Although buying dried herbs and spices can be convenient, the flavor is not as intense as fresh herbs, which can affect the flavor of your meals. Store-bought spices can also be costly, and they only last for a year at most. Replacing spices is necessary for the best-tasting food, but it can be difficult to remember when to get new spices—and it can feel wasteful if the spice hasn’t run out yet.
Growing your own herbs and spices in a garden is a simple way to save money and have the most flavorful food possible. Many essential herbs are easy to grow at home with the right care and attention. Replace spice rack staples with homegrown herbs for the freshest meals possible.
As one of the most forgiving herbs to grow, basil can thrive either indoors or outdoors. It needs well-drained soil and a lot of sunlight. If you start the plant from seeds and want to transplant it outside, plant the seeds around six weeks before the end of the winter season. Only move plants outside after all risk of frost is gone.
To get the most vibrant flavor, make sure to pinch off flowers before they bloom. Frequently prune the plant to get the most basil possible. Basil is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking; use fresh basil in marinara and pesto sauces. You can also use whole or torn basil leaves in salads and vinaigrettes.
Cilantro, also known as coriander, is an annual herb that people either love or hate. People who don’t like cilantro tend to describe its flavor as soapy (there’s a genetic component to that impression), but cilantro is a vital ingredient in many cuisines. Add fresh cilantro to guacamole, or finish curries and noodle dishes with finely chopped cilantro leaves. You can also use fresh cilantro in salads, smoothies, or juices.
To grow cilantro, plant it in well-drained soil in either full sun or partial shade. The herb can be harvested three or four weeks after the plant sprouts.
Chives are a member of the onion family and can be quite invasive if allowed to flower. They grow best in full sun and require rich, well-drained soil. They can be started inside, but only transplant them outside after there’s no risk of frost. Make sure to keep them watered, and maintain moist soil. Cut the leaves often to encourage growth.
Add fresh chives to brighten tuna, chicken, potato, and egg salads, or garnish baked potatoes, salads, soups, or deviled eggs. Combine chives and lemon juice to top seafood dishes, or use chives in cream sauces and flavored butters.
Lavender is a beautiful addition to any garden, boasting colorful flowers and a sweet fragrance. Although lavender is perhaps best known for its ability to relieve anxiety and stress and improve sleep, it can also be used in cooking. Make sure to only use a little lavender and work your way up to more as you develop a taste for it—using too much can make food taste bitter.
Add ground lavender to breads, pastries, and cakes. You can also use lavender in salads, sauces, and custards. To grow lavender, the plant needs a lot of sun, space, and well-drained soil to flourish. Remember to prune the flowers to keep the plant lasting as long as possible.
Lemongrass is an easy plant to grow in a home garden, which is useful for home cooks because it’s not always available in grocery stores. To grow lemongrass at home, start store-bought lemongrass in a glass of water, and transplant it when it starts growing little roots. Lemongrass prefers a warm climate and needs a lot of sun. The soil around the plant should be kept moist. Lemongrass is a popular herb in many Asian cuisines, as it originates in India. Use lemongrass in tea, soups, and braising liquids. You can also use lemongrass to marinate meat or as an ingredient in spice rubs and curry pastes. Lemongrass’ citrus flavor can also be used to season seafood and stir-fries.
Almost all varieties of mint are quite invasive; they can quickly take over a garden if they’re not given their own space to flourish. Make sure mint plants have their own space, separate from the rest of the plants, or grow them in pots to keep the plants contained. Mint needs a lot of sun and moist soil.
You can either harvest leaves individually or cut the whole plant above the second set of leaves right before it flowers. The more leaves you harvest, the more mint will grow. Mint can be used in sauces, soups, and salads. You can also use mint in desserts, especially when combined with chocolate. Finally, consider throwing a handful of fresh mint into a glass to brighten up a cocktail.
Oregano is a staple in the kitchen, and it’s known for its robust, woody flavor. The herb’s unique flavor makes it a wonderful complement to many meat dishes. Oregano goes best with chicken, and it can be used to spice up burgers. Sprinkle oregano on dinner rolls, or use it in stews and sauces. To grow oregano, start the plant indoors and transplant it outside after there’s no risk of frost. Oregano needs to be planted in full sun and have well-drained soil. You can harvest oregano as soon as the plant reaches about four inches tall.
Most people think of parsley as the sprig of green that comes on the side of their main course at restaurants, but it can be used for so much more. Parsley has a robust flavor that allows it to complement many different foods. Add the herb to sauces, salads, or soups to reduce the need for salt. Parsley is also a great addition to salads and stuffing. Plant it early—it’s slow to start and takes about a month to sprout. The plant needs warm soil and a moist environment. You can harvest the plant after it has three separate sprigs.
Rosemary is a unique herb. The plant has a piney flavor, with woody stems and lovely blue flowers. Rosemary is typically used in Mediterranean cooking. Use sprigs of rosemary to add a unique flavor to roasted meats, soups, or stews. Rosemary also goes well on pizzas and in tomato sauces. The herb can grow well either indoors or outdoors, though it still needs plenty of light if grown indoors. Rosemary plants need well-drained soil and do especially well in hot, humid environments. Make sure to prune rosemary plants often to promote growth.
Sage has soft, slightly fuzzy leaves and showy blooms, making it one of the more beautiful herbs. To grow sage, plant it in the sun, and make sure to keep the soil moist—the plants need plenty of water to thrive. To keep the plant productive, make sure to prune the woody stems. Harvest sage as needed by clipping the leaves, and replace the plant every five years or so to keep the flavor at its freshest. Sage has many uses in the culinary world. The herb goes great with eggs, chicken, lamb, and beans. Add it to sauces, stews, and summer cocktails to freshen up your food.
Thyme is an aromatic plant that’s a staple in Italian and French cooking. While this herb goes best with hot peppers and eggplants, it has many applications in the kitchen. Add thyme to sauces, soups, or stews. Marinate meats in thyme, or use it to flavor many different kinds of roast vegetables. To grow thyme, get plants from your local gardening center because thyme is very difficult to grow from seeds. Plant thyme outside after the last frost, and make sure to keep the soil moist and well-drained. Thyme can be harvested throughout the summer months.
Although turmeric may seem intimidating, it’s actually quite easy to grow. Turmeric is a native Indian plant, so it does best in hot, humid climates. Plant turmeric in the summer, and make sure to keep the soil damp at all times to encourage growth. Be careful to plant turmeric in well-drained soil. You are able to harvest turmeric after approximately nine months, when the leaves begin to dry. Pull up the whole plant, and use the roots in your cooking. As a staple of Indian cuisine, turmeric is an essential ingredient in curries. You can also use turmeric to season roasted vegetables, rice, or soups.
Herbs and spices bought at grocery stores can be more expensive and have less flavor than fresh herbs. However, it can be difficult to find fresh herbs at the store, and they are often quite costly if they are in stock. Save money and improve your cooking by growing fresh herbs in your garden.
Many of the herbs listed above are simple to grow and can help take your cooking to the next level. If you want to replace your dried spices, try growing some of these essential herbs.
Author Saffyre Falkenberg began gardening with her grandmother as a child in Southern California. She continues to keep plants in her apartment in Texas and has a special love for succulents.