Variety is the spice of life. Likewise, spices can add immense variety and edible interest to your meals and your landscape year round.
There’s a lot of crossover between spices and herbs in the kitchen. However, for garden planning purposes, it’s good to have a clear distinction between the two in mind.
Herbs vs. Spices
Herbs are the tender, leafy young parts of plants used for cooking. These plants grow quickly from seed or cuttings and can be treated as annuals even when they are perennial by nature.
Spices are plants that you must grow to maturity to be able to harvest. For example, flavoring agents made from flowers (lavender buds and saffron stigmas), fruits (peppers and vanilla beans), seeds (cumin and caraway) rhizomes (ginger, turmeric, and galangal), bulbs (garlic), or mature roots (chicory and licorice) qualify as spices.
Some plants can be both herbs and spices such as cilantro grown for the leaves which is coriander when grown for the seeds. Likewise, dill, fennel, and fenugreek do double duty as herbs if grown for the leaves or spices when harvesting mature seeds.
For best results, when growing specifically for seeds, don’t harvest the leaves. That way the plant can use those to photosynthesize more, grow deeper roots, and set bigger, more flavorful seeds.
Special Spice Care
Spices take longer to grow and often require more space in the garden than herbs. They also typically have unique harvesting and preserving requirements. Finally, spices also need more customized care in the garden. For example, you may need to plan for pollination to get fruit or seeds or prevent cross pollination to avoid muddling flavors. Spices also often require certain photoperiods or specific soil temperatures to produce a harvest.
Start Spice Gardening
If you want an inside look at what’s involved in growing a year-round spice garden, click on the image below to access a free PDF seasonal chore calendar.
And don’t forget, if you want the details on how to grow, harvest, preserve, and use more than 30 spices in one handy guide – check out my book “Grow Your Own Spices” too.
Now, here’s a bit more spicy inspiration for your potager or landscape garden.
Lavender is one of the easiest spices to grow in the ground or in containers in wet areas. Leave some of the wands to flower for lovely interest in your landscape. But harvest some of the just about to open buds to dry as spice. Also, whenever the leaf tips are growing, cut into the semi-soft wood and propagate more plants from cuttings. They only take a month or two to re-root so you can grow more of give potted plants away to budding gardeners.
Nigella sativa is a close relative of the cottage flower Love in a Mist. It’s not quite as showy. But its delicate flowers, stunning seed pods, and lacey foliage are lovely when crowded together in patch or mixed with other flowering spices. The seeds have a mild peppery zest that highlights the flavors of other spices in a mix.
Check your laws before growing this bagel topping, muffin filling beauty. Given that Papaver somniferum plants can also be used to produce opium, they aren’t legal to grow everywhere. But if you can legally grow them as a food source, consider the Giant Rattlesnake or Hungarian Breadseed varieties.
Ornamental varieties of papaver somniferum have edible seeds too. But the seeds tend to be small and lighter in color when dried.
Feathery, fragrant fronds of fennel look lovely from spring to late fall (and even through winter in mild climates). I plant some to harvest for the leaves, some for the pollen, and several more for the seeds. Use the young leaves in salads, the pollen in teas and pastry, and the seeds for all kinds of cooking. The seeds also make a great digestive aid and breath freshener after a meal.
This compact beauty is a perfect addition to the front of any bed. It only gets about a foot or so tall and smells like pancake syrup when planting and while growing. It’s also a nitrogen fixing legume if you plant it with inoculant.
Overseed and harvest underperforming plants for the leaves that are called methi. Then, let several of your best plants grow to produce tiny pea like pods you can shell on the porch swing. This is a terrific plant to grow with kids.
This easy to grow shrubby tree adds vertical, perennial, and year-round interest to any garden. With lovely leaves, spotted stems, and spikes on new growth this can even make a good hedge. Delicate dainty flowers and red berries that dry darker add interest in spring and summer. Those dried fruits can even be a substitute for black peppercorns.
This leguminous tree can get 100 feet tall. But it can also be kept small by growing it in a pot and keeping the soil fertility low. It requires warm temperatures. So, you’ll need to grow it indoors under good light when the weather cools.
It will take several years to produce pods. And small plants will only produce a few at best. But when ground into a paste, the unique tangy, creamy, zesty taste of this spice makes it worth the wait.
This plant is also very responsive to its growing environment. Its leaves open and close in response to light and heat conditions. Indoors, if you light it from below, it’s leaves will follow the light and start growing in a weeping habit.
This is the world’s most expensive spice and one of the easiest to grow if you know its secrets. Saffron is photoperiod and soil temperature dependent which is why it is summer planted for a fall harvest. The flowers open throughout the day, rather than just in the morning. And for peak flavor you need to harvest those three red stigmas just before or as the flower opens.
The other secret to being successful with this plant, besides getting the right timing, is producing large corms to make new flowering plants. For that, you need to create the perfect climate and soil conditions and grow the green leaves in full sun through to May. Or you can also just buy new corms annually like you often have to do with hybrid tulips.
Noble Bay Laurel
Is this a noble spice or a special herb? I count it as a spice because it’s very slow growing and you harvest the mature, dark green leaves rather than the young light leaf growth to use for drying and adding to stews and soups.
It can take 18 months for a cutting from this plant to root, though with a little skill and luck, you can get there a few months. It will also take a couple of years of growing before you can harvest meaningful amount of leaves without stunting the plant. Once you’ve got a good strong root system, then you can keep it going for years. It does need to be brought indoors in zones 7A or below if you don’t want to worry about it freezing to death.
The Year-Round Spice Garden
One last bit of inspiration…
Think about flowering and fruiting periods for spices just like you would flowers. For example, mustard flowers can come first, followed by poppies, then dill, paprika peppers, garlic flowers, fennel, and saffron.
With just a little planning, your spice garden can flower and fruit from spring to fall. You can also mix and match textures and heights to create the same kind of drama you get in a less delicious ornamental garden.