10 Italian Herbs To Grow in Your Garden

Fresh young basil
Italian food is one of the top three regional cuisines Americans enjoy most. It can also be one of the easiest to prepare. The secret to creating any authentic dish, whether it's an Italian red sauce or a Pakistani pulao, is in using the distinctive spices, often in combination, that give that dish its unique flavor.

The flavors of a region are a mélange, an assortment of different elements that come together the way a song comes together. Lose one and the whole suffers. When done right, regional cuisine keeps you coming back because it somehow transcends the promise of its individual ingredients.  Whether you're using a spork or dining under a crystal chandelier, herbs and spices give Italian and other regional dishes the tastes that satisfy and delight -- again and again.

Most Italian herbs and spices are easy to grow and dry, and once preserved, many will last a long time (often up to two years) without loss of flavor.  A few, like basil, are best fresh, but the effort of growing them will make it possible to create amazing meals.  With some sunshine and a little puttering in the soil, you can make Italian night at your house something special -- and that's a great reward for a gardener.

Let's look at 10 herbs that will help you create a happy Italian kitchen, a cucina felice.

10 Italian Herbs To Grow in Your Garden

Basil (Ocimum basilicum) - The main ingredient in pesto, basil is also part of the traditional flavor trinity that makes up caprese salad: mozzarella, tomatoes and fresh, young basil leaves. These three ingredients aren't just for salad, though. They're currently part of a caprese renaissance used in everything from sandwiches to appetizers.

Basil is a delicate annual that's a good producer of leaves and seeds. The seeds are also large, stay viable for years, and sprout without much of a fuss. Basil has a faintly licorice flavor that manages to be cool and refreshing. It's a nice accompaniment to salads, soups and pasta dishes that feature tomato based sauces, creamy cheeses or simple baptisms of extra virgin olive oil.  Give basil plenty of sun and water it regularly. For a little extra TLC, add a layer of mulch.

Growing Basil
Basic Basil Pesto

Tip:  Basil is at its most delicate when young. Use leaves before the plant flowers, and pinch off buds to encourage leaf development later in the season. Although the texture of basil changes when it's frozen, you can preserve prepared pesto with delicious results.  Make two batches and freeze one to enjoy later.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) - It may not smell or taste like it, but oregano is a member of the mint family, and a cousin to another plant on this list, marjoram.  Native to the Mediterranean, this perennial herb can have a bitter taste that compliments bright tomato based sauces and strongly flavored or fatty meats. It's a staple of Italian cooking, and often pairs with pork and seafood. Italian oregano cultivars are widely considered more mellow for culinary use than their Greek counterparts.  Like bay leaf, oregano is at its most aromatic when dried, and its dried leaves can retain their flavor for two years or more.  To avoid a bitter aftertaste, plan on adding oregano during the last half hour of cooking for most recipes.

Oregano likes good light, moderate heat and well-drained, rich soil. Although cultivars vary in hardiness, some can tolerate a light freeze. I've maintained a number outdoors in hardiness Zone 6 without problems. Avoid windy spots, and mulch plants in the fall.  Specimens can grow 2 feet high and as far across, so give them plenty of room to spread out.  Alice May Brock of Alice's Restaurant fame is widely quoted as having said: "Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian."  Oregano can be overwintered indoors, but does require at least six hours of good light, preferably from a south facing window.
Saffron Crocus Flower

Growing Oregano

Saffron (Crocus sativus) - The undisputed king of herbs, saffron is not a kitchen staple. It's one of the most expensive spices sold today, so it isn't used as extensively as it deserves. Although purchasing its distinctive red threads can put a dent in your food budget, saffron is surprisingly easy to grow if you can keep it warm but reasonably dry.  Its stratospheric retail price is the result of the labor involved in manually harvesting thousands and thousands of tiny threads from newly opened saffron flowers. If you're growing a few dozen plants for your own use, the labor is negligible, and the results can be pretty spectacular when saffron is used in rice dishes like risotto.

Saffron is a variety of crocus, like the early flowering spring bulb you love to see poking his head out of the snow, but this variety flowers in the fall.  For more information on cultivating saffron, please visit my post:

Let's Grow Saffron
Saffron Risotto

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) - A half-hardy perennial, marjoram is a subtle Italian herb related to but distinct from oregano. Where oregano can be acerbic, marjoram is delicate and refined. It's often described as having oregano's flavor without the bite. I think this nice little herb has a flavor all its own. It adds depth to dishes without becoming a standout. If you want to start experimenting with new herbs, marjoram is a good first choice for your collection. It will enhance Italian fare, but tastes just a appealing in a chicken casserole, an omelet or as a flavoring for delicate meats like veal.

Grow marjoram as you would oregano, but be aware it won't withstand frosty conditions. Marjoram manages well in a pot and can be grown or overwintered indoors.

Growing Marjoram

Parsley - Parsley is the black pepper of green herbs. It's pervasive in recipes, but doesn't get much respect. Consigned to the garnish side of the platter most of the time, its bright green color adds appeal soups, stews and casseroles. It helps cut the greasy texture of fatty roasts, and contains a surprising number of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals -- luteolin, vitamins A, C and K, and a freight of minerals like copper, potassium, magnesium, calcium, manganese and iron. Parsley falls into two broad categories: cooking parsley (Italian parsley also known as flat leaf), and ruffled or curly parsley typically used as a garnish.

This popular herb can cause confusion in the garden because it sprouts and produces abundant leaves the first year, goes to sleep in winter and wakes up the following spring to flower, set seed and die back early.  This two season growth habit makes it a biennial. It's easy to accommodate parsley plants in the garden. Plant seedlings annually while leaving the old plants in place long enough to harvest seed.

Hint: If you've had problems sprouting parsley seeds in the past, there's a trick to it. The seeds are hard and need an overnight soaking to soften them up. Start with hot (not boiling) water.

Growing Parsley

Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) - Like oregano, bay leaf (also called sweet bay) is at its best once dried.  It is the product of a tree that can grow to 40 feet or more under the right conditions, so growing this herb takes commitment unless you confine it to a pot. It's a slow grower that prefers rich, well-drained soil and bright light. Often described as having a taste that combines the flavors of thyme and oregano, bay is a common ingredient used to add complexity and aroma to long cooking stocks, sauces and stews. It is included at the beginning instead of the end of most recipes, so it has adequate dwell time to work its magic.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) - Rosemary is one of the most distinctive herbs used in cooking. It's long, narrow needles foreshadow its piney aroma and an astringent flavor that works wonderfully well with roasted potatoes, lamb or pork. Rosemary is also at home in poultry, bean and fish dishes.  Like bay, it's usually added at the start of the cooking process. It is also a common ingredient in grilled recipes, where its stems are sometimes used as kabob skewers or soaked and added to the coals to produce an aromatic smoke. (Both these techniques are easy to employ if you have a stock of rosemary growing in your backyard.)

Give rosemary a sunny location and soil that drains well. It will usually benefit from the addition of lime to the soil, too. You can give your plant a lime boost by adding in dried, crushed eggshells. Although rosemary is not typically frost tolerant, some of the newer cultivars are cold hardy to Zone 6 or so.  (Start your search with the Arp cultivar.) A slow starter, rosemary can be trained into an attractive hedge, but it will take a number of years for plants to fill in well. In cold climates, potted rosemary plants can be overwintered indoors.

Tip: The next time you have a headache, try making rosemary tea. Pour 8 ounces of boiling water over four sprigs of fresh rosemary and let the decoction steep for 5 minutes before drinking.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - Thyme enhances tomato based sauces, which makes it a natural for southern Italian cuisine. It is often served in dishes that feature peppers, beans, eggplant or shellfish.

Although there are many types of thyme, thymus vulgaris, or common thyme, is the most popular culinary variety. It's a perennial herb that has a reputation for determination. It will grow in barren, sunny areas where other plants fail, and look pretty good doing it. For optimum growing conditions, give thyme a sunny location with soil that drains well. Thyme is drought tolerant.

Thyme for the Garden

Garlic (Allium sativum) - It isn't Italian food without the addition of at least a little garlic. This strongly flavored herb is a member of the onion family. Like many root crops, garlic is frost hardy and prefers rich, loamy soil. It also likes a sunny location away from wind.  You can buy a garlic bulb at the market and start it in your garden in either spring or fall by planting the individual cloves two inches deep and four inches apart (pointy end up). Market garlic will likely grow fine, but may be a slow starter depending on how it was originally treated for sale. You can also purchase garden prepped garlic starts online or from your local nursery. To preserve fresh garlic for cooking, peel cloves and place them in white vinegar in your refrigerator. You can also store whole or chopped cloves in olive oil (always in the fridge). The flavored oil can later be used in cooking.

Peppers - Numerous regional cuisines make use of hot peppers to add a spicy surprise to recipes. The nature of those peppers is ever changing, though. From Scotch bonnets to ghost peppers, every year sees the addition of a new, Scoville scale busting pepper making the rounds. If you're cooking Italian, there's merit in sticking with the classic peppers used by generations of Italian cooks. They include: pimento, cayenne, wax pepper, friggitelli (sweet chili pepper), paprika, pepperoncini (hot Italian chili peppers), and peperoni (bell pepper).  Most can be cultivated as you'd grow a common bell pepper.

Photo Credits

Basil - Flickr photo - Courtesy of user: Tony Austin  

Pesto - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Katrin Gilger

Oregano - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Amy G

Saffron - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Nick Perla

Saffron Risotto -  Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: ulterior epicure

Marjoram - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Larry Hoffman

Rosemary - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Hidetsugu Tonomura

Thyme - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Erutuon

Garlic- Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Mat_the_W

Pepperoncini - Flicker photo - Courtesy of User: Justin Dolske

Spring Gardening Tips -- Herbs, Vegetables and Flowers

When you garden, there are so many ways to get it right, and even more ways to get it so wrong. Here are a few tips that will help you get more out of your garden this season -- just in time for spring planting:

Water with ice cubes - If your patio plants never last long once the heat hits in earnest, there's probably a good reason.   If you miss a few important watering sessions, your plants may survive, but the soil around their roots tends to become porous. That's bad news the next time you water, and the time after that, because porous soil doesn't hold water very well, exacerbating the whole watering situation.  What you want is moderately loose soil that leaves room for roots to wander, but still holds water long enough for those roots to take a fortifying drink.

It sounds complicated, but there's an easy cheat that will help. In the morning before you go to work, add a handful of ice cubes to each of your deck plants and houseplants. They act like a time release delivery system for water. A number of them clumped together will retard melting until your plants have had a chance to get a good drink and a nourishing meal.  It works great, but keep the ice cubes from touching the stems or leaves of your plants to avoid burns.  Try it for a couple of weeks. You'll notice the difference. (If you believe your soil is very porous from patchy watering, give your plants a good drink in the sink. This will de-stress them and help recondition the soil.)

Adopt a commuter mentality - A great location for a plant in spring may be too hot and bright in high summer. If you've had problems roasting your darlings on hot days, when the temps soar, move them to a shadier spot. That way you can enjoy a pot of mint by your lounge chair in May and then relocate it to your shady entry in July. By September, you can put it back on the patio until it's time to overwinter it in the soil or indoors come October. Don't adopt a set-it-and-forget it attitude about plant placement because you're used to thinking of plant positioning as permanent. With the newer lightweight but attractive pots, it's easier than ever to swap plants around as needed without visiting a chiropractor afterward.

Encourage rooting - When you plant tomato seedlings, remove the bottom two or four leaves and plant that portion of stem in the soil.  The node that produced those first few leaves will begin producing roots instead, enhancing the plant's feeding system.

Hedge your bets when direct seeding - If you plan to direct seed sunflowers, basil, squash plants or other herb, flower or vegetable varieties, consider starting them briefly indoors between two damp sheets of paper toweling covered with a loose sheet of cellophane wrap. Seeds should sprout in a few days and be ready to transplant without the aid of soil, peat pots or other paraphernalia. That way you'll know the seeds are viable. If you harvest and save seed from year to year, or over multiple years, this can be an important consideration. You'll spend less time worrying about the neighborhood birds, too. After transplanting, cover each sprout with an upended Styrofoam cup or other disposable media for a day or two for added protection, or cover it with a light layer of mulch.

Discourage mildew - As your tomatoes grow, remove the branches and leaves and on the bottom quarter or so of the plant.  If a couple of big rainstorms increase the risk of a mildew infestation, any potential problems will have a harder time getting a foothold if splash-zone foliage has been removed. This can work with other mildew prone plants, too.

Mulch around your flowers, vegetables and herbs, especially if you live in an area where pests like slugs and pincher bugs aren't a problem. Mulch will help create a mold barrier, retain water and keep plants cooler during the hottest part of the day. You don't need expensive mulch, either. Shredded paper and cardboard are among the best mulches around. If wind is a problem, hold paper mulch in place with a little earth, sand or small stones.
Diatomaceous earth

Make diatoms your secret weapon - If you're having bug problems, consider dusting with diatoms. Diatomaceous earth is made up of the ancient, single-celled sea creatures.  It looks like white powder, but to a slug or squash bug it's like a brick wall with broken glass on top. Because there may be some risk for lung damage when breathing it in, use a disposable mask when applying diatoms to your plants and the earth around them. Just shake it on plants or as a barrier around them.You'll need to reapply diatomaceous earth after a heavy rain, but as a relatively benign pest deterrent, it's fast, easy and effective at discouraging soft bodied pests and some flying varieties as well. In fact, it's often used as a DIY option for treating bedbug infestations -- and you know how pesky bedbugs can be.

Consider companion planting - If you haven't planted your seedlings yet, consider buying some companion plants that will discourage pests. I like to place catnip at both ends of my garden, add it to my flowerbeds and vegetable patch, too. To me it has a faint aroma of, well, skunk, that makes bugs like aphids and squash beetles think twice about settling in for a meal.  Other good candidates are lavender, garlic and French marigold.

There are also companion plants that believe in the buddy system. Take leeks and carrots. Apart they may do well, but together they do better.  There are lots of plant combinations that work, but the principles behind the pairings may vary. One plant may repel bugs that are attracted to the second plant, providing a type of chemical cover. Companion plants may require different soil elements, so they aren't competing as aggressively for nutrients. One plant may also offer shade while the other provides structural support. I prepared a list of companion planting strategies last spring you may want to review. You can find it here: Companion Planting and Other Tactics

Pick your poison (as well as when to use it) - You may start the season determined to keep your garden pesticide free, only to discover you've just provided the neighborhood wildlife with a free (for them) salad bar. If watching Japanese beetles devour your blueberry bushes becomes intolerable, be kind in your use of pesticides. Poison kills good bugs as well as bad ones. To spare as many foraging bees as possible, spray insecticide in the evening. Bees start heading back to the hive in the afternoon, so an evening spraying is less likely to take a heavy toll on industrious bumbles. You can also start planning your war strategy for next year by exploring less aggressive but still effective options like introducing nematodes to your soil, small worms that will kill lots of pests (squash beetles, flea beetles, Japanese beetles) during the grub stage before they mature and become a problem.

More tops later. Have a great weekend.

Product Link: Diatomaceous Earth Food Grade 10 Lb

Photo Credits

Bee - From Flicker - Courtesy of User: Tanja Rott

Little Metal Bike - From Flickr - Courtesy of User: Liz

Diatomaceous Earth - From Flickr - courtesy of User: This Year's Love