The Best Herbs to Grow for Gardens in the North

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Munstead lavender is abundant in the north and capable of leaving your garden with a sweet and calming scent.
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Sage is perfect for adding texture to your garden, especially this variegated variety called Icterina.
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“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.

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.

Each spring, you will find dozens of types of herbs available as plants in garden centers and at farmers’ markets. Some herbs start well from seed, but in our climate, you need to start them indoors a month or more before you want to plant them outdoors. Here are the thirteen easiest herbs to grow in northern gardens:

Basil

Among herbs, I consider basil and parsley the dynamic duo. No herb or vegetable garden is complete without a few plants of each. Unlike parsley, basil starts quickly from seed, so you can easily grow some of the unusual basil types, such as lemon basil, Thai basil, or purple basil. The classic Italian basil is called Genovese. Toward the end of the season, basil plants will send up a purple spiky flower that bees love, so let a few of your plants flower.

Chives

An aggressive plant, chives are a member of the onion family and provide a fresh pungency to savory dishes. If planted in the ground, they will spread — wildly. Chives have a pretty, purple, ballshaped flower that is a favorite with bees and other pollinators, so let a few go to flower.

Cilantro

If you enjoy Mexican food, cilantro is a must herb to grow. It can be seeded directly in the garden about May 1, and it will germinate in about a week. Add a little compost to the area when you plant it, as cilantro likes a soil rich in organic matter. The leaves can be harvested once the plant reaches six inches tall. Use the top leaves, rather than the leaves from the lower part of the plant, in cooking. Let cilantro flower and produce seed and you will have coriander, the spice used in pickling.

Dill

Another pickling spice, dill is a member of the same family as cilantro and also grows best when sown as seed. Because it grows so readily and seeds quickly, gardeners often plant it several times during the spring, about two weeks apart, to ensure an abundant supply. Dill is also a plant bees and caterpillars enjoy, so plant plenty for everyone. It’s a nice option for the back of a flower border, too.

Lavender

This is a dream herb for many northern gardeners who have seen photos of fields of lavender growing in France or the northwestern United States. ‘Hidcote’ and ‘Munstead’ lavender are generally hardy in the North. Both are sometimes rated as USDA Zone 5 plants (think Des Moines or Chicago), but they generally survive in Zone 4 (south of Duluth) and can grow even north of there with snow cover for protection. If you decide to try lavender, you will be rewarded with fragrant foliage and flowers that are lovely in sachets and can be used in baking. It likes lots of sun and well-drained soil.

Lemon balm

A favorite herb for adding to beverages. It has a subtle lemon flavor and blends beautifully with mints. And, if you just need to feel better about the world, grab a few leaves of lemon balm from the garden, rub them between your fingers, and inhale deeply. Instant peace. Lemon balm can grow more than two feet tall in warmer climates, but mine typically stayed shorter than that. It likes a dry soil and is hardy to areas south of Duluth.

Lovage

This is a less commonly grown herb but one worth a try, if you have the room. Sometimes called “love parsley,” it has a flavor of the top leaves of celery and is wonderful in soups and savory dishes. It comes back year after year, and each year the lovage clump gets bigger, so grow it in an out-of-the-way place where it won’t overshadow other plants. In our climate, it will get three to four feet tall, but in the right place, it can top six feet.

Mint

The issue with mint is not getting it to grow, but getting it to stop. These plants will take over your garden quickly, so contain them in pots, even if you want them in your garden bed. Mints like a more damp soil than other herbs, so keep them watered. Mint is great in Middle Eastern dishes, or submerge the leaves in a sugar syrup to flavor all kinds of beverages.

Oregano

Keep oregano — another member of the mint family — in a pot, and use it with parsley and basil in Italian dishes. Oregano is one of the so-called blending herbs, those that go well in combination with others. Other blending herbs include chives, marjoram, and parsley. Dominant herbs are those that probably should be used alone because they will take over a dish. Rosemary is the classic dominant herb, but thyme, tarragon, and sage also work best alone.

Parsley

Parsley is a biennial plant, meaning it grows in one season and then flowers and sets seed in the next. So, while your parsley plant may last from one season to the next, eat it in the first year. Parsley seed can take up to a month to germinate, so buying parsley as plants is easier. Both curly and Italian flat-leaf parsley are available as plants in the spring. With any luck, you will still be snipping leaves through November.

Rosemary

Rosemary can be propagated from cuttings, so if you know someone with a plant, just snip off a piece, dip it in rooting hormone, and then place it in a small container of potting mix to allow a root to form. After it has a significant root, you can plant it in a container and put it in the garden. Rosemary grows well as long as it’s in bright sun. A plant of the warm areas of the Mediterranean, it will not survive winter outdoors in our climate. If you have a sunny room, you can bring the plant indoors. You won’t be able to harvest a lot of leaves through the winter, but you will have a large plant going into the following spring. Another option is to harvest and dry the leaves at the end of the season. Rosemary can handle some drought and grows better in slightly dry conditions. While it can be a hedge plant in warm areas, in our climate rosemary works best in a container. Place the container near your patio: rosemary is said to deter mosquitoes, though only if you bruise the leaves to release their fragrance.

Sage

In warmer climates, it becomes a woody shrub, but here sage (Salvia officianalis) is best grown as a container plant. It likes full sun and welldrained soil. A little fertilizer in the spring and you are good to go. With its fuzzy leaves, sage adds a textural element to the garden. Sages grown as ornamental plants are often called salvia because of the Latin name. These are also favorites with bees.

Thyme

You’ll find dozens of types of thyme in garden catalogs, and many of them are ornamental rather than culinary. Ornamental thyme (another member of the mint clan) spreads, and it is great for filling in rock gardens or softening up paver patios or other hard spaces in the yard. You can walk on it and it bounces right back, and if it is in bloom when you walk on it, the scent is delicious. Culinary thyme is also called common thyme and has the Latin name Thymus vulgaris. Thyme takes a long time to germinate, so it’s often bought as plants. It looks pretty in a container but can grow in just about any soil. It prefers neglect to care, so leave it alone. Harvest the leaves as you need them.

Compost Tea from Herbs

You can create a potent compost tea using leftover herbs, particularly the medicinal herb comfrey. If you don’t grow that, parsley and borage are also good options for making herb tea for plants. To make the tea, place all parts of the herbs (or just those you won’t be eating) in a large bucket. I use a five-gallon pail. You want one part plant pieces for four parts water. Fill the bucket with water. Add a tablespoon of molasses, which speeds up the microbial processes that break down the herbs into plant nutrients. Let the bucket sit for one to three days, stirring periodically to keep the mixture aerated. One way to know whether your compost tea is ready to use is that it has an odor. When it stinks, strain out the herb pieces, which will be slimy, and pour it into your garden beds or containers. Compost teas do not have as high a level of nutrients as commercial fertilizers, but they offer a gentle boost to plants.

Herbal Syrups

To create a liquid sweetener with an herbal twist to use in all kinds of beverages, start by making a light sugar syrup. Mix one part sugar with two parts water and bring it to a boil. As soon as the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is boiling, remove from heat and add your cut and rinsed fresh herbs. I like mint, lemon balm, or basil in this. Let the mixture marinate for at least twenty minutes. Drain out the leaves and use the syrup to flavor teas or other beverages. For a more citrus flavor, add lemon or lime zest to the syrup. This refreshing herbal addition to summer drinks is not too sweet. If you like your drinks sweeter, use a one-to-one (or even two-to-one) ratio of sugar to water.

Freezing and Drying Herbs

As the growing season ends, you can preserve many herbs by freezing or drying them. Herbs like basil and parsley can be frozen, either as part of a pesto or simply by washing, drying, and then putting them in a freezer bag for storage. Squeeze them tightly when you package them. These won’t taste the same as fresh but are delicious added to a soup, stew, or other cooked dish. To dry herbs, cut off the plants with a bit of stem, tie a bunch together, and hang upside down from a rafter in a cool, dry place. A dry basement or attic will work fine. Some folks suggest putting a paper bag around the herbs to catch them as they dry up and fall from the stalks. Eventually, you will want to shake the dried leaves from the stalks and store them in a jar.

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Excerpted from The Northern Gardener by Mary Lahr Schier and published by Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2017.

Mother Earth Gardener
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