Herbs are a gardener's and cook's best friend. Many herbs originated in the Mediterranean region, and the dry climate and relatively poor soil favored herbs that weren't fussy. Fresh herbs add a bright flavor to food. Low-fat, low-sodium diets are enhanced by using herbs in lieu of salt and fat. Grow herbs that complement each other in food next to each other in the garden.
Italians use lots of fresh vegetables and herbs in their cuisine. Basil is a standby. It has broad oval dark green leaves and grows to 10 inches high. Purple basil has purple foliage. Oregano is essential. Its taste is peppery and has a tendency to overpower the flavor in a dish and space in a garden since it spreads quickly through runners. Fennel grows tall--from 3 to 6 feet--but can be kept in bounds by pruning. The seeds and leaves of fennel are used for their light licorice flavor; the bulb at the base of the plant is sliced, used in salads raw or cooked as a vegetable. Flat leaved parsley rounds out the Italian group. It's more of a challenge to start from seed than curly leaved parsley and has a stronger parsley taste.
Tarragon is the queen of French herbs. Its flavor goes well with potatoes, fish, eggs and chicken. It's an essential ingredient to Béarnaise sauce, as is chervil. Russian tarragon looks like French tarragon but has very little flavor. Curley leaved parsley is a French necessity. It is a biennial, flowering the second year, which ruins the flavor. Pull it up at the end of the season and start new plants the next spring. Thyme is small-leaved but big-flavored. It's low growing and spreads by runners but isn't quite as invasive as oregano. Rosemary is robust, both in flavor and how it grows. It either spreads or grows upright. Both varieties have a strong flavor. The upright type is often pruned as a topiary.
Some bulbs like onions are considered more of a vegetable than an herb; others like chives definitely fall into the herb family. Plant bulbs in the same area, as most have the same growing requirements relating to soil, light and water. Spring onions, sometimes called bunching onions or scallions, have a bright onion flavor. In early spring, the entire plant may be used rather than just the white bulb. Garlic is an herb that is either loved or hated. Shallots have a milder garlic flavor with overtones of onion. Leeks are scallions on steroids. Very young leeks may be used the same way as scallions. Using a number of different bulbs to flavor a dish adds layers of flavor.