"The pleasure they bring to the garden and the kitchen is indispensable." As the weather warms, it's time to grow some kitchen magic of your own. We've identified the tastiest, most reliable herb varieties, and included a few recipes that show them off at their best.
These grasslike, 12- to 24-inch-long spears produce rose purple or white flowers in spring. Perennial.
Best culinary varieties: Chives (A. schoenoprasum); Chinese or garlic chives (A. tuberosum). To harvest, snip spears to the ground.
Uses: Dairy products, lamb, mayonnaise, potatoes, rice, salads, sauces, seafood, soups, and vegetables.
Bright green leaves on foot-tall stems look similar to flat-leafed parsley.
Best culinary varieties: Look for plants whose labels indicate they are slow to bolt (go to seed), including a variety simply called 'Slow-Bolt.'
Growing: Cilantro grows best in cool weather. If practical, start from seed. Plant in succession every few weeks through summer. Harvest before the plant starts to flower.
Uses: Beans, curries, fish, lamb, Mexican dishes, pork, poultry, salads, salsas, sauces, shellfish, and stir-fries.
Small, pungent leaves grow on stems up to 1 foot tall. Perennial.
Best culinary varieties: English or common thyme, French (T. vulgaris), golden lemon (T. x citriodorus 'Aureus'), and lemon (T. x citriodorus, pictured) varieties.
Growing: Use as edging for vegetable or herb gardens. Before flowers appear, shear to about 6 inches.
Uses: Breads, casseroles, cheeses, eggs, fish, grains, marinades, meats, mushrooms, poultry, soups, tomato sauces, and vegetables.
Basil grows as fragrant leaves on 6-inch- to 2-foot-tall plants. Annual.
Best culinary varieties: 'Italian Pesto,' 'Lettuce Leaf,' 'Mammoth Sweet,' 'Profuma di Genova,' 'Red Rubin,' and 'Sweet Basil.'
Growing: Basil thrives when night temperatures are above 60°, so don't rush planting. Prune often.
Uses: Eggs, fish, marinades, meats, pastas, pestos, salads, soups, tomatoes.
This shrubby perennial grows 2 to 3 feet tall.
Best culinary varieties: Greek (O. vulgare hirtum) has gray-green leaves; Italian (O. x majoricum) has milder, bright green leaves.
Growing: Plants thrive on little water. The flavor is strongest when the plant is in bud, but before flowers open. Cut back to 4 inches in late spring, summer, and fall.
Uses: Beans, cheeses, eggs, meats, pastas, salsas, sauces, soups, stews, vegetables.
Leaves grow in clumps 2 to 3 feet tall.
Best culinary variety: 'Giant Italian.'
Growing: Start new plants each year. In mild climates, plant in fall or early spring (provide some shade in hot climates); in cold climates, plant in spring after last frost. Pick outside leaves so the center of the plant continues to develop.
Uses: Cheese sauces, pestos, soups, stuffings, vegetables, garnishes.
This shrubby perennial grows 1 to 3 feet tall.
Best culinary varieties: 'Berggarten' is classic; for milder flavor, try S. officinalis, S. o. 'Icterina,' or S. o. 'Purpurascens.'
Growing: Keep plant on the dry side once established. Give afternoon shade in hot climates. Cut just above new growth.
Uses: Apples, beans, breads, butters, cheeses, chowders, fish stock, stuffings, gravies, lamb, marinades, pork, poultry, soups, tomatoes.
Short, narrow leaves grow on stems 1 to 6 feet tall. Perennial.
Best culinary varieties: 'Blue Spires,' 'Gorizia,' and 'Tuscan Blue.' 'Arp' can survive in temperatures as low as -10°.
Growing: These tough plants can handle wind and salt spray, and withstand inland heat if given moderate water. Prune regularly.
Uses: Beef, breads, cheeses, dressings, eggs, lamb, legumes, marinades, oils, potatoes, poultry, game, seafood, soups, stuffings, vegetables.
Marjoram's gray-green leaves grow on 1- to 2-foot-tall plants. Milder and more floral than oregano. Perennial in mild climates.
Growing: These plants thrive on little to moderate water, but need especially good drainage. The flavor is strongest when the plant is in bud but before flowers open. Cut back to 4 inches tall in late spring, summer, and fall.
Uses: Cheeses, eggs, fish, gravies, meats, pastas, poultry, rice, sauces, soups, stews, and vegetables.
This two-tiered container garden keeps a nice variety of kitchen herbs at hand without taking up much space. Trailers and fillers -- chives, rosemary, and thyme -- tumble over the edges of the bottom pot (24 inches wide). Dwarf, purple, and sweet basils grow in the top pot (16 inches wide), with thyme filling in around the edges. Fertilize and water potted herbs regularly.
The herbs we list are available in well-stocked nurseries or from the following online sources:
• Mountain Valley Growers (herb plants)
• Nichols Garden Nursery (plants and seeds)
• Renee's Garden (seeds)
• Territorial Seed Company (plants and seeds)