New Jersey gardeners have the best of both worlds. The Mid-Atlantic state isn’t far enough to the north to experience the brutal winters that kill most perennial herbs and flowers. At the same time, it avoids the wilting temperatures and humid air of the southern climate. Because New Jersey is large enough to encompass zones 5 through 7, your best bet is to grow herbs hardy at least to zone 5. Herbs rarely need extra watering or fertilizing.
Members of the mint family grow happily in New Jersey. Choose peppermint, spearmint, apple mint or the low-growing Corsican mint. Catmint, also known as catnip, makes a good groundcover for shady places and also helps repel ants and mice. Mints tend to invade other parts of the garden; give them their own corner or confine them to containers. Use the fresh leaves for garnish and to flavor sweet dishes. Dried leaves are useful in potpourris and as stomach-soothing teas. Although mints are incredibly tough plants, if they seem to be wilting, give them extra water or shade cover during hot weather.
Southern growers sometimes find that lavender succumbs to their humid climate, while those in the far north can’t always overwinter the classic Mediterranean herb. But New Jersey gardens are well suited to lavender’s temperament, provided gardeners give the flowering herbs full sun and a well-drained soil. Plant lavender into normal to clay soils, and avoid fertilizing it, especially with nitrogen-rich mixes. Grosso Lavender is a good all-around lavender variety for both fragrance and flavor.
While New Jersey gardeners can’t grow the tender perennial lemon verbena unless they bring it inside for the winter, lemon balm represents a far hardier alternative. Lemon balm also tolerates a bit more shade than the sun-worshipper lemon verbena. A traditional remedy for depression, lemon balm leaves can be made into hot or iced tea. Its flavor isn’t as intense as lemon verbena's, but its cooling citrus fragrance works wonders in the garden and in potpourris.
Apple-scented chamomile makes a deceptively delicate-looking and fragrant groundcover which welcomes being walked upon. Choose Roman chamomile for a perennial garden presence. Prune it if using it as a walkway, or let it grow to its full height of 6 to 12 inches. Harvest its foliage and flowers for soothing teas and for potpourri.
The stems of the chive plant are its main attraction, although if you leave some to flower, their pink and lavender blossoms attract butterflies and bees, and work well in flavored vinegars and salads. Chop the stems to flavor potatoes, egg salad, dips and sauce. The herbs grow in sun or part shade, in regular or slightly moist soil.
All of the dozens of thyme varieties are hardy enough for zone 5 winters, giving New Jersey gardeners their pick of creeping or upright thymes ranging from common thyme to lemon, orange and caraway. The low-growing flowering plant grows best in full sun and dry, sandy soil. Not only do they make ideal fresh or dried seasonings for chowders, breads and sauces, but also rugged groundcovers which release their pungent scent when walked upon.
The “pizza herb” works wonders on more than just pizza. Use the fresh leaves in marinades and in summer-fresh sauces. For baking and stews, dry the oregano in bunches and preserve the crumbled leaves. Grow in full sun, in well-drained soil. Adding gravel or sand may help prevent mildew and root rot from humidity and excessive rainfall.
Common sage, though hardy to zone 5, needs to be replaced every few years for the best growth and flavor. Use fresh to flavor pork, sausage, stews and savory butters and cheeses, or dry it for wintertime seasoning. Herbalists use dried or infused leaves in skin care preparations for oily skins.
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