In Chicago, February is too early to start gardening outside, but herbs may be started indoors during the winter. Sow seeds of annual herbs, such as basil, cilantro, dill, and parsley. One seed packet goes a long way—sow only a few seeds at a time indoors and save the rest for planting in the garden later this spring. (Learn more about seed starting and how to read a seed packet.)
In the produce section of many stores, you’ll find pots of perennial herbs, such as sage, mint, oregano, and thyme. Don’t overlook pots of lemongrass and bay-leaf plants, which can be grown indoors.
You can transplant or sow seeds of most warm-weather herbs like basil and cilantro outdoors after May 15, the average last spring frost date in the Chicago area. In the meantime, grow herbs on a south- or west-facing sunny windowsill or under a kitchen cabinet fitted with an LED or other light bulb. If you’re growing them under lights, they should get 10 to 12 hours of light.
Snipping leaves and stems from the top of the plants will keep them stocky and will encourage more growth.
Here are 10 favorites. Bon appétit!
Basil is a very aromatic, popular ingredient used in pestos, vinegars, salads, and sauces. Besides the common large-leaf varieties, look for unique flavors like lime basil, Siam Queen Thai basil, cinnamon basil, and lemon basil. Think about how the leaves will look in a salad—some, like Dark Opal, Purple Ruffles, and Red Rubin have dark purple or deep red leaves. Pesto Perpetuo basil has green and white leaves. And there are compact dwarf basils that reach 12 inches, half the size of other basils. All are easy to start from seed.
Parsley has the best flavor when used fresh. Curly and flat-leaf parsley are easy to grow from seed. Once the plant flowers, the leaves become bitter. You can prevent this by harvesting the leaves frequently.
Dill has many culinary uses. It’s a good ingredient in egg and potato dishes and in gravies. It can be used in a cucumber salad as well as with poultry, cheese, carrots, green beans, peas, or cottage cheese. Once the plant flowers, you can save the seeds for use in baked breads or pickles. Depending on the variety, you can start harvesting leaves in as little as 40 days from sowing.
Chervil is an underused member of the parsley family. It has a delicate flavor like parsley, with a hint of anise and lemon. Sow seeds every three to four weeks. Chervil is quick to flower and go to seed (bolt) in hot weather. It is excellent in salads, soups, and vinaigrettes and with seafood. When using it in a soup or other hot dish, add it at the last minute. Overcooking will diminish chervil’s flavor.
Cilantro is a staple in Mexican, Thai, and Indian dishes. It’s often used in salsas and in chicken salads. Sow the seeds every two to three weeks from spring to fall. The plants produce flowers that quickly go to seed—the seeds are coriander, a spice. Once they’ve flowered, cilantro plants tend to become yellow and they’re finished. To delay flowering, harvest the leaves often and look for “bolt-resistant and heat-tolerant” varieties such as Caribe.
Oregano is a perennial with purple or white flowers. It’s often used in Italian and Greek dishes, soups, stews, tomato sauces, and with meats. Buy a plant in the produce section and transplant it to a larger pot filled with soilless potting mix. Grow it on a sunny windowsill or under a light. You can move it outdoors in mid-May.
Rosemary is a tender perennial. You can grow it indoors, move it outside in mid-May in the pot, and then bring it back in before a fall frost. Keep plants in a cool, very sunny room and water them frequently. Although you can grow rosemary from seed, it’s easier (and faster) to buy a pot from a garden center or produce section.
Lemon verbena is a tender perennial that is easy to grow in a pot. The leaves have an intense citrus taste. Over time, the stems become woody. It’s perfect for a container that can be moved into full sun later this spring. Come fall, cut back the woody stems by half and bring the plant indoors.
Thyme is a perennial herb with pink or white flowers. More unusual varieties feature silver- and golden-edged foliage or lemon-scented leaves. Sprigs can be used in soups, stews, and vegetable dishes. Grow it on a sunny windowsill. Later, you can transplant it into a permanent spot in the garden that has well-drained soil and full sun.
Chives are a hardy perennial from the Allium family. They are prolific and easy to grow from seed in pots. The narrow green stems can be diced and sprinkled over soup, salad, omelets, or used in herb butters. Cut and discard the flowering stems after the plant has bloomed.