A burst of basil in a summer Caprese salad. That waft of muddled mint in your frosty mojito. Nothing makes a recipe sing like a few snips of fresh herbs. But all this flavor doesn't come cheap: even at a totally nongourmet supermarket, a handful of the fresh stuff can cost up to several bucks.
The solution: Grow your own. If your "garden" is an apartment porch, or your thumb is the opposite of green on the color wheel, take heart. "Herbs are among the easiest plants for beginning gardeners. They are disease resistant and don't take up much space," says Charlie Nardozzi, the gardening expert at gardeningwithcharlie.com. Plant a few large pots or window boxes in a sunny spot near your kitchen door and you'll have instant access to just the amount a dish calls for.
For the newbie gardener, Nardozzi recommends six sweet-spot herbs—they're foolproof, versatile for day-to-day cooking, and provide great bang for the buck. Below, he offers tips for getting the most out of these herbs all summer and beyond.
Pots are hassle-free. No hand-wringing about soil quality or digging required. But jamming the whole collection in one adorable little planter is a rookie move. "Using large containers will make plants less stressed so they will produce more," says Nardozzi. Big containers will give the perennials below more protection in winter, too, so they have a better shot at returning next year. (Whiskey-barrel planters are a classic choice.) These herbs all need well-drained soil—potting soil mixed with a little fertilizer or compost is ideal—and at least six hours of sun.
Why it's a winner: "How can anyone not like pesto? And I don't say that just because I'm Italian. Plus, basil is instantly gratifying. You can start using the leaves in a sauce or stir-fry when the plant is still small. The Thai basil variety adds a wonderful spiciness to Asian cooking."
Recipes to try: Healthy Basil Recipes
Growing tips: Basil grows easily from seed; plant after temperatures are consistently above 60 during the day and in the 40s to 50s at night. One packet of seed gives you a summer of pesto. (Be sure to space the seeds out according to package directions.) Pinch the tops so the plants don't flower and they'll keep producing leaves for months. Instead of picking individual leaves, pick entire side branches where they meet the main stem, which will result in bigger leaves all summer.
Save for winter: This sun-loving annual is not going to be a happy camper if you bring it inside. Snip off all the remaining leaves before frost comes and freeze them in sealable plastic bags. The leaves will turn brown, but will still taste great in a winter's worth of pasta sauce and soups.
Related: How to Turn Any Herb into Pesto
Why it's a winner: "In addition to sprinkling on potatoes, I use chives as a substitute for scallions. I put chive flowers on salads for a festive look and taste."
Recipes to try: Healthy Chive Recipes
Growing tips: Start with a small plant rather than seeds. You might not even have to buy one: "Chives are a perennial that comes back year after year. People are always looking to divide theirs. Dig up a little section of a friend's plant and you too will have chives forever."
Save for winter: Pot up a small division of your chives at the end of summer and bring indoors. Put the pot in a sunny window and keep the soil barely moist. It won't go gangbusters but you will have enough for a few fresh snips as needed. Leave the rest of the plant outside to come back next year.
Why it's a winner: "Spearmint and peppermint are the classics for teas, but there are tons of varieties to try. I love cinnamon mint and ginger mint. In the garden, mint is almost foolproof. I have yet to find a way to kill it."
Recipes to try: Healthy Mint Recipes
Growing tips: Mint grows exuberantly. "It will take over the world if you let it. Growing it in a pot is actually better than putting it straight in the ground, as it keeps the roots contained."
Save for winter: Its weed-like hardiness makes it adapt well to indoor living. Divide off a small section of the plant and pot it up for a sunny windowsill. Mint is easy to dry for tea. Snip off long stems, wrap the cut ends together and tie with twine, then hang them out of direct sun. In a few weeks, the leaves will be dry enough to crumble.
Why it's a winner. This versatile workhorse gives a fresh accent to everything from soups to roasts. And even smoothies! "I make a scrumptious green shake of parsley, bananas, maple syrup and water."
Recipes to try: Healthy Parsley Recipes
Growing tips. Parsley can take a long time to germinate, so it is better to start with plants. Buy several so you don't shear away the whole plant for your first potato salad of the summer. When an individual plant is given plenty of room, it can grow a foot in diameter by the end of the season.
Save for winter: Freeze fresh parsley in sealable plastic bags, or try bringing the whole plant indoors. "It should survive right through the holidays and you will have fresh parsley in your holiday cooking." Start with a new plant next year.
Why it's a winner: This plant is a twofer. The leaves add punch in Mexican cooking, and the seeds (known as coriander) can be ground up for Indian recipes.
Recipes to try: Healthy Cilantro Recipes
Growing tips: Cilantro grows easily from its big, round seeds. In hot weather, cilantro does bolt quickly past its leaf-making stage to flower. To slow this process, make sure the plants have plenty of space and water them well. The good news: once cilantro goes to seed, it may self-sow and you may get a second or third round without doing a thing.
Save for winter: This annual is not a plant that likes to be inside unless you are prepared to provide lots of TLC. Instead, freeze the leaves and harvest coriander seeds for grinding once they have turned brown.
Why it's a winner. "Add the leaves to anything you want to impart a lemony zest to. You can use it in a lemony chicken recipe, lemon cookies, herbal tea or make a refreshing iced drink. It's an attractive plant in the garden with delicate flowers and a fresh scent."
Growing tips: A member of the mint family, this plant can grow up to two feet tall, so give it plenty of room to spread out.
Save for winter: After growing all season, this plant will be too big to try to bring indoors. Dry or freeze the leaves before frost. It's a perennial, so next year you can look forward to its sweet return.