Herbs are easy to grow, and an appreciated part of your produce donation
Guest Contributor: Cassey Anderson, CSU Horticulture Agent
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Do herbs matter for produce donation? Yes! Herbs are very much appreciated by most of our hunger relief partners. While herbs can grow in abundance in the garden, they are often set aside when budgets are tight, and they can be challenging to source for food insecurity programs.
As you're planning your garden this season consider adding some herbs to round out your produce donations throughout the summer.
We've pulled together some of our favorites, and tips on how to grow them!
What is an herb?
Botanically speaking, an herb is a plant that is valued for savory or aromatic qualities, usually green in color. Herbs can also be used for medicinal purposes. It can be easy to conflate herbs and spices, but typically herbs are fresh or dried leaves, they may have a mild flavor and grow in temperate regions (or be grown as an annual in cold climates). Spices on the other hand, tend to be seeds, roots, flowers, or bark that have a very strong, pungent flavor and are grown in tropical regions.
Herbs can be broken into different categories. First let’s look at growth habits. Herbs can be annuals, biennials, or perennials. Annuals complete their lifecycle, from seed to seed in one growing season. Biennials grow foliage in their first year, and flower and seed the second year. Perennials typically die back to the ground in fall and re-grow from the crown or roots in subsequent years. Let’s look at some of the most popular herb varieties you can add to your own garden whether it be indoors or out!
Such a variety of species to choose from! Can grow to about 18” tall, has broad or narrow leaves, can be green, purple, or variegated. Can flower, but flavor will diminish flavor of the leaves, so it’s best to remove blooms. Pinch stems back to promote side growth for more leaves. Use for cooking either fresh or dried! For best flavor harvest in the coolest part of the day.
Coriander seeds come from the same plant as cilantro leaves, we just use the different parts for different goals! Grows to about 2 feet tall but can be harvested as small as 6”. Will set flowers, allow this to happen if you want coriander seed, prune flowerheads off if you’re seeking the leaves. Harvest seeds as they ripen (turn brown) but leaves can be harvested any time.
This annual re-seeds readily so it may seem like a perennial in your garden. It is easy to remove unwanted plants when they are small. It grows to about 2-3 feet in height with lovely yellow flowers. It is generally best to start dill from seed, transplants rarely succeed. For harvest, pick the leaves as the flowers open. If you want seeds, wait until they are flat and brown. A side benefit of dill is that it is a primary food for the swallowtail caterpillar, so it’s a great way to encourage pollinators into your landscape.
Typically grown for its seeds, all parts of the plant are edible. Caraway is related to carrots and may resemble carrots when first planted. Caraway prefers full sun but can tolerate some shade. For harvest in its second year, wait until the plant has flowered and set seeds. Wait for the flowers to fade but harvest before seeds fall to the ground or place a bag under the flower head and allow the seeds to fall into the bag. If you love having your own, fresh caraway you’ll need to plant every year to get a harvest the following year, so it is best to set aside space for two years’ worth of growing.
While parsley is a biennial, we usually treat it as an annual since the leaves are the desirable product. Parsley typically grows 9-12 inches tall. Leaves are divided (but not as much as cilantro) and can be flat or curly. Typically harvested fresh, parsley can be used fresh or dried, and can be harvested at any point in its growing season.
Chives are closely related to onions and can serve a dual purpose in your garden as those that you let go to flower can be a great pollinator food source. They look rather like round, hollow grass, and grow to about 12 inches tall. Chives are a great option for container growing and be aware that they can spread when in ground, although not as badly as mint. Harvest at any point, although the stems of flower stalks may be tough. Garlic chives are similar but somewhat different, as they are flat leafed and have white, rather than pink or purple flowers. Divide clumps every 2-3 years for optimal spacing.
Technically a perennial but we harvest it like an annual. Can grow 3-4 feet tall and has frond-like green leaves. Grows from seed planted in spring, needs full sun and good spacing, plants should be at least 12” apart. If growing fennel seeds, harvest when seeds have browned. If using for the bulb, harvest before flowering, or once the bulb is large enough to use.
A creeping groundcover that can overrun a garden, be aware of where and how you plant your mint. Many gardeners prefer to grow their mint in a container to prevent spread throughout their garden space. Some varieties stay polite and short, others may grow up to 2 feet tall. To get more leaves pinch back stems regularly. The more frequently you harvest, the more tender and tastier your leaves will be. Mint thrives best in moist, fertile soil.
A small woody plant that typically grows close to the ground, with small and aromatic leaves. The flowers are small, white, or pink. Thyme likes well-drained alkaline soils and loves sun. You can harvest the leaves any time the plant is actively growing. Overwinter best by mulching over with straw, grass clippings, or disease-free leaves. There are so many varieties of thyme that you can experiment with and grow more than one type!
A perennial, woody option that has a lot of different varieties. Sage can grow to 2-3 feet tall and may sprawl without staking. Plants should be at least 2 or 2.5 feet apart, cut back every few years. Sage can be harvested before or at blooming, they do not have their best taste once bloom has been underway. Cut stems back once bloom has finished. Sage can be grown as an ornamental and as an herb.
Most of these herbs are going to grow best outdoors. You can grow them with your vegetables, with your ornamentals, or just outside your backdoor or nearest your kitchen for easy access to add to your tasty recipes. You can grow from seed or from cuttings. Sow seeds indoors and then transplant once the danger of frost has passed. Coriander and dill can be sown directly in the garden. If seeds are slow, you can propagate or divide mature plants. Division can happen in early spring or early fall (give enough time for the new plants to grow roots and be transplanted).
There are, of course, many more herbs that you can grow and enjoy in your garden. Reach out to your local Extension office to find out more!
What if every gardener shared just a little?
One small donation can have a tremendous impact. Just imagine, if every gardener planted one extra plant to share, or donated just a pound from the garden. Collectively, we would have an abundant source of fresh, healthy produce available to be distributed to families experiencing food insecurity in our own communities! The free Fresh Food Connect mobile app connects you to a local hunger relief program, then manages and tracks your donations of homegrown produce throughout the season. Download the app today!