Culinary herbs are fresh or dried plant parts used as a food flavoring. Culinary herbs are mostly prepared from leaves, but can also include flower, fruit and root parts. There are literally hundreds of plants that can be grown for this purpose. Some of the more popular commercially grown herbs include cilantro or coriander (Coriandrum sativum), chives (Allium schoenoprasum), dill (Anthum graveolens), French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), horseradish (Armoracia rusticana), mint (Mentha spp.), oregano (Origanum vulgare), parsley (Petroselinum crispum), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).
Culinary herbs may be sold fresh, dried, and as live plants. Potential fresh herb growers should talk to upscale restaurant chefs, caterers, or to produce brokers, especially those who sell to restaurants. Kentucky restaurants surveyed in 2006 indicated they were most interested in sourcing basil, chives, cilantro, parsley, and rosemary from local growers. Other herbs of specific interest to restaurants include horseradish, oregano, sage, tarragon, and thyme. Chefs purchasing fresh herbs will prefer a guaranteed supply of quality herbs throughout the year. In addition, fresh cut herbs may be sold to gift shops and natural food stores. Herbs are also excellent for early and late-season sales at farmers markets; however, these sales volumes may be highly variable. Kentucky producers have had some success in marketing greenhouse-grown herbs wholesale to major grocery chains. Direct marketing through roadside stands is also a possibility.
In general, field-grown herbs can be produced using similar cultivation techniques used for standard or organic vegetable crops. However, specific cultural requirements can vary depending on the herb. As a rule, herbs are easy to grow, tolerating a wide range of soils and growing conditions. Preferably, select a warm, sunny site with good soil drainage and few weed problems. Raised beds with plastic mulch and drip irrigation increase yields and produce a cleaner product. Herbs can be grown in soil beds under protected cultivation (i.e., greenhouse or high tunnels). Seeds can be directly sown into raised beds and thinned to a proper spacing, or the grower can choose to use transplants. Alternatively, plants can be grown in a greenhouse bench with a 6- to 8-inch-tall frame filled with an appropriate greenhouse substrate. Fresh herbs are produced in containers as point-of-sale garden transplants or to be sold for fresh kitchen herbs at farmer markets or groceries. Container-grown fresh herbs are most commonly produced under greenhouse conditions. Container size is usually 4 to 6 inches, and marketing may be enhanced by producing in “environmentally friendly” biocontainers.