I have been a herb gardener for over 15 years. I started the habit after a trip to France where I discovered the power of cooking with Herbes De Provence.
Once I got home, my herb growing journey began with all the classics… Lavender, Rosemary, Culinary Mint, Thyme, Oregano, Italian Basil, Parsley, and Chives. Those herbs were so easy to grow, so forgiving of my neglect, and such great kitchen accompaniments, that for years I didn’t bother to try to grow any other herbs.
In case any of this sounds familiar to you, and like me, you’re ready to expand your herb gardening repertoire, I want to share a few of my new-found favorites for use on the homestead.
12 Underused Herbs to Grow and Enjoy
# 1 Lovage
What a name! That first part – LOV(e) – sums up my feelings for this fabulously potent parsley (leaves) and celery (stalks) replacement.
Unless you have smelled lovage, it’s hard to explain how compelling it is – even if you don’t love celery. Trust me though; once you’ve experienced a fragrant waft of fresh cut lovage, you will never forget it.
It’s best to start seeds indoors and plant outside when the soil has warmed to about 60° F.
Given its growing requirements and the fact that livestock love this stuff too, consider planting this in your protected vegetable garden.
#2 & #3 Anise Hyssop and True Hyssop
Do a quick search for hyssop, and you’ll get results for two very different plants.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) is a very minty plant with substantial purple flower spikes and a licorice-like taste. Pollinators love it, and the dried leaves are fantastic in homemade tea blends.
Put hyssop in your pollinator plot or mint patch. Standing 2-4 feet tall in fertile soil, it can make a statement in your landscape!
It’s a perennial just about everywhere and self-seeds. It even grows well on hillsides and heavily eroded areas with regular watering.
Hyssopus officinalis – the other and perhaps lesser known – hyssop is frequently mistaken for lavender in my landscape and when cut. With a bushy low-growing habit, dark, long-lasting purple-blue flower spikes, and dark green leaves that meld with mulch, it’s a perfect front-runner for use in edible landscapes.
It also goes great in eggs, bean soups, and sauteed with greens like collards. Plus, it does double duty as a useful medicinal herb.
Did I mention it’s easier to grow than rosemary or lavender, loves to be cut, and can be propagated from cuttings or by layering with almost no effort? You can start seeds indoors or even directly in the ground (if you are patient).
#4 & #5 The Seasons of Savory – Summer and Winter
Like hyssop, that term savory applies to two different but related plants.
Summer savory is a faster growing tender perennial that is usually grown as an annual. It needs well-draining, compost-enriched soil, in full sun, and warm weather to really wow you with its usefulness.
You can harvest winter savory earlier and later in the season than summer savory. So, grow them both!
Like rosemary, savory can get woody if you don’t keep it trimmed. That shouldn’t be an issue though since you’ll want to cook with this often.
Like “real French Tarragon” this is one of those magical herbs that transforms ordinary meals into five-star dining experiences. It pairs well with fish dishes and also adds that “Je ne sais quoi” to any recipe that calls for dill.
If you’ve ever had a spectacular Bernaise sauce, then you have inevitably already enjoyed the power of chervil.
This annual member of the carrot family needs a little summer protection to produce well. Consider planting it where it will receive morning sun and afternoon shade from June onwards. Or plant it in your garden beds as a helpful companion for your brassicas.
Marjoram is very similar to oregano in appearance. Where oregano adds weight and body to savory tomato sauces, marjoram lifts and lemons-up more substantial dishes like sausages and stews.
Marjoram is technically a tender perennial. In most gardens, it will be grown as an annual. It will self-seed and spread in the right conditions. However, due to its short lifespan, it’s less invasive than oregano.
Directly plant marjoram in prepared soil after the risk of frost has passed. Water regularly until well-established. After that, marjoram will be ready even for drought and heat.
#8 Sweet Mace
Sweet mace (Tagetes lucida), also called Mexican marigold, grows exceptionally well in heat. It gets productive around the same time Italian Basil bursts into bushes.
The small yellow flowers and little green leaves are extremely sweet tasting. Some people even call this the candy plant.
In warm climates, sweet mace might qualify as a perennial. However, it is grown mostly as an annual. Luckily, it’s easy to start in pots and transplants well after the last frost. It may be a little slow to grow until the weather warms up but is worth the wait!
#9 & #10 Red and Green Perilla
When I moved to my homestead, I discovered a beautiful purple plant growing wild in my lawn. It looked like basil until I felt the square stem.
Aha, mint! Suddenly, I understood the explosion of it in the lawn…
This wasn’t just any mint though; it was Red Perilla, better known as Shiso, an Asian favorite. In Japan, they use it to flavor beverages.
So, I just dug it up from the lawn, put it in a more appropriate place, and now have a regular supply of tasty shiso.
Perilla will grow in partial shade or sun. Red perilla leaves are more intensely colored when grown part-shade. Leaf growth is more copious in full-sun.
Red and green perilla are similar in taste and texture. In my experience, the green variety tends to be more prolific for use in ferments like kimchi. Red perilla makes a beautiful infused water for summer parties.
#11 Rue the Day
If you ingest large quantities of rue, the term “rue the day may” apply. Still, even though it is only a marginal edible, there are some pretty big reasons why you might want to grow rue anyhow.
Well, they are little reasons, but collectively they can wreak havoc on your vegetable garden. I am talking about Japanese beetles.
Rue is one of the few herbs known to be effective at deterring those hyper-reproductive, leaf-eating invaders. This makes it a great companion plant for your garden –, particularly around the perimeter. Use gloves when pruning as it sometimes causes skin allergies (like stinging nettle).
Since it is perennial in zones 4-9, tolerates poor soils, and requires almost no care after it is established in full sun, it’s worth consideration as pest protection for serious vegetable gardeners.
Now for our grand finale…
If you were a child of the Victorian period, this might sound like candy to your ears. However, to most of us, we know horehound as that licorice-tasting cough drop, the name of which echoes off mountain peaks.
Yep! Horehound is the primary herb ingredient in that famous cough drop. You too can harness its benefits in your herb garden.
Not only is it a great cough suppressant, but this stuff is a key ingredient in the historic Rock and Rye cocktail.
Once a renowned cold cure, now a nostalgic treat, horehound rocks the rye! Here’s a quick recipe, in case you are unfamiliar with this once-upon-a-time barroom best.
- 750 ml bottle rye whiskey
- Peel from a small orange and a large lemon
- A handful of dried apricots
- 1/2 cinnamon stick
- 1 clove
- 1 tsp. dried horehound
Mix all of this in a glass jar and keep at room temperature. Shake the mixture vigorously once a day. Burp (open, then close) the jar occasionally just in case those peels try to ferment.
Infuse for 3-7 days (based on your taste tests). Strain out the solids.
Serve the rye mix on ice with a stick of rock candy for stirring in sweetness and as garnish. Or mix the rye in a hot toddy to alleviate cold symptoms.
Cold season is just about over. However, this is the perfect time to start horehound and all these other wonderful herbs in your garden.
Happy herb growing!