How to Grow and Use Herbs

This week’s Please Explain, Dr. Michael J. Balick of the New York Botanical Garden talks about herbs! He’ll explain how to grow them and use them in cooking, medicine, cleaning, and more, and he’ll discuss the relationship between humans, plants, and culture. He’s the author of the new book Rodale's 21st-Century Herbal: A Practical Guide for Healthy Living Using Nature's Most Powerful Plants.

Some Common Herbs

Basil is easy to grow in a pot on a windowsill or outside in a garden. You can start it from seed or from a cutting—Cut a 6-inch stem with several leaf nodes on it. Strip the bottom two-thirds of the stem and dip it into a rooting solution. Then stick the cut end about three-inches deep in soil. Keep it moist and, ideally, keep it in a humid environment until the roots form—about 4-6 weeks. You can do the same with rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, mint, and oregano, among others. For the best flavor, harvest the springs before flowers develop. You can cut back the tips every couple weeks to keep the plants bushy. There are many well known culinary uses for basil, but basil can also repel flies and mosquitoes. You can rub basil leaves on your clothing to keep mosquitoes away.

Aloe vera is a good indoor plant. It’s a succulent, so it doesn’t require a lot of water or attention to thrive. The leaves are thought to speed healing of skin and aloe is often used to treat sunburn and rashes. You can break off a leaf and rub the gel found inside on skin. Balick recommends harvesting the outermost leaves first, as new growth comes from the center of the plant.

Dill is a versatile herb in cooking and in pickling. Dill seed has been used to treat gas and calm the digestive tract. It's been shown to slow the growth of the bacteria E. coli. In the garden, dill flowers attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings, which help control pests such as aphids.

Turmeric is used frequently in Indian, Persian, and Thai cuisine. It has long been thought to treat a wide range of health conditions and is used as an anti-inflammatory and an antiseptic. There are currently many scientific investigations into the medicinal qualities of turmeric. It’s also used to dye fabrics bright gold. It’s a tropical plant, but if you want to grow it inside, you can plant the rhizome in soil. Place the plant in a very sunny, warm place and keep it moist and misted.

Thyme is a great herb to use in soups and in poultry, fish, or vegetable dishes. It has antibacterial qualities made thyme useful for preserving meat before refrigeration. Balick writes that the emperor Charlemagne had thyme planted in all of his gardens. Like many herbs, thyme is believed to calm the stomach and ease digestion.

You can preserve herbs by drying them or freezing them. You can hang bunches of herbs or lay them out on trays and let the herbs air dry. The leaves of basil, thyme, cilantro, dill, mint, parsley, and tarragon also freeze well. Chop them and put them in an ice cube tray with a little water. You can just toss a cube into whatever you’re cooking. Use within 3 months.