do it effectively in a climate that is not the most forgiving.  Detailed in this book are the best plant varieties for the climate in the north along with techniques from the past that worked well and continue to benefit gardens today, especially when paired with modern gardening advances.

Despite the concern that University of Minnesota horticulturists Arthur Hutchins and Louis Sando expressed in the 1930s, herb gardens are as popular as ever. It’s the rare gardener who doesn’t find room for a pot of chives, a planting of basil, or an edging of parsley. Herbs add flavor and freshness to food, and they are among the easiest of plants to grow. They are not fussy about water or soil, and many grow well even in shade.

Herbs have another benefit as well, one that concerns modern gardeners: herb gardens attract butterflies, bees, and other pollinators with their flowers, and some herbs provide food for the younger stages of these beneficial creatures. A stand of dill will attract bees and nourish caterpillars of swallowtail butterflies. The swallowtail caterpillars also like parsley and fennel. Some of the best herbs for bees are chives, borage, lavender, mint, thyme, basil, and one of my favorites, lemon balm. While cooks and gardeners grow many herbs for the leaves, the bees are interested in the flowers, and considerate gardeners let their herbs flower for the pollinators.

Herbs are easy to grow in containers, in the vegetable garden, or on the edge of ornamental beds. While herbs such as chives, oregano, and mint come back year after year, tender herbs, such as basil, cannot survive frost. You’ll have a more robust crop if you plant tender herbs as started plants, rather than seeds, in mid-May or even early June to avoid a late frost.

You can mix herbs in with your other flowers and vegetables or create a separate herb garden. If at all possible, plant herbs near the door closest to your kitchen. One of the joys of a northern summer is to walk out the door and snip or pull a few leaves of basil and parsley to add to whatever you are cooking or to create a sugar syrup flavored with lemon balm or mint to add to your glass of iced tea — or something stronger if you prefer. And, unlike most vegetable crops, herbs can be harvested almost immediately. As long as you don’t strip the plant bare, it’s fine to pull a few leaves from herbs early in the summer. By summer’s end, you will have lush crops and may want to freeze or dry some herbs for the cooler months.

Many herbs thrive in containers, and they are favorite plants for apartment or condo-dwellers gardening on a balcony or deck. During World War II, the University of Minnesota’s guide to victory gardens featured a window-box garden, which included parsley and chives as well as baby onions, radishes, and lettuce. Some herbs can get aggressive in the garden, spreading all over a vegetable or flower garden and creeping into the lawn. Those herbs — mint, oregano, and chives especially — are best confined to a container. Whether in containers or the garden, herbs like lots of sun. They aren’t particular about soil, but it should drain well. In a container, a commercially available potting mix should work fine. The herbs will need to be watered if the weather gets very dry, but remember, many of the herbs we use in cooking came originally from hot, dry regions of the Mediterranean. To ensure lots of leaves, pinch back the plants to encourage them to send out new shoots and branches. If you plan to eat herbs, never spray them with a pesticide.

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