Dwarf herb varieties meet small-family and small-space needs.

Dwarf Herbs

by Janet Beal

Herbs add a variety of fresh and pungent flavors to food. If your family is small or your garden space is limited, you may question whether it's worth your time to grow herbs. While some herbs spread aggressively, a number of frequently used types have been bred in dwarf versions. A windowsill or a large container is all you need to grow herbs for a small family or in a small garden.

1. Basil

Dwarf versions of basil (Ocimum basilicum minimum), usually grown as an annual, are tender perennials in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9 through 11. "Spicy Globe" (Ocimum basilicum "Spicy Globe") and "Green Bouquet" (Ocimum basilicum "Green Bouquet") are popular dwarf varieties, growing from 8 to 12 inches high. Provide full sun and well-drained, regularly watered soil for summer-through-fall spicy bright green leaves.

2. Sage

Dwarf sages (Salvia officinalis "Compacta" and Salvia officinalis "Minimus"), hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9, are valued for their compact growing habits. "Compacta" reaches only 10 inches in height. Plant sun-loving sage in well-drained soil.

3. Dill

Annual fernleaf dill (Anethum graveolens) is bred to grow between 12 and 18 inches high, a far cry from the 3- to 6-foot plants of other dills. Dill is valued for both its foliage and its seeds, and even the stems contain the distinctive dill flavor. Freezing dill's delicate foliage preserves more flavor than drying. Seeds often winter over and sprout in spring. Pot dill to keep its height close to 12 inches.

4. Greek Oregano

Confusion in the Origanum family leads to many claims of "the true oregano." Dwarf Greek oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum) has a profusion of aromatic and highly flavorful leaves on a plant growing 8 inches tall, with a creeping spread of 1 to 1 1/2 feet. Hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, this tough Mediterranean native tolerates rocky soil and prefers full sun.

5. Rosemary

The exhuberant growth of shrubby rosemary is restrained to a height of 12 to 24 inches in "Roman Beauty," (Rosmarinus officinalis "Roman Beauty," a patent-protected Monrovia-bred variety. Other rosemary varieties usually reach a mature height of more than 2 feet. Winter-hardy in USDA zones 8 through 10, rosemary can tolerate indoor winter protection if provided with bright light.

6. Thyme

While creeping members of the thyme (Thymus) genus may reach only a few inches in height, they are technically not dwarf varieties. A related member of the large and confusing Lamiaceae, or mint, family, broadleaf thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus) is an erect plant with a compact or dwarf habit, reaching only 10 to 12 inches in height. Hardy in USDA zones 10 and 11, broadleaf thyme has many regional names, among them Mexican mint, Indian borage, Spanish thyme and Cuban thyme.

7. Curry Leaf

Dwarf curry leaf (Helichrysum microphyllum) is increasingly available in nurseries and is cold-hardy as low as USDA zone 8. Reaching a mature height of 12 inches, it requires at least half a day of sun and well-drained soil. Overwatering can produce root rot. The aroma of the leaves is stronger than their taste and is strongly suggestive of curry.

8. Chives

Groleau chives (Allium schoenprasum), at 8 to 12 inches in height, have earned the nickname "windowsill chives." Hardy in USDA zones 4 through 11, they are a hardy perennial that can be left in the garden or brought indoors to winter over in bright light. Their mildly oniony flavor freshens dishes year-round.

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