Fresh is always better. It’s not a surprising thing to hear from herb farmers, but D. and Jim Brown of Louisville, Tenn. say what is surprising is why certain herbs grow so well here in Tennessee.
“The majority of the herbs we grow at Honey Rock Herb Farm are from the Mediterranean because the climate here in East Tennessee is similar,” says Jim. “It seems strange since that’s halfway around the world, but all most herbs need is full sun, good drainage and no ‘wet feet!’”
Keeping an herb’s “feet dry” simply means keeping soil moist without fully saturating the ground. While that’s been difficult during this particularly rainy season, Jim says most herbs you’d want to grow in Tennessee are hearty enough to handle our weather.
“We encourage everybody to find a little place right near their kitchen or on their patio or porch and just start growing,” he says. “Once you have the fresh stuff to grab right when you need it, you’ll never go back.”
Aromatic: Having a pleasant, distinctive smell
Evergreen: A plant that has at least some green leaves throughout the year
Perennial: A plant that lives more than 2 or 3 years
Variegated: Leaves marked by different colors, often green, white and yellow
Here are some herbs that thrive in Tennessee
A flowering, mostly aromatic plant family that includes basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, thyme and lavender
Most of the herbs people grow in Tennessee are part of the mint family. While we Southerners often associate mint with sweet foods and drinks, it’s actually used in savory dishes all over the world, and it’s easy to incorporate into your cooking once you know how. A good rule of thumb is that most recipes where you can use basil, you can also use mint.
“We make tea using spearmint,” says Jim, “but one of our favorite things to do with mint is make tabouli, a Lebanese salad of fresh vegetables, lots of herbs and bulgur, which is a type of boiled wheat that’s kind of like quinoa.”
Use fresh mint in:
A perennial plant in the mint family that’s native to the great plains of North America
This pretty, flowered plant is blue or lavender in color and attracts butterflies, so it’s a favorite of gardeners. Bees also love the purple flower and make a fragrant honey from its nectar. Anise hyssop has a mellow, licorice flavor. If you like fennel, you’ll like anise hyssop.
“I love to use the leaves in cookies or in tea, and the flowers are delicious sprinkled over salads,” says D. “You can also use the dried flowers in arrangements, and you can start your own plant from seed or from cuttings.”
Use anise hyssop in:
A tender plant native to tropical regions that has a strong, often sweet smell
Basil has a subtle, sweet and peppery flavor. When cooking with basil, always add it at the end so it keeps its fresh flavor. Basil is easy to grow, especially if you buy a plant that’s already potted and growing. And you should — experts say the dried stuff simply isn’t the same.
“If I had to pick one herb that’s always better fresh, it would be basil,” says Jim.
Use fresh basil in:
Oregano & Marjoram
Flowering perennial plants that are part of the mint family
Oregano is so closely linked with its cousin marjoram that marjoram is often referred to as “sweet oregano,” and oregano often called “wild marjoram.” With a name meaning “brightness of the mountain,” oregano is typically stronger than marjoram and used in savory dishes. Marjoram tends to be a lighter, slightly sweeter addition to recipes.
“Marjoram is a little milder than Greek oregano, and one of our favorite ways to use it is to make a little pesto and spread it on bread instead of mayo for a sandwich,” says Jim. “Oregano is great to use with tomatoes, especially on pizza, and it’s also one of the only herbs we dry because it keeps its flavor well.”
Use fresh oregano in:
Use fresh marjoram in:
A woody, perennial member of the mint family with fragrant, evergreen, needle-like leaves; native to the Mediterranean
In Latin, rosemary means “dew of the sea,” so it should come as no surprise that it pairs well with fish. It’s also a very sturdy herb, which means you don’t need much of a green thumb to grow it.
“The sturdiest plants are going to be upright rosemary — I’d look for a Salem or a Hill’s Hardy,” says Jim. “My favorite way to use it is to cut off a small bunch, soak it in water and then stuff it into a whole fish like trout. You could also put it on top of a fish filet and then grill or roast it. The fish will get a nice, herb flavor all through the meat. Finish it simply with lemon and salt. There’s nothing better.”
Use fresh rosemary in:
An aromatic perennial evergreen in the mint family; related to oregano
Thyme is often used to add depth to savory dishes, but it’s great in sweet foods, too, where it adds earthy notes. Thyme comes in lots of varieties — English, silver, lemon, orange balsam — and the names are fairly self-explanatory when it comes to the herb’s flavor. Thyme is especially good when paired with citrus, which is why you’ll see so many orange and lemon varieties.
“Whenever you wonder about using an herb, use thyme,” says Jim. “It goes with anything.”
Use fresh thyme in:
Other herbs you may see in Tennessee
- Texas Tarragon is similar to French Tarragon with a light licorice flavor, but it grows better in Tennessee’s heat and humidity. Texas Tarragon is technically a kind of marigold rather than an herb, and it has edible yellow flowers that make delicious tea.
- Lovage is an herb that tastes like celery, which is why you’ll often see it used on fancy restaurant menus — chefs want the flavor of celery but not the texture.
- Salad Burnet grows well on limestone, which is why you may run across it here in Tennessee. Its leaves taste like cucumber, which Jim says makes it ideal for people who can’t digest cucumber but enjoy the flavor.
- Sorrel is a strong herb with a lemony flavor that’s great in soup or sprinkled over the top of salads. But don’t use it as the salad leaves itself — its flavor is too strong.
- Stevia has become popular in recent years as a calorie-free way to sweeten beverages. Originally from Brazil, the tender plant grows all summer long and can be 30-150 times sweeter than sugar.
- Winter savory is a hearty perennial that pairs well with meat and with beans. Jim says it even helps take the gas out of the latter.
Is there anything that doesn’t grow well here?
“Cilantro is hard to grow in Tennessee,” says Jim. “It will fall apart, or ‘go to seed,’ almost as soon as you plant it.”