Auspicious Herbs

Auspicious Herbs - Illustration by Anna Takahashi
Auspicious Herbs – Illustration by Anna Takahashi

Prepare to plant: Parsley, chives, basil, and more add fragrance and flair to mealtime.

Vivian Sellers knows her herbs. At her Elk Grove home, she grows lemon verbena — her favorite — chives, basil, parsley, and lavender. These are all herbs she uses often both in cooking and for fragrance. When grown properly, herbs are truly the spice of life. But each plant has its own unique growing needs, and some are fussier than others.

Part of the Sacramento County Master Gardeners herb team, Sellers tends the demonstration herb garden at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center in Fair Oaks Park. That garden features dozens of herbs in a wide range of varieties. Trialing varieties of herbs to note their differences, Sacramento County Master Gardeners are serious about these plants.

Illustration by Anna Takahashi


The team tested a bushel of basils to find the best uses for each one. Their list of recommended basils includes Mrs. Burns’ lemon, Thai, Genovese (best for pesto), purple ruffles, cinnamon, lime, African blue, pesto perpetuo (with variegated leaves), red Rubin, spicy bush, and cardinal (with bright red flowers). Each adds its own twist to basic basil. Basil is also among the easiest herbs to grow from seed. Sellers advises to plant now for summer use. “I grow basil as an annual,” Sellers says. “They bolt (flower and produce seed) fast. And the minute basil flowers, it goes bitter, so you’ve got to keep picking before it flowers.” Once flowers start to appear, pinch them off right away, she adds. To lengthen her basil season, Sellers grows many seeds — 10 or more — together in one 6-inch pot that’s situated in bright shade. The little plants compete with each other for nutrients and naturally stunt each other’s development. “It doesn’t flower for months,” Sellers says of her potted basil.


She also plants parsley every spring, either from seed or by starting directly in garden beds. “Parsley is a biennial; its life cycle takes two years,” she explains. “The first year, it has good flavor for culinary purposes. The second year, it goes bitter, but that’s when it flowers and brings in pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) to the garden. So I always have two parsleys every year — one new and one old.” 


Grown either from seed or starts planted now, chives ranks as the easiest herb to grow. It thrives in pots or in raised beds. “I grow them not only for their greens but their flowers; they’re totally edible and very cute in salads or on deviled eggs,” explains Sellers. Watch out for garlic chives; although tasty, they reseed very easily and can be invasive. Like it or not, garlic chives will be everywhere, Sellers warns.

Illustration by Anna Takahashi


Fragrant lavender doubles as a culinary herb. Even when it’s not in flower, sampling the leaves offers an idea of how the lavender blooms will smells or taste. “Some lavenders, particularly French varieties, taste soapy,” Sellers notes. English lavenders such as Munstead, Melissa and lady are better for culinary use. Her favorite for recipes is Folgate, another English variety. To keep lavender plants from becoming woody, cut them back by one-third each year after their first bloom. “That way, you can keep your lavender going for 15 years or more,” Sellers says. “If you don’t cut it back, it will be too woody in five years.” 


Rosemary is another woody perennial herb that benefits from annual pruning. “It can get 7 feet tall if not cut back,” Sellers says. She grows cottage rosemary, a dwarf variety that stays under 2 feet tall by 2 feet wide. Trailing rosemary, common in drought-tolerant landscapes, lacks the flavor of its upright cousins. Rosemary can be grown indoors in a south facing window with a minimum of five hours of sunlight or fluorescent lights hung six inches above the plants for 14 to 16 hours a day.

Illustration by Anna Takahashi


With lemon-flavored, attractive leaves, this plant can grow into a large shrub. Sellers keeps hers pruned into a topiary. Lemon verbena can be planted any time of year in mild California climate areas, though late winter or early spring are best for areas with cold winters and hot summers. Fall planting is possible in areas with mild or no frosts.


Thyme is short — under 8 inches — and short lived; don’t expect this little perennial to last more than three years. “It gets too woody and no longer produces edible leaves,” Seller says.


Two herbs that seem indestructible, oregano and mint can be started from cuttings. Closely related, both grow from underground runners and are notoriously invasive. Restrict their roaming roots by growing them in pots. Pinch back their blooms, too. “When they bloom, they lose their essential oils and aren’t as flavorful,” explains Sellers. 

Illustration by Anna Takahashi

Lastly, remember less is more when growing herbs. They don’t like being pampered. Use fertilizer sparingly, if at all, and water only as needed. The exception is basil; it thrives with extra nitrogen and irrigation. One herb that won’t grow in Sacramento in summer is cilantro. “It needs cold weather,” she says. “In summer, it just bolts and goes to seed. If you want cilantro in summer, you’ll have to do what I do: buy it at the grocery store.”