Human civilizations have used herbs for myriad purposes since ancient times. Today, gardeners continue to plant herbs, primarily for culinary uses, their beauty and fragrance and the protective properties they contribute to organic gardens. Herbs are relatively easy to care for, and many of them are perennial, reducing the need to constantly start new each spring.
Take a look at a spice rack. Most of those herbs can be grown in the garden and harvested fresh for use in cooking. Parsley, mint, sage, dill, rosemary, cilantro/coriander, basil and thyme--all of these will thrive in most climates and are relatively easy to grow and care for. Because fresh herbs don't have the concentrated flavor of the dried varieties, you will need to use more in your recipes to get the same effect. Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert, authors of "Simply in Season," recommend doubling or tripling the herbs a recipe calls for when using fresh. Herbs can also be dried for use year-round.
Although some people grow exclusive herb gardens, mixing herbs with your vegetables and flowers may protect them from pest damage. "Repel with smell," recommend the authors of "Rodale's Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening," pointing out that the strong scents of herbs like mint and catnip prevent insect pests from infesting nearby plants. Herbs with clusters of small flowers, such as dill and cilantro, also attract beneficial insects that help to further protect against insect pests.
Expert herb grower Jo Ann Gardner finds many uses for her herbs beyond the kitchen, using herbs to make potpourri, wreaths, sachets, teas and bath crystals. Traditionally, most herbs found a medicinal purpose and some--St. John's wort and echinacea, to name two--remain popular as herbal remedies today.
In the study of botany, an herb is any plant with soft, not woody, stems. In common usage, herbs have come to be defined as those plants, usually strongly scented, with uses other than their attractiveness in a garden. However, because herbs are not botanically distinct from other plants used as garden plants, they can be integrated into flower gardens. Some, like mint, have attractive blossoms while others, such as sage, have interesting foliage, and many confer protective benefits to neighboring plants. Others, like lavender and bee balm, are often grown for their flowers but also have other uses.
Herbs also grow well in containers. In fact, because most herbs are perennial but cannot survive the winter in most locations in the United States, growing plants like rosemary in containers allows you to overwinter them indoors. Herbs like mint that spread voraciously, if confined to a container, can be moved where their protective benefits are most needed in the garden without worry that they will take over.
Jo Ann Gardner believes that herb gardens evolve based on aesthetics, use and the natural tendencies of the plants. She integrates herbs into the landscape, using the herbs' preferred growing conditions to guide her choices. Herbs grow to different sizes and shapes, and some--such as mint--will spread if allowed. She recommends approaching a new herb garden with the understanding that the landscape will take years to take shape and will require adjustment as you learn which herbs work best for your particular conditions and purposes.