One of the most common pieces of advice I give out is to plant flowers in your vegetable garden. Blooming flowers are a big draw to many beneficial insects, including pollinating insects such as bees and butterflies, and predators and parasitoids like the tiny wasps who help to keep pest insects under control in your garden. Plus, flowers are pretty, you can cut them to bring inside, many of them smell nice; they are just pleasant to be around.
To attract a good range of beneficials, it’s best to have something blooming in or around your garden all season long, and a wide range of flower types and sizes is also good. From giant sunflowers to tiny forget-me-not or alyssum, if you see bees on it, it’s good to have around. But sometimes we forget that herbs are also flowering plants—we plant them for a burst of flavor in the kitchen, but don’t consider their other qualities, including as a source of nectar for flying insects. Some herbs have flowers that are great in size and shape for butterflies to visit, many attract bees, and those with the tiniest flowers bring in those useful little wasps. So when you’re planning what flowers to plant in your garden, consider adding more culinary herbs as well, and let them do double duty.
Discussing all the wonderful herbs out there takes up entire books, so I won’t attempt to do that here. But here are a few thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of herbs in veggie gardens.
Absolutely grow basil, whether you prefer the Italian types, Thai basil, lemon basil, cinnamon basil, etc. etc. However, this is the exception to the “great for pollinators” rule, at least if you also want it to be great in flavor. Basil will go to flower like any other plant, but your job as gardener is to keep it from doing that. The leaves taste better when the plant is not flowering; cut back flowering stems and keep the plant from getting drought-stressed, and you’ll be able to make more pesto. Basil likes full sun, moist but not wet soil, and air circulation to keep it from succumbing to downy mildew. (Read more about mildew-resistant varieties.) Basically, you want to treat basil like a vegetable, not an herb.
Cilantro, dill, and borage are annual herbs that tend to seed themselves into your garden in a polite way that provides free plants without making you sorry you ever planted them. Don’t over-mulch them, give them a little open soil to drop seeds into, and they will probably deliver. They are also polite enough to interplant with vegetables without dominating them.
On the other hand, shiso/perilla/beefsteak plant is an invasive annual in this region; if you do grow it for its great flavor, please deadhead it before it seeds.
These are herbs that need a firm hand if you don’t want them to take over completely. They spread either by prolific seed or by galloping roots. All of the culinary mints, oregano, lemon balm, catnip, and to a lesser extent anise hyssop are aggressive spreaders. Garlic chives or Chinese chives will spread if you let it go to seed; same with leaf fennel. They are all great for beneficial insects, but cutting off the flowers when they’re finished is important. Mints should be grown in pots.
Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, tarragon, and winter savory grow surprisingly well for us here considering that we sure don’t have a Mediterranean climate. As with all perennial herbs, give them an area to themselves where they won’t be disturbed by the planting and harvesting of annual vegetables, and keep the soil well-drained, perhaps with some gravel added. I’ve had lavender survive in clay loam; rosemary only lasts for me on a gravelly slope. Sage is tough; thyme and winter savory like being groundcovers. French tarragon wants some protection from cold wind, and needs to be bought as a plant or grown from a cutting; if you see tarragon seed, it’s not real French tarragon and won’t taste like it. Mexican tarragon, which is an annual in the marigold genus, is an interesting substitute. That one you can start from seed; the others mentioned above do grow from seed, but slowly, so you’re better off buying plants.
By the way, none of these herbs are attractive to animals like deer and rabbits, so you can plant them outside a vegetable garden fence. Of those mentioned in sections above, I’ve really only had basil be munched on, and that sporadically, but keep it inside the fence.
Every garden should have a couple of chive plants. They bloom in the spring; you can eat the blossoms, and you’ll have oniony leaves all season long. Parsley is also essential; it’s a biennial, so plant it every year and let last year’s plants go to flower for the insects.
That barely scratches the surface of the wonderful world of culinary herbs, but most of the above you will be able to find easily. They will help bring those useful insects to your garden as well as making your kitchen smell great. Most herbs, whether started from seed or transplanted, can go into the garden between April and June, depending on how cold-sensitive they are. (Think of basil like tomatoes. See, I told you it was a vegetable.)
The bees will be buzzing soon! Plant some herbs and give them something to buzz about.
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.