Hartley Magazine

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Flowers in the herb garden

June 2017
Blooming chives (Allium schoenoprasum)

Herbs are an indispensable part of the edible garden. How can there be tomatoes without basil? How can there be mint juleps without mint?

Flavor is the main reason these plants are in my garden, but it’s not their natural destiny. Like most other plants, their goal is to flower.

Many of our common herbs will open lovely blooms, if we let them. Common chives has fluffy little lavender flower balls at this time of year. Dill will burst into wide yellow flower clusters, and parsley has delicate white blossoms.

Why don’t we let our herbs bloom and enjoy both their flowers and their flavors? Unfortunately, there are tradeoffs.

Many herbs, including cilantro, coriander, and parsley, will change flavor once they bloom, just as lettuce does. Others will stop producing foliage and fade away. Once they’ve flowered, their job is done, as far as they’re concerned.

We have a different perspective. When we grow culinary herbs, we’re chiefly interested in the flavor of the leaves. So it’s in our interest to keep the plants from blooming by pinching them back to keep them from forming flower buds. It’s a test of wills: That basil that grows so furiously in August is trying desperately to get big enough to bloom and reproduce. We’re pinching it back just as furiously to keep it juvenile and succulent. Result: pesto.

Not all culinary herbs are annuals. Oregano is a perennial that will set pink flowers in summer. Rosemary is a shrub that will have tiny purple ones. Neither of these plants is winter-hardy in my garden in Chicago, but they grow happily in pots that can be taken into the greenhouse in winter. When they get big enough, they’ll bloom. And I’ve never noticed that blooming gives rosemary or oregano an off flavor.

The problem is that the varieties that have been selected for prettiest bloom rarely have the best flavor: In plant breeding, as in gardening, there are tradeoffs. The savory oregano and marjoram I grow for the kitchen have homely little flowers, while the ornamental oregano with the pretty pink blooms isn’t worth snipping for a Greek salad.

So here’s what I do: I plant herbs for the garden in containers, so I can take them indoors in the fall. I pinch them back ruthlessly all summer long.

Out in the garden, I plant herbs such as chives and oregano in my flower beds for the sake of the blooms. I usually plant a patch of dill, parsley and fennel just for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars. (I want to do my bit for butterflies, but when it comes to my cooking herbs, I’d rather not share.)

At the end of the growing season, I usually transplant this year’s kitchen chives into the garden, knowing that, like other alliums, it’s a hardy perennial. Next June, my flower beds will rejoice in fluffy lavender pom pons. And I’ll start over with new chives for sprinkling over next summer’s omelets.