While flowering perennials are terrific additions to the landscape, perennial herbs are an especially great choice for the farm garden because they bring in hearty harvests year after year with very little work from the gardener. Here are seven of the best perennial herbs to add to next year’s garden.
Before I introduce you to the best perennial herbs, it’s important to understand the difference between annual, biennial and perennial types of herbs.
There are many annual herbs, including dill and basil, that need to be replanted in the garden every season. These varieties do not survive the winter. They flower, set seed and die within the span of a single season.
There are also a handful of biennial herbs, such as parsley and fennel, which produce foliage their first year and flowers their second. Soon after flowering, these plants often die, depending on dropped seed to produce subsequent harvests.
Perennial herb varieties survive cold winters as either dormant crowns, stems or rosettes, and then generate new growth each spring after planting. Perennial plants are those that return to the garden for three or more years. They’re different from trees and shrubs in that they generally don’t form woody growth. Instead, their stems stay herbaceous, often dying back to the ground during the winter months in cold climates and then returning when the weather warms the following spring.
There are, however, several perennial herbs that do produce some woody growth; these are in a category known as “woody perennials” or “sub-shrubs.” Some woodier perennial herbs are even semi-evergreen which means you can continue to harvest them throughout most of the winter, including culinary sage, lavender and thyme. There are also lots of herbs that are true perennials in that they can live for many years, but they’re frost-sensitive and need to be grown in a warm climate, or be overwintered indoors. Herbs in this category include rosemary, bay laurel and lemon verbena, to name just a few.
Here are seven of the best perennial herbs:
Now that you know what makes perennial herbs different from annual varieties, here are 7 of the best winter-hardy perennial choices for your garden.
Useful for its classic Italian flavor, oregano is one of the easiest perennial herbs to grow. There are many different types of oregano, each offering its own flavor. While some cooks prefer Italian oregano, Greek is a personal favorite for its taste and prolific nature. This perennial herb is very easy to preserve via air drying.
A woody perennial that persists well into winter, thyme can be plucked from the plant and used fresh, or it can be dried via air drying or in a food dehydrator. The intense flavor of thyme is excellent for poultry or beef dishes. While standard culinary thyme is delicious, try lemon thyme of a unique twist on this favorite.
A great perennial herb for beginners, chives are onion relatives with a mild onion flavor and prolific growth habit. The first herb to emerge each spring, the thin leaves of chives can be cut or pulled from the plant from early in the season well into the fall. Chives are best eaten fresh, but you can dry them, too, though they lose much of their flavor. The flowers are attractive to bees and other pollinators, making them even more appealing.
Fresh tarragon (pictured above) springs are a great accompaniment to fish and poultry dishes. The mild licorice-like flavor is essential to many French recipes. Tarragon is a beautiful plant, albeit a little floppy. Regular harvests help keep the plant more compact. Fresh is best, but dried is another option.
There are dozens of different types of sage on the market, but good old-fashioned culinary sage has no compare. The large, silvery leaves have an aroma and fragrance unlike any other perennial herbs. Since their flavor is so intense, a little goes a long way, especially when the flavors are concentrated by the drying process. Sage is a woody perennial that can be harvested well into the winter.
A word of warning about this perennial herb: Mint does not mind its manners. Spreading via an extensive network of underground roots, mint can quickly take over a garden. For that reason, I always suggest growing it in a pot where it cannot escape and run amok through your landscape. Spearmint and peppermint are long-standing favorites among gardeners, but pineapple, apple, chocolate and lemon mints are other selections to try that offer another range of flavors.
No list of the best perennial herbs is complete without lavender. Though its culinary uses are limited, lavender is prized for its fragrant foliage and flowers. Use them to make potpourri, drawer sachets or homemade soaps. There are dozens of species and cultivars of lavender, each with something special to offer the garden.