Linda Geist
  • By putting several pots of herbs together, gardeners can take advantage of their aesthetic value as well as put them to use in the kitchen. MU Extension file photo.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Long before plug-in air fresheners and scented candles, people used plants to make their homes more livable by masking unpleasant odors.

Herbs served that purpose very well and frequently were strewn over floors, said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein. Walking on herbs’ aromatic foliage released their fragrances. Additionally, many herbs were thought to possess medicinal properties and were used to treat various ailments. Today, herbs add zest to our diet as well as fragrance to our lives, and they are becoming increasingly popular with gardeners.

Botanically, an herb is a non-woody plant that dies back to the ground at the end of each growing season. A more functional definition is a plant whose leaves, stems or seeds are used for their aromatic, culinary or medicinal properties.

People have used herbs for thousands of years in interesting ways, Trinklein said. The ancient Greeks treated stomach problems with parsley and used sweet marjoram as a tonic. The Romans used dill to crown heroes and purify the air in their banquet halls. Scottish highlanders used thyme to impart strength and courage as well as to prevent nightmares. In medieval France, babies were rubbed with artemisia to protect them from the cold. Early immigrants to the United States brought herbs with them, and they found many familiar herbs growing in the wild in their new country. Herb gardens were an essential part of the pioneer homestead.

Homegrown herbs became less common as modern grocery stores provided easy access to a growing variety of fresh and dried herbs. But many gardeners today are rediscovering the satisfaction derived from growing herbs in their gardens or in containers, said Trinklein.

There are more than 70 herbs that fall into into one or more of four categories: culinary, aromatic, ornamental and medicinal.

Culinary herbs such as basil, parsley and chives add flavor and appeal to food. Aromatic herbs include lavender, lovage and mint and are used to scent linens and clothing as well as for potpourris and sachets. Most are members of the Lamiaceae (or mint) family and produce strong-scented, volatile oils that last a relatively long time after harvesting and drying.

Ornamental herbs such as catmint have brightly colored flowers and are used in the garden for visual interest. Finally, medicinal herbs such as feverfew and angelica are said to have properties useful for treating illness or relieving pain. Modern science has confirmed therapeutic benefits for a few of these herbs, but the medicinal value of many of them is probably overstated. In fact, a few, such as comfrey, can be dangerous if consumed and should only be used topically.

Most herbs can be grown from seed, though a few, such as peppermint, must be vegetatively propagated. As a general rule, herbs will grow in any location suitable for vegetable production, Trinklein said. Herbs need well-drained soil for successful production. Incorporate plenty of well-decomposed organic matter into the soil before planting to improve its porosity.

Herbs need only modest fertility; high fertility leads to excessive vegetative growth and poor flavor or aroma, he said. Most herbs appreciate at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight and adequate amounts of water throughout the growing season.

Few diseases and insects trouble herbs. If pests become a problem on culinary herbs, use a pesticide labeled for food crops.

The MU Extension publication “Growing Herbs at Home” (G6470) is available for free download at

By putting several pots of herbs together, gardeners can take advantage of their aesthetic value as well as put them to use in the kitchen. MU Extension file photo.

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