Fresh herbs for dinner

Being both edible and beautiful, culinary herbs have many uses in the kitchen and garden. Fresh herbs can be tossed in salads, chopped into sauces, stirred into butters, dried for keeping, or steeped into teas, vinegars or oils. Planning and planting a kitchen herb garden will reward both the eye and the palate.

Plant herb gardens as close to the kitchen as possible. I keep a pair of kitchen shears handy so I can step out on my back deck to cut herbs from the potted garden there.

Most kitchen herbs prefer full sun, good drainage and moderately fertile soil. They prefer soil with a pH of 6.5-7.5 and require a minimum amount of fertilizer. There are a few exceptions, such as dill, parsley and mint, that grow fine in partial sun and moist but not soggy soil.

Herbs are great choices for container gardens, vegetable gardens and ornamental landscapes. The flowers of many herbs, including beebalm, basil, thyme and rosemary, attract and sustain pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

The American Herb Society’s top 10 herbs list is a great place for new herb gardeners to start (www.herbsociety.org/herbs/top-ten-herb-seeds.html). A few of my personal favorites include:

Basil (Ocimum spp.) is an annual warm-season herb grown from seed or transplants. Plant basil after all danger of frost has passed. Grow in full sun with plenty of moisture and good drainage. Harvest leaves early in the day when aromatic oils are present in leaves and harvest flowers to prolong the life of the plant.

‘Genovese’ is the quintessential pesto basil.

‘Nufar’ is a sweet basil cultivar that offers resistance to fusarium wilt and tastes similar to ‘Genovese.’

‘Greek Column’ (Ocimum x basilicum) is a nonflowering hybrid, kept in production through vegetative propagation. It grows upright, making it a great choice for edible landscaping and cut arrangements.

Lemon basil (Ocimum x citriodorum) has a delightful citrus flavor perfect for summer salads and cold beverages.

Thyme is an aromatic evergreen perennial herb and should be planted in full sun in well drained soil. It has a mounding habit making it very pretty in containers and raised beds, and the flowers attract bees to the garden. There are several nonculinary varieties of thyme used in landscaping, but for best flavor try:

Common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is the classic thyme used in many traditional dishes, including eggs, soups and stews.

Lemon thyme (Thymus × citriodorus) is widely used when cooking fish and in herbal teas.

Variegated lemon thyme (Thymus × citriodorus ‘Aureus’) is a yellow-edged lemon thyme that is as pretty as it is delicious.

Oregano and marjoram are thought of as two different herbs, but taxonomically they share the same genus, Origanum. In the Lowcountry, plant origanums in the fall in full to partial sun where they will thrive in well-drained soils, with a neutral pH.

Sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana) is a sweet, mild herb that is wonderful with vegetables and in desserts.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare subspecies and cultivars): the spicy herb used in Italian, Greek and Mexican foods.

Greek oregano (O. vulgare subsp.hirtum) has a sharper flavor than most other oreganos.

Italian oregano, also called hardy sweet marjoram (Origanum x majoricum) combines the best of both the spicy and sweet. This hybrid of the two species creates the perfect oregano for cooking. ‘Hilltop’ is considered the most reliable in the South.

Common (or onion) chives (Allium schoenoprasum) impart a sweet green-onion flavor when snipped and used fresh. Chives grow from seed easily, but they take so long to establish that impatient gardeners may choose to purchase potted plants. Chives bloom in mid-May through June, with cheery pink flowers pretty enough to cut for arrangements.

Curled-leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) is a biennial herb that is wonderful when used fresh in a variety of dishes. Flat-leafed or Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) has a stronger flavor, upright growth habit and less finely dissected leaves. Parsley is best harvested and eaten the first year of its biennial life cycle. It has a tendency to get bitter the second year as it prepares to flower and produce seed. Start new parsley from seed each spring for a fresh supply.

The American Herb Society provides a wealth of information, learn more at www.herbsociety.org. The Clemson University Home & Garden Information Center fact sheet #1311 “Herbs” also is great resource http://bit.ly/1x6lU7H.

The 2015 Carolina Yards Gardening School Summer Edition will be 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. June 6 at Trident Technical College. Attendees will learn to harvest rain water for future use, turn wet areas into bogs using carnivorous plants, create floating wetlands and find the perfect plants for the landscape. The cost is $55 before May 21, and includes a soil sample and “Rain Gardens: A Rain Gardening Manual for South Carolina” and more.

Register online at https://www.regonline.com/CYGSSummer or contact Amy Dabbs at adabbs@clemson.edu or (843) 730-5208.

The next Tri-County Master Gardener Training Course for Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties will begin Sept. 10. The Clemson Extension Master Gardener Training Course is a volunteer training program that requires 12 weeks of intensive instruction in fundamentals of basic horticulture and an additional 40 hours of volunteer service which must be completed over the following nine months. Learn more and apply at http://bit.ly/1HfTtWP.

Amy L. Dabbs is a Clemson Extension Urban Horticulture Extension Agent. Send questions to gardening@postandcourier.com.