By Linda Swain, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener

One of my favorite things to grow is herbs, because they offer a combination of beauty and usefulness and can virtually be grown anywhere with ease. A very small amount of effort is soon rewarded with aromatic foliage and flowers. Even if you have never felt the urge to grow plants, they are the perfect introduction to gardening.

Herbs have been used for food and medicine for over 5,000 years. The earliest written records date from 3,000 B.C. in Babylonian clay tablets. Ancient written records have been found all around the world from China, India, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Romans. They have been used in ancient native cultures also like the Mayans and Native Americans. Now, we find a renewed interest in the use of herbs in various culinary fashions such as cooking, teas, liquors, and in medicines, aromatherapy, cosmetics, perfumes, dyes, cleaning agents, decoration and potpourri.

There are several factors to be considered when deciding where it is best to grow herbs. Most herbs like other plants require sunshine during the growing season to produce their full flavor and fragrance. A plant requiring full sun should get about seven hours of sunshine a day, while a plant requiring partial shade needs up to four hours of sunshine a day. There are few plants that grow well in total shade and many of them need filtered sunshine in the middle of the day.

Herbs do need protection from cold winds, which often do more damage to a plant than low temperatures. A wall, hedge or natural slope can provide good shelter but if these are not available then a fence or screen can be used to provide protection and ensure good growth. Make sure to plant them nearby, so you have easy access during cooking.

Herbs can grow in garden borders in existing gardens or mixed into flower and vegetable beds. They also grow well in hanging baskets or decorative pots on a balcony, patio, window box or even indoors.

An easy way to begin is to choose those herbs that you are already familiar with or enjoy using while cooking. Some ideas might be:

Herbaceous Border Plants: Parsley, coriander (cilantro), marigold, marjoram or oregano, lemon thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary and savory make good herbaceous border plants. Any herb can easily be mixed in with your flower or vegetable garden.

Hanging Baskets: A hanging basket of herbs can be very attractive and useful. A basket can generally hold three or four herbs and some good choices are marjoram, thyme and sage.

Decorative Containers: Decorative pots can be used for those herbs most often needed for cutting and easily kept close by the kitchen door. A mixture of annuals and perennials could include parsley, chives, dill, basil, summer savory, sage, lavender, rosemary and thyme. A sweet bay or bay laurel tree, which is very slow growing, is an ideal plant for a container and even indoor growing. Any of the mint family does very well in containers since it keeps them from spreading everywhere with their underground runners.

Window Boxes: Herbs grow well in window boxes, too, provided they get at least four or five hours of sunshine. A variety of cooking herbs makes a wonderful arrangement. Alternatively, filling the window box with fragrant herbs to scent the room when the window is open makes another nice arrangement. Some fragrant herbs to use could be sage, lemon thyme, lemon verbena, sweet marjoram and rosemary.

There are so many herbs to choose from the choices can seem overwhelming, but I encourage you to begin with just one. Nothing is finer than some fresh basil, parsley or chive to toss in scrambled eggs or a salad for a super fresh taste. Plucking a lavender leaf and inhaling its scent can be instantly calming on even the most stressful days. A couple mint leaves torn into a tall glass of ice water is so refreshing on a hot summers day. For centuries, herbs have been regarded as essential to daily life. May they continue to enliven and benefit yours!