Herbs: An Introduction

An herb by definition is an herbaceous non-woody seed bearing plant that dies back to the ground.  For gardening purposes, the term ‘herb’ is a broad catch-all for a group of plants grown primarily for their culinary or fragrance uses.  These plants may have an annual or perennial lifecycle - this brochure will divide common herbs into one of these two groups based on how the herb typically manifests its lifecycle in Calgary.

Herbs are available as either seeds or as started plants.  For information on starting herbs from seed, please refer to the Annual Seed Starting Date Chart brochure, as well as our Starting Annuals from Seed Indoors brochure.  If purchasing herbs as started plants, refer to our brochure on Hardening Off for information regarding the acclimatization of herbs prior to planting.

Herbs are well suited to be grown in containers as well as the herb garden. Most herbs will benefit from direct sun, but as there are some exceptions, it is best to check the requirements of each herb you are considering growing.

Some varieties of herbs lend themselves to being brought indoors over the winter. Laurel, rosemary, basil, chives, winter savory, pineapple sage, and lemon verbena are worth attempting to over winter inside if you have a bright spot that receives direct sunlight. Be sure to harden plants off before placing them outdoors again the following spring.

Herbs that are being grown for their leaves should be pinched back regularly, so that flowers are removed. Removal of flowers will concentrate more of the plant’s ‘energy’ into its leaf development-and thus improve the flavour of the herb.

Harvesting and Preservation of Herbs

Early morning or evening is the best time for harvesting herbs. Harvest no more than 1/3 of the leaves at a time.  Cease harvesting from perennial herbs that are to remain year-round in the garden about 4-6 weeks before the end of the growing season. Annual herbs can be harvested up to the end of the growing season.

Short term storage of herbs can be achieved by placing the herbs in a plastic bag right after they are harvested where they are then kept in the refrigerator (preferably at a temperature of around 4ºC). Herbs stored in this fashion should not be washed before being placed in the bag-they should only be washed before they are utilized.  Make sure holes are punched intermittently in the bag, and watch for signs of condensation within an hour after cooling starts. Open the bag to allow the condensation to dissipate, and then seal the bag again. Herbs stored in the refrigerator will last about a week.

Herbs may also be preserved by freezing, if one wished to store herbs for a longer period of time.  Freezing herbs is the best method of preservation for retaining flavour. The taste of herbs that have been frozen for storage is superior to that of herbs that have been dried.  To freeze whole leaves, wash herbs in cold water and shake dry. Dip leaves in olive oil and seal in freezer bags. Place bags in an out-of-the-way part of the freezer (if the bags are crushed or bumped, the essential oils will become lost).

Another way to freeze herbs is to wash and finely chop them, and then place them in ice cube trays which are topped up with water.  After the cubes have frozen, they are transferred to freezer bags. Frozen cubes can last for up to 6 months.

Drying may also be used as a method of herb preservation.  Air drying may be done by first washing off all remnants of soil from the herbs.  The herbs are then bundled together in bunches and hung upside down.  Alternatively, the herbs can be spread out in a thin layer on a screen.  Regardless of which method is used, it is imperative that the herbs are dried in a dark, ventilated area.

In addition to being air dried, herbs can also be oven dried.  Herbs should be spread thinly on a cookie sheet.  They are then baked at a low temperature (no higher than 48ºC) with the oven door slightly ajar.  Bake until the leaves are dry and flaky. Alternatively, herbs can be dried in the microwave. Place herbs on a double layer of paper towel, and then cover with a single layer of paper towel. Microwave herbs on high power until they are brittle, it takes between 2-3 minutes. 

Annual Herbs


(Ocimum spp.)

Pinch out flowers to increase yield of leaves

Very cold sensitive plant (do not allow to freeze!)

Best used fresh

Staple of Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines

Used extensively in tomato recipes, sauces, soups, pasta and poultry


(Borago officinalis)

Easy to grow

Use young leaves (cucumber flavoured)

Fast growing



Flowers are edible when pistils and stamens are removed



(Anthemis nobilis)

Pretty white daisies on top of mat of dense fragrant foliage

Flowers can be used fresh or dried for tea

Tea can also be used as a hair rinse


(Coriandrum sativum)

Cilantro is the name applied to the leaves of this herb, coriander is the name applied to the seeds

Lower leaves are stronger in flavour than the upper leaves

Used as a flavouring and a garnish in many international cuisines

Seeds can be harvested when they turn brown


(Anethum graveolens)

Typically self-seeding

Tall, ferny, fragrant leaves

Easy to grow


Soups, fish dishes, dressings and cooked vegetables


(Foeniculum vulgare)

Licorice flavoured ferny leaves

Fish, egg dishes, salads, stuffing’s and soups

Dried seed also used

Lemon Balm

(Melissa officinalis)

Attractive, compact foliage

Lemon fragrance

Lemon substitute in recipes

Garnishes, teas and fruit salads

Lemon Verbena

(Aloysia triphylla)

Very strong lemon scent and flavour

Desserts, drinks, fish dishes and fruit salads and teas


(Levisticum officinale)

Looks like a tall, many branched celery with slender stems

Leaves, stems and seeds taste like celery

Salads, soups, steamed vegetables, meat and stew


(Origanum spp.)

Easy to grow

Similar to oregano, but quite as ‘sharp’ in flavour

Meat dishes, stuffing’s, soups, squash, and tomatoes


(Tropaeolum majus)

Easy to grow

All parts of plant are edible

Nice, spicy flavour

Cheerful colourful blooms




(Origanum spp.)

Similar to marjoram, but with a spicier zest to it

Pizza, pasta sauces, marinades and bean dishes


(Petroselinum crispum)

Strong, bold, refreshing flavour!

Pasta dishes, egg dishes, cooked vegetables and cheese dishes



(Rosmarinus officinalis)

Strong, vibrant flavour

Needle-like leaves

Staple in Mediterranean dishes, potato dishes and soups


(Satureja spp.)

Full-bodied pepper taste

Summer savory is milder than winter savory

Bean dishes, egg dishes, soups, stews and casseroles


(Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)

Sweet flavour reminiscent of licorice

Buy established plants, not  seed

Seafood, egg dishes, tomato dishes,

poultry dishes and salad dressings


(Thymus vulgaris)

Pleasantly fragrant herb with a multitude of  uses

Characterized by small grey-green leaves

Chicken dishes, stews, bean dishes,

cooked vegetables and salmon

Vietnamese coriander

(Polygonum odoratum)

Fabulous citrus-like scent!

Tastes subtly like cilantro

Poultry dishes and potato salads

Young leaves great for green salads

Perennial Herbs


(Agastache foeniculum)

Lavender flowers form in spikes above leaves

Plant is licorice scented and flavoured

NOTE: this herb is NOT the same as anise (Pimpinella anisum)

NOTE: anise-hyssop is sold with our annual herbs

Leaves used in teas and herbal jellies

Flowers used in salads


(Monarda spp.)

Round, spiky flower heads bear attractive tubular blooms in an array of colours

Young leaves can be used in salads and desserts

Flowers are used as a garnish


(Allium schoenoprasum)

Hardy perennial bearing strongly flavoured grass-like stems and purple flower heads

NOTE: chives are sold with our annual herbs

Many culinary uses

Fabulous in potato dishes and  omelets


(Nepeta cataria)

Leafy aromatic herb

NOTE: catnip is sold with our annual herbs

Used in cat toys

Can be used as tea for human consumption


(Humulus lupulus)

Very easy to grow vine

Young shoots are tasty, do not eat flowers

Great in salads and omelets

Shoots must be used fresh

English Lavender

(Lavandula angustifolia)

Narrow grey-blue leaves and mauve spikes of flowers

Sweet, pungent fragrance

Leaves and flowers are edible

For best flavour, harvest leaves just before last flowers on stalk open

Used in sachets and potpourris


(Mentha spp.)

Spearmint, peppermint, and orange mint are perennial in Calgary

All mints have a strong, pleasing flavour and are very easy to grow

It is recommended to grow mint in containers, as it may prove too invasive in the garden

It is best to start mint from plants, and not by seed

NOTE: mint is sold with our annual herbs

Flavouring for vegetables, fruit salads and roast lamb

Heavily used in Indian, Thai and Moroccan cooking


(Rumex acetosa)

Remove flower spikes to increase yield of flavourful young leaves

Sharp, tangy, sour taste

Easy to grow

NOTE: people with gout, rheumatism and kidney problems should avoid this herb as it contains oxalic acid

NOTE: sorrel is sold with our annual herbs

Soups, salad greens and poached fish

Sweet Woodruff

(Galium odoratum)

Groundcover with whorled, vivid green leaves and small white flowers

Dried stems and leaves produce a clover or vanilla-like scent

Dried for use in sachets, scented   pillows and potpourris