SANTA ANA, Calif. — One thing we know for sure: You can’t clump herbs into one category. As much as their flavors and uses are diverse, so are their growing habits.
The Herb Society of America says that herbs have more than one definition. Botanists describe soft-stemmed plants as herbs or herbaceous plants for their lack of woody parts.
But herbalists use the term herb more widely for any plant – whether it is a tree, shrub, perennial or annual – that is used for flavor, fragrance, medicinal cures or has dye qualities.
Both are correct and the category includes thousands of plants with all sorts of uses from modern-day heart medicines (digitalis) to pesticides (marigolds) used commercially.
But most backyard gardeners think of herbs as plants we grow for the kitchen. These include common basils, thyme, dill and other culinary plants.
It’s difficult to create a dummy’s guide to growing herbs because even the common backyard herbs have different needs, and they don’t necessarily want to grow near each other, as some garden designers would suggest.
Better to plant your herbs in places they want to grow instead of relegating them to an herb-only garden where some will grow terribly tall and crowd out others and some will want shade, and so forth. Scatter your herbs around the landscape.
Bay — Sweet bay or Laurus nobilis is a small tree used in cooking and can tolerate tough, dry conditions. This slow grower is suitable for pots on the patio.
Lavender — This is a woody shrub that can grow quite large. You can clip it back to a certain point, or until there is more wood than leafy top. That’s when you will want to pull it out and replace it.
Rosemary — This is also a woody shrub that is happy in dry conditions. Low-growing rosemary can be used for groundcovers, large upright rosemary for focal points.
Sage — Culinary sage is also a low-growing woody plant suitable for dry, sunny spots in the garden.
Chives — A bulb plant related to onion. Can be grown in pots or in the ground.
Fennel — A tall perennial plant with fern-like leaves. Can be grown in part shade. Likes water. Looks pretty in flower gardens.
Mint — Most mints are invasive. Grow these in pots to avoid their spread.
Oregano — A low-growing kind of woody plant that spreads out from the base. Provide plenty of room for mature plants.
Parsley — This is truly an herbaceous perennial with soft stems. Even though it’s sold as an annual, it will live for two to three years in Southern California gardens. Cut back in winter, and it will regrow in spring.
Pelargoniums — Scented geraniums can grow large. Leave enough room in your landscape for these to reach maturity.
Basil — Basil doesn’t survive even the slightest chill from winters. Replant from 3-inch nursery starts every spring in a sunny spot and provide regular water.
Cilantro — This ferny annual is usually grown from seed. Plants bolt fast, so replant every 30 days or so. Prefers cooler winter temperatures, but needs full sun and regular water.
Dill — Another ferny annual grown from seed started about every 30 days. Sprinkle these in the flower garden and let them reseed at the end of the season. Provide full sun and regular water.