Foragers and Herbalists: Why Herbs Part I

January 19, 2022

A selection of common garden herbs.

Foragers & Herbalists: Why Herbs Part I

By Merrie Witkin 

At this time of year—in the dead of winter—my physical and virtual mailboxes are  overflowing with plant and garden catalogues filled with luscious pictures of flowering  plants and shrubs, telling me it’s time to plan for the coming spring. So when, after coming in from an afternoon walk and curling up with these catalogues (which I  consider a form of “garden porn”), I am seduced into ordering one of the luscious  pictured plants, and it arrives four months later as a tiny dormant specimen I think,  OMG, will I ever live long enough for this baby to grow into the catalogue picture?  Gardening keeps you humble and teaches you patience. But while you are waiting for that amelanchier shrub to settle in and take off, or maybe annoyed that your previous efforts have been eaten by the local fauna, you can have relative success with herbs.  

Chances are, if you are reading this column you’re already interested in gardening and may have an herb garden. So I may be preaching to the choir. If you are a gardener (beginner or otherwise) and do not already have a patch where you grow herbs, you should consider adding one. 

What, exactly, is an herb? The botanical definition is a non-woody plant that dies  back each winter. But that covers a lot of ground, figuratively speaking, and many  perennial herbs do develop woody stems over time. Historically, herbs are  understood as those plants (or plant parts) that have been used for culinary,  medicinal or aromatic purposes. The difference between herbs and spices depends  on the part of the plant used: the leaf or other green plant parts are considered the  herb, while any other part of the plant used to season or flavor a dish would be  considered a spice, including the berries, seeds, roots, or dried bark. Herbs are  classified as being either annual, biennial or perennial, depending on whether they  need to grow from seed each year or come back from overwintering crowns, roots,  or bulbs. 

So why add herbs to your garden? 

    • If you have access to fresh and dried herbs, along with a select variety of spices  and condiments, you can travel the world culinarily and transform ordinary foods  into extraordinary dishes. 
    • Herbs are relatively easy to grow. In our climate zone (USDA plant hardiness zones 5a-6a for Ulster County) a number of perennial herbs thrive well and can be  harvested in their first year of planting, providing years of culinary use with minimal  effort. Many, such as chives and thyme, are pest resistant or even pest repellent, so can grow well in a pesticide-free environment. Success with herbs can give you the  confidence to tackle more ambitious plantings. 
    • Perennial herbs are relatively critter proof. The same essential oils that make them  aromatic and flavorful apparently make them distasteful to deer, woodchucks and  rabbits. (Although certain annual or biennial herbs such as parsley and cilantro may need protection from rabbits and woodchucks who will graze on their tender  leaves.) 
    • Herbs support pollinator gardens. While most commonly used culinary herbs—with  the exception of members of the allium family—are not native, if left to flower they  attract birds, bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects that compliment native  milkweeds, monarda (bee balm), joe pye weed, goldenrod, echinacea and other  native plants that are recommended for pollinator pathway gardens. Most of the  culinary herbs we use today originated in the Mediterranean or Middle East. They  were brought north to Europe and England by the Romans two millennia ago, and  from there they were brought to the Americas by the Dutch and English more than  300 years ago. In the Northeast, many farmsteads grew their own patch of herbs  for spice, medicinal and preservative purposes, and they were cultivated commercially for those purposes by the Shakers. They have adapted successfully to our environment and integrate well with native plantings. 
    • Herbs can add an additional fragrance dimension to your garden. By their nature,  herbs are rich in fragrance—aromatic, citrusy, sweet, sharp, piney or pungent.  Lavender, thyme, mint, lemon balm or lemon thyme, and rosemary add wonderful  and varied fragrances that can permeate a garden on a warm summer’s day.  

So what works well in our zones? 

Perennial herbs: 

Chives. A member of the allium family, chives are hardy, drought-tolerant, and add  a subtle oniony flavor to dishes. They are recognizable by their long, thin, round and hollow leaf stems, and purple-pink clover-like edible flowers in mid-summer. Their  flowers attract bees, but if left to fade, they can self seed and spread.  

Lavender. A woody-stemmed perennial that has long been a favorite of gardeners for its pungent, long-lasting fragrance and insect repellent properties (explaining its popularity as a “strewing herb” in the Middle Ages). It is more often grown  for its fragrant flowers than its culinary use, although it is a staple in the French herb  mixture, Herbs de Provence. Lavender requires full sun and well draining soil, but once established it will perfume your garden and attract legions of bees as well as butterflies. Select varieties such as Munstead grow well in our zone, but some of the French or Provençal varieties are not reliably hardy here.

Mint. One of the most widely used herbs in the world, there are many varieties of mint and they thrive in most locations. The most commonly used varieties are spearmint and peppermint. They are fast growing, and thrive in partial shade with  moderately rich soils. However they can become rampant through root spread, which can be controlled by planting in a contained area or using bottomless cans or pots sunk into the soil at least 10 inches deep. 

Oregano and Marjoram. Closely related, oregano (from the Greek oros ganos,  meaning “joy of the mountain”) is known as wild marjoram. Oregano has a slightly  sharper flavor. Both grow in a shrubby habit and can reach up to two feet high,  depending on the variety. Both need full sun and well drained soil. They are staple  seasonings for Italian and Greek cuisine. 

Rosemary. A perennial evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves, rosemary is not reliably hardy in our zones but grows well in containers so that it can be brought indoors to overwinter. Rosemary has an intense piney aroma, and can grow from 4 to 6 feet tall, with some varieties having a trailing habit making them attractive for cascading over walls or hanging pots. 

Sage. An easy to grow shrubby perennial, it’s savory aromatic leaves are renowned for seasoning stuffings, sausages and cheeses. It’s botanical name, Salvia officinalis,  means to save or heal, and it was used medicinally as an aid to digestion and for its  antiseptic and antifungal properties. Like most of the perennial herbs that have adapted to our climate zones, sage needs full sun and well drained soil. 

Savory. There are two types of savory— one grown as an annual (summer savory)  and a related perennial (winter savory). Winter savory has a slightly stronger flavor  than summer savory, and both are valuable additions to herb blends, and as seasoning for beans, poultry and egg dishes. Savory requires full sun and well drained, alkaline soil. 

Tarragon. An elegant, pungent herb, closely associated with classic French cuisine and its famous sauces. Tarragon leaves have a flavor reminiscent of anise, and its leaves are used both fresh and dried in cooking; it is one of the French “fine herbs”, along with chives, parsley and chervil. Grow in full sun and well drained soil, in a sheltered spot if possible. When purchasing starter plants be sure you are purchasing French tarragon, and not the Russian variety which has no culinary value.  

Thyme. A beloved culinary herb, thyme is recognizable by its small, strongly aromatic leaves and twiggy stems. There are many varieties, including the citrusy fragrant lemon thyme, and all are comparatively low growing (up to 12 inches high) spreading herbs that work well as underplants for roses, flowering vines and other flowering plants, and with creeping varieties making good ground covers. Thyme takes well to shearing, which helps keep it from getting woody. It requires full sun and well drained, preferably alkaline, soil. 


Check back next month for the second segment on Herb Gardening to read more about Annual and Biennial Herbs as well as site selection and planting!



There are many books devoted to herbs, their cultivation and culinary and medicinal  uses. My personal references (collected over many years) include: 

Bremens, Lesley, ed., Herbs, 1990, RD Home Handbooks. 

Hutchison, Frances, ed., Garden Herbs, 2003, Barnes & Noble Gardeners  Handbooks. 

Lust, John, The Herb Book, 1974, Bantam Books. 

Miloradovich, Milo, The Art of Cooking with Herbs and Spices, 1950, Doubleday &  Company. 


Reliable online information can be found on state university extension sites, including: 

Iowa State University (

University of Illinois Extension ( Information on pollinator pathway gardens: