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Hints for a successful culinary herb garden

January 26, 2002|By Tom Turini, University of California Cooperative Extension adviser

With little effort, you can grow your own culinary herbs. This will allow you to get fresh ingredients from as close as your windowsill or back yard.

Cilantro, parsley, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, marjoram and bay are good candidates for desert gardeners interested in growing herbs. Some general information that may increase the chances of success with these plants is presented here.

Cilantro, also called coriander, is a relative of parsley and carrots. Like these relatives, cilantro produces divided leaves and a fleshy tap root. The leaves of this plant are popularly used in Mexican cuisine, and the seed is used as a seasoning in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

This plant performs best when seed is sown in early spring. Cilantro can be seeded into a well-drained moderately fertile soil as soon as the danger of frost has passed. This annual herb has a long root system, which makes it difficult to transplant, so seed it where you want it to become established. It can grow in partial shade to full sun. Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer will weaken the flavor of the leaves.


Parsley, the familiar garnish that has many culinary uses, can easily be grown in the low desert. Like cilantro, it produces a long tap root so it is difficult to transplant and is best seeded where it will stay. It performs well in a garden or as a container plant indoors.

Parsley can be difficult to grow from seed and as much as six weeks can pass between seeding and emergence. Maintaining high soil moisture, or treating the seed by soaking, refrigerating or freezing, can increase the rate of germination. Seeds can be sown when soil temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, which means that it could be seeded all winter in Imperial Valley. Plant it in a spot with partial shade in moderately rich, moist soil for best results.

Parsley will produce seed during the second season. Most gardeners reseed every year so that seed production is avoided.

Rosemary varieties range from prostrate ground covers to upright varieties that can reach up to 10 feet in height under ideal conditions. This herb is a perennial evergreen that makes an attractive landscape plant and the leaves can be used to season meats and sauces.

Rosemary is propagated from cuttings. However, under desert conditions, this plant can be difficult to establish even when planting nursery container plants. Avoid planting when temperatures are very high.

Once established in a well-drained soil, rosemary is a hardy plant. Rosemary will perform well in poor soils and is salt-tolerant, but avoid planting in poorly drained soils. Under waterlogged conditions, rosemary is susceptible to root rot. Select a sunny spot for this herb where it will have room to grow, as it can be difficult to move a mature plant.

It can be grown in containers provided the soil is very well-drained. A cactus soil with a high ratio of perlite (a volcanic material used to increase soil aeration) will allow ample drainage. Careful water management and a porous container will help to ensure success.

Basil is a tender annual that grows easily from seed and performs well outdoors or as an indoor container plant. There are several species of basil. The species most often used in cooking is Ocimum basilicum. Within this species, there are many varieties. The leaves are used fresh or dried in Mediterranean and Thai cuisines.

At optimum soil temperatures, 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, basil seed will germinate in three days. This herb will not tolerate near-freezing temperatures, so plant after the danger of frost passes. It can be seeded indoors in winter and transplanted in spring. The seed should be planted shallowly and covered with about one-eighth inch of soil.

Basil performs well in rich soils that are moist but well-drained. The seedlings are susceptible to fungal diseases under wet soil conditions. In addition, ammonium fertilizers can easily burn basil, so carefully follow label directions when fertilizing.

Before the plant flowers, cut the main stem back at the top to prevent rank spindly growth. After that, continue to cut the branches back every two to three weeks.

Thyme is a perennial evergreen that is usually kept for two or three years or until the plant becomes woody and unattractive. There are many species of thyme. Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), which grows to a height of 6 to 12 inches, is one of the easiest species to grow and is the thyme most often used in cooking. Thyme will perform well as a container plant or in the garden.

This plant can be grown from seed or cuttings. Seeds will germinate within a week under optimum soil temperature, which is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They can be directly seeded or can be grown indoors in containers and transplanted. Thyme grows well in clumps. You can plant about 20 seeds in a 4-inch pot filled with sand, peat, loam soil and perlite. Mist the soil daily until the plants emerge.

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