Foragers and Herbalists: Why Herbs Part II

February 18, 2022

By Merrie Witkin 

When we last convened during the snows of January, I was waxing volubly about the benefits of cultivating herbs. This month, part II of that discussion focuses  on those annual and biennial—the so-called “soft” —herbs that grow well in Ulster  County and fill out a diverse selection of culinary herbs for your kitchen, and the  considerations to take into account when planning for and cultivating your herbs.  Mind you, it’s still mighty cold out there, and it fun to fantasize about what your  garden will look like come May and June……. 

Annuals and biennials: 

Tomato and Basil plants in brown terracotta containers

Pictured: Tomato and Basil make natural companions, both in the garden and the kitchen!

Basil. A broad leafed aromatic herb, sweet basil is the most common variety grown  and the key ingredient in pesto alla genovese (commonly referred to merely as  “pesto”, although that term only means “to pound” or “crush”, and can be applied  to any number of blended herb pastes). Purple basil, with a more pronounced  licorice flavor, is a common herb used in Thai cooking. Basil prefers moderately rich  soil and grows well as a companion plant to tomatoes.  

Chervil. A tender leafy herb, chervil is often referred to as French parsley given its  similar appearance and its importance in French cuisine. Together with chives,  tarragon and parsley, chervil one of the fines herbes, a mixture that is a mainstay of  French cooking. It’s flavor is something akin to a delicate mashup of Italian parsley  and anise. Chervil grows best in the cooler temperatures of spring and autumn and  can tolerate some light shade. Less well known here than in Europe, chervil starts can  be hard to find at local nurseries, but can be grown from seeds directly sown in early  spring. 

Cilantro. Cilantro is used extensively in Mexican and Asian cooking. It is known also  as Chinese parsley (due to its resemblance to parsley) and coriander, for its ripened  seeds, which are used in curries and middle eastern seasonings. During hot summers  it can bolt (go to seed) early, so staggering seed plantings is helpful. Of course you  can let it go to seed and harvest the coriander seeds. 

Dill. Dill grows tall, feathery bright green foliage, with flowers that produce copious  seeds. Both the foliage and the seeds are prized—-the former pairing particularly  well with creamy ingredients and sauces, and the seeds being important in pickling,  soups and other dishes. Dill can be started from seed, and it self seeds readily. Like  cilantro, stagger plantings due to its tendency to “bolt” in hot weather. It requires full  sun and well drained soil, but can grow well in containers.

Fennel. There are two types of fennel: One treated as an herb (Foeniculum vulgare)  and grown for its seeds, flowers and foliage, and one grown as a vegetable for its  large edible bulb (Finocchio – Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce). The herb type  grows 3-5 feet tall with fine textured foliage resembling dill. In recent years herb  fennel pollen has experienced a culinary vogue for its delicate flavor and yellow  color, while fennel seeds have long been an important seasoning in pickling, sausage  and seafood recipes. Collect seeds by cutting the dried flower heads before they  scatter to prevent self seeding. Do not grow near dill, as the seeds will cross pollinate.  Grow in full sun in well drained soil. 

Parsley. A biennial that is usually planted annually, it is easiest to grow from nursery  starts and prefers partial shade. The two common varieties are flat leafed, or Italian,  parsley, and curly leafed. Flat leafed parsley is more often used in cooking, where  the herb plays a more prominent role than just as a colorful garnish. Think salad  herbs, salsa verde and tabbouleh. 

Site selection and planting:  

A raised herb gardenWhen considering a site to plant herbs, you should take into account not only sun  exposure, the topography of your property, drainage and soil fertility, but also how  you plan to use them. Planting culinary herbs in a readily accessible spot, say by  your kitchen or a patio, will facilitate easy access to them when you are cooking.  Select a sunny spot for most of the herbs you wish to plant, and take into account the sheltering benefits of any nearby foundation plantings, walls or other landscape features that can be leveraged to protect some of the more tender specimens like  tarragon and savory. 

A number of herbs make good companion plants for vegetables (such as basil and  tomatoes, or parsley and asparagus and/or rhubarb), or understory plants or ground  covers, like thyme. For mints that can be aggressive spreaders, consider planting  them in pots or in an area where their growth can be restricted. For tender annuals  like chervil, cilantro and dill, consider planting them in pots or beds that are raised or  otherwise protected to prevent noshing by rabbits and gophers.  

Virtually all of these herbs require well drained soil, as wet roots can lead to rotting  and dieback. Many areas in Ulster County have relatively clayey soils, so some soil  preparation will be necessary, or consider using a raised bed or pots. Once you  have selected a site or spots to integrate into existing beds, dig and amend the soil  with compost, well rotted manure, or peat moss for organic material to improve  fertility and soil texture, and add sand as needed to improve drainage. (Lavender in  particular, benefits from adding sand to our clay soil as it likes well drained sandy soil  with some lime content.) A bit of advance work will pay back with future years of  hardy growth.

While most all of these herbs can be grown from seed, you really do get a lot of  bang for the buck by purchasing nursery starts, which will enable you to begin  harvesting them in the first year. Give them space to grow and spread and finally, to  quote Jacques Pepin, happy cooking!

Bunches of green herbs on wooden table




If you missed last month’s article –
click here to be redirected to
Foragers & Herbalists: Why Herbs? Part I.






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: