The herb garden has been an important part of Japanese culture for thousands of years. Today, when we hear “herb” we tend to think of the spices we sprinkle on our food for flavor. However, Japanese herb plants usually have both culinary and medicinal value. Centuries ago, you could not run to the local clinic to treat illnesses, so these things were treated at home with fresh herbs from the garden. Continue reading to learn how to grow Japanese herbs in your own garden. You just may discover that you already are growing some traditional Japanese herbs and spices.
Up until the 1970s, plant imports were not very regulated. Because of this, for centuries immigrants to the U.S. from other countries, such as Japan, usually brought with them seeds or live plants of their favorite culinary and medicinal herbs.
Some of these plants thrived all too well and became invasive, while others struggled and died in their new environment. In other cases, the early American immigrants realized that some of the same herbs already grew here. Though today these things are much more regulated by government agencies, you can still create a Japanese herb garden no matter where you live.
The traditional Japanese herb garden, like the potagers of Europe, were placed close to the home. This was planned so that one could simply walk out the kitchen door and snip off some fresh herbs for cooking or medicinal use. Japanese herb gardens consisted of fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, and, of course, culinary and medicinal Japanese herbs and spices.
Like any herb garden, plants could be found in garden beds as well as in pots. Japanese herb gardens were laid out to not only be useful, but to also be aesthetically pleasing to all the senses.
While the Japanese herb garden layout is not really different from other herb gardens found around the world, the herbs for Japanese gardens do differ. Here are some of the most common Japanese herb plants:
Shiso (Perilla fructescens) – Shiso is also known as Japanese basil. Both its growth habit and herbal uses are very similar to basil. Shiso is used at almost all stages. The sprouts are used as garnish, the large mature leaves are used whole as wraps or shredded for garnish, and the flower buds are pickled for a favorite Japanese treat called hojiso. Shiso comes in two forms: green and red.
Mizuna (Brassica rapa var. niposinica) – Mizuna is a Japanese mustard green that is used in the same way as arugula. It adds a mildly peppery taste to dishes. The stalks are also pickled. Mizuna is a small leafy vegetable that grows best in shade to part shade and can be used in container gardens.
Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) – Also known as Japanese parsley, although all parts of the plant are edible, its leaves are most commonly used as a garnish.
Wasabina (Brassica juncea) – Another Japanese mustard green that adds a spicy flavor to dishes is wasabina. The tender young leaves are eaten fresh in salads or used in soups, stir fries or stews. It is used like spinach.
Hawk Claw chili pepper (Capsicum annuum) – Grown as an ornamental pepper worldwide, in Japan, Hawk Claw chili peppers are known as Takanotsume and are an important ingredient in noodle dishes and soups. The claw-shaped chili peppers are very spicy. They are usually dried and ground before using.
Gobo/Burdock root (Arctium lappa) – In the U.S., burdock is usually treated like a nuisance weed. However, in other countries, including Japan, burdock has highly prized as a valuable food source and medicinal herb. Its starchy root is chock full of vitamins and is used much like a potato. The young flower stalks are also used like artichoke.
Negi (Allium fistulosum) – Also known as Welsh onion, Negi is a member of the onion family that is traditionally used like scallions in many Japanese dishes.
Wasabi (Wasibi japonica “Daruma”) – Wasabi is a form of green horseradish. Its thick root is made into the traditional, spicy paste commonly found in Japanese recipes.
While mitsuba is not a new culinary herb, it is a discovery for most North Americans. Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) is a classic seasoning that is as popular in Asian cuisine as Italian and curly parsley are in Western dishes.
It's also known as Japanese parsley or white chervil, possibly due to its subtle flavor, a blend of Italian parsley and celery leaves, but it is not closely related to either one. Mitsuba's look and aroma are distinctive, and for the herb aficionado or aesthetically motivated cook, it is a great addition to the gourmet garden.
In Japan, mitsuba is added fresh or cooked to soups, salads, sukiyaki, sashimi, tempura batter, custards, rice, and vinegared foods. Enjoy cooking with all parts of this plant--its leaves, stems, seeds, and roots are edible. Fresh leaves and stalks can be added to a mixed green salad, parboiled and served as a vegetable, or stir-fried alone or with other vegetables or meat. Because mitsuba turns bitter when cooked for more than a few minutes, cook it lightly, or add it to cooked dishes just before serving. Japanese chefs often use a trio of leaves atop supple stems as an elegant garnish.
The Japanese are not alone in appreciating mitsuba's culinary virtues. Native Americans gathered the botanically related wild honewort (C. canadensis) , a woodland perennial native that grows from Manitoba to New Brunswick and south to Georgia. They used it as a seasoning herb and vegetable.
Though mitsuba is often grown as an annual, it is classified as a hardy perennial, suited to USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. It is one of the few culinary herbs to flourish in shade and part shade. It succeeds when planted between taller, sun-loving herbs whose foliage can provide shade.
Mitsuba is attractive in the garden its light green leaves darken as they grow larger and mature. The tiny, star-shaped flowers are unobtrusive and quickly turn to seed. In its native woodland habitat, it can grow to 3 feet, but in the herb garden, 1 to 2 feet tall is more likely. Height is determined by environmental conditions such as type of soil, climate, and whether it is grown in partial shade or full sun.
Plant mitsuba with other herbs of similar culture such as sweet cicely, chervil, bee balm, lamium, lungwort, violets, and woodland strawberries.
Plant mitsuba in moist, rich soil mixed with well-rotted compost. Sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep, in late spring and again in late summer or early autumn. Keep soil moist. In cold climates, start seed indoors and transplant in late spring. In frost-free climates, sow outdoors from fall through late spring, but avoid planting in the hot summer months. For a continuous supply of tender young leaves, sow in succession every six weeks. When plants are 3 inches tall, thin to about 6 to 9 inches apart. (The thinnings are delicious in salads.) Feed plants regularly with liquid fish emulsion diluted to half-strength.
Plants are ready for harvest about 50 days after sowing. Harvest by cutting the stems at ground level when they are about 5 inches tall. If you are growing mitsuba as a perennial, cut the stems for culinary use when they are 8 to 10 inches tall. For next year's crop, allow several plants to go to seed, or propagate by root division.
Carole Saville is a food and garden writer based in Albany, California.
Here are some of my favorite companion plants for the vegetable garden and what they can do for you. Each item on this list has specific benefits it can offer your garden, so pick and choose what works best for your space.
Chives and onions are great to plant throughout the vegetable bed, not just for their own value as garden edibles, but because they ward off both spider mites, the carrot fly, and aphids. Chives make a great addition to a spring mix bed because they discourage pests and then you can snip chives and greens at once for a yummy, complete salad.
Ocimum basilicum naturally deters whiteflies, the carrot fly, and the asparagus beetle.
While most people find the strong fragrance of basil pleasing, it is too intense for mosquitoes and flies and they will avoid the plant. Position basil plants near patios, garden benches, or hammocks—any outdoor space where you want to be able to relax without getting bugged! You can find out about more mosquito-repelling plants and learn how to make an anti-mosquito planter here.
Borago officinalis – also known as the “starflower” – is effective at deterring the tomato hornworm and the asparagus beetle. It’s a medicinal herb with edible leaves and adds a stunning splash of color to your garden.
Nepeta cataria might be a favorite of cats, but there are quite a few pests that hate it. It repels a long list of insects, including:
As you already know, this plant will definitely attract cats. If you use this catnip, you’ll need to create some kind of enclosure that will keep the cats away from this plant.
Coriandrum sativum is one of those herbs people either love or hate. There is no middle ground. Even if you are in the “cilantro tastes like soap” group, planing this little herb can keep away pesky bugs. Aphids, spider mites, and the Colorado potato beetle all hate this plant.
Dill, also known as Anethum graveolens, repels spider mites, squash bugs, and aphids, but attracts tomato hornworms, so be strategic about where you plant it. By growing dill at a distance from your tomatoes, hornworms will be attracted to the dill and drawn away from the tomatoes.
Spider mites, aphids, Japanese beetles, and even fleas hate garlic. It is such an effective way to deter pests that attack various plants that I like to scatter a few garlic plants throughout my garden, in addition to planting a designated garlic patch (I love garlic, in case you haven’t guessed). Bonus: it will also keep vampires away.
These aromatic herbs not only prevent pests, they also attract beneficial insects! Allow them to flower, and helpful pollinators will flock to your garden. Additionally, the intense fragrance of lavender, rosemary, and sage will cover up the scent of your precious veggies so that carrot rust flies, cabbage moths, and bean beetles won’t be able to find and devour them.
As an added bonus, there are so many fun projects you can make with these herbs. Lavender is a favorite of mine to use. Here’s how I harvest lavender to use for both recipes and crafts.
Mint, Mentha, is a great pest-fighter in the garden as it deters aphids, flea beetles, cabbage moths, and ants. That being said, be careful when growing mint around your other plants because it is invasive and can take over the whole garden if you’re not careful!
I suggest planting mint in pots and setting up the pots throughout the garden. This way, you’ll get a good amount of mint to harvest and use, and it will repel pests without infringing on the other plants in the garden. Everybody wins—except for the pests.
The Metha pulegium plant is in the mint family. It has a delightful odor to us humans, but it is too strong for bugs. It deters ants, gnats, fleas, mosquitos, flies, and even mice. If you have a gnat problem in your kitchen, bring in a potted pennyroyal plant.
The Rue plant – Ruta graveolens – is a strong-smelling ornamental plant. It has gorgeous yellow blooms and will dress up your garden beautifully. It deters cucumber and flea beetles, so plant it close to your cucumber plants.
The Tansy plant – Tanacetum vulgare – is another plant with bright yellow blossoms. While it does deter a huge list of pests naturally, such as ants, beetles, flies, squash bugs, cutworms, and small white bugs, it’s known as a noxious weed in 45 states. It’s known for taking over gardens and spreading fast. If you do want to plant it, be careful.
The Lycopersicon Esculentum plant deters such a long list of pests it’s too long to put here. Even if you don’t plan on harvesting the tomatoes, having the leaves around will keep out so many bugs that it’s worth it to put in your garden.
Wormwood – Artemisia Absinthium – acts as a deterrent to cabbage worms, slugs, carrot rust flies, black flea beetles, and white cabbage butterflies. Grow wormwood in your veggie patch near lettuce and cabbage to keep your greens safe. You can get varieties that thrive in either sun or shade, so choose the one that makes sense for your vegetable bed.
Wormwood also comes in many beautiful ornamental varieties such as Silver Brocade wormwood which has delicate silver-gray leaves, so it can pull double duty in the garden as an eye-catching ornamental and vegetable bodyguard.
by Matt Gibson
If you are gardening mainly for culinary reasons, there’s nothing better than having access to lots of fresh herbs. If you’re just getting your feet wet with gardening and plan to start off with a simple container garden where you can grow fresh herbs to cook with, you’re in luck. Fresh herbs are super easy to grow, and starting your own herb garden in containers is a perfect way for beginners to start getting their hands dirty. Not only is an herb container garden one of the easiest gardening tasks you can get started, herbs also have a high success rate. It will be tough to get discouraged about your harvest while you’re enjoying a delicious butter spread made with herbs that you grew yourself.
While pretty much all herbs require full sunlight exposure to thrive, it’s important to consider each plant’s irrigation needs if you want to grow your herbs together in the same containers. Rosemary, thyme, and sage all enjoy relatively dry conditions and therefore, they make good roommates in a large container. Basil and parsley, on the other hand, enjoy consistent moisture, so they work very well when grown together. Basil and parsley also enjoy the company of tarragon and cilantro in large containers. Or for a refreshing citrus bouquet, try pairing lemon verbena with lemon thyme.
Some herbs, however, don’t play well with others. Mint, for example, is a savage. It’s highly invasive when grown with any type of neighboring plant. For this reason, you should never plant mint in a container with other herbs. Mint will strangle whatever you plant it with and will overtake the container in no time at all. So be sure to plant all mint varieties by themselves. You will also want to keep different varieties of mint separated—not only in separate containers, but also far away from each other to avoid cross-pollination.
The most important factor when you’re growing herbs in containers is ensuring full sunlight exposure. Whether you are planning on situating your container garden indoors or outdoors, you will want to pick a location that gets at least eight hours of sunlight each day for the best possible growth performance. And though you can definitely have some success growing herbs indoors, your plants will perform much better outdoors if you have the room. You can place your pots just about anywhere that has good sunlight exposure, so whether you have a deck, a patio, or a balcony that gets the eight hours of needed sun, you are in business.
The second most crucial step for success is to be sure to pick your herbs regularly and correctly throughout the growing season. That way, you’ll get the most out of each herb that you grow. Don’t pick stems from the base, as this will encourage new growth that is too tall and not as densely covered in foliage. If you instead pick the tips of each stem—usually taking about an inch or two at most, depending on the size of the plant—then you will encourage a more well-rounded growth, with less stem length and more flavorful foliage.
Another important tip for your container garden is to avoid fussing too much over your herb plants. Most herbs produce foliage that contains the most flavor and fragrance if they’re grown in lean soil conditions with no added fertilizer. Instead of typical plant nutrition, use liquid seaweed or worm tea from your vermicomposting system to feed your herbs, especially early on in the growing season. Liquid seaweed and worm tea both provide the minerals and trace elements that your herbs need to produce thick, lush plants instead of weak, spindly ones.
A soilless potting mix is recommended for herbs, as it provides great drainage and ample space for roots to spread out as plants grow. Avoid overwatering as well, as most herbs thrive in relatively dry conditions. Be sure you know which herbs need more moisture and which don’t, then water accordingly. If you are planting some of your herbs in the same containers, make sure that you pair them up according to hydration preferences so you can maintain the appropriate moisture level for each plant.
If you are planning to grow your herbs as perennials, use extra large containers that provide at least five gallons of soil so that the roots can firmly establish themselves before winter frosts hit. You may choose to move your plants into the ground late in the summer, which will give the roots ample time to adjust and re-establish themselves before the season gets too cold.
You could also choose to treat your container herbs as annuals and throw them out at the end of each season, starting over with new plants each spring and fall. While growing herbs as annuals might be less cost effective, you are almost guaranteed to have a successful new crop each season, especially if you start anew each spring from seedlings.
Clay and ceramic containers may look pretty, but in the long run, plastic pots will last longer. Those ceramic and clay pots tend to crack and break over time due to the cycle of freezing and thawing that they will be exposed to outdoors.
Rosemary thrives in full sunlight and well-draining soil. This plant hates having wet roots, so ensure it receives proper drainage, and avoid overwatering. Rosemary likes hot, dry, and very sunny conditions, and it’s hardy in USDA zones 7-10. The fresh, sharp taste makes it an essential herb for Mediterranean cuisine.
Give basil plants full sunlight and lots of warmth. This herb needs well-draining soil so that its roots stay dry. Water once per day, preferably in the morning before sunlight exposure. A staple of Italian cooking, basil is available in many different varieties. Use large, five gallon containers when pairing basil with other herbs, or try growing more compact varieties in smaller containers.
Set thyme up for success by giving it full sunlight and well-draining soil. Like rosemary, thyme cannot stand having wet roots, so ensure your plants receive proper drainage, and avoid overwatering them. Thyme is hardy in USDA zones 4-10.
Mint is both highly invasive and highly productive. This hardy plant prefers shady areas and does not require full sunlight like most other herbs do. The only thing mint needs to thrive is a soil that is rich in organic matter. Water your plants regularly, and harvest mint often.
The more sunlight oregano gets, the more flavorful its leaves become. Oregano is drought tolerant and requires very well-draining soil. This spaghetti sauce staple requires great drainage and will not survive in wet soil conditions.
Chives require at least five hours of sunlight per day and moist soil conditions. Don’t let the soil dry out in chive containers. This herb needs soil that is rich in organic matter. Hardy in USDA zones 3-10, chives planted in containers can be left outdoors year-round. For culinary applications, chives are basically tiny onions. They are strong in flavor and fragrance. Try them in salads, soups, on baked potatoes, and as a garnish. Even the flowers are edible and quite tasty.
Cilantro, also known as coriander, is quick to flower. That means you’ll want to sow it from August to September, when it will be less prone to bolting. Cilantro is one of the few herbs that can use a little bit of shade to keep it from flowering too quickly, but it will do well in full sunlight as well. Keeping cilantro well watered and fed will also help prevent early bolting. Your cilantro plants will eventually flower, however, no matter what you do. Luckily, its flowers attract hoverflies, which eat aphids, so gardeners of cilantro win either way.
Give sage plants full sunlight exposure and well draining soil. Like rosemary and thyme, sage will struggle if its roots are constantly wet, so proper drainage is a must. Most varieties are hardy in USDA zones 4-10. In the kitchen, sage is great for seasoning poultry dishes.
Once established, parsley will produce for two years before it flowers and dies out. This classic seasoning plant is slow to get going, but once it does, it produces tons of fresh foliage. It likes more water than most herbs, and it’s one of the few that can use a bit of fertilizer. A light feeding of a slow-release, organic fertilizer should be added to the soil in early spring each year.
Here’s a list of quick tutorial videos for growing each of the herbs we recommend:
lovely and great gardening ideas.
Isn’t mitsuba marvelous? It’s not demanding, isn’t constantly plagued by pests and diseases, and it’s endlessly versatile in the kitchen.
Given its credentials, I think it’s only a matter of time until it becomes as common as parsley and cilantro in home gardens throughout the US.
Once you’ve plucked your first batch of Japanese honewort, please come back here and tell us about your experience. Did you run into any problems? Any tips for using up what I’m sure will be a robust harvest?
Did this guide leave you feeling ready to tackle the world of mitsuba? If so, you may want to check out some of our other guides on growing Umbellifers next:
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Kristine Lofgren is a writer, photographer, reader, and gardening lover from outside Portland, Oregon. She was raised in the Utah desert, and made her way to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two dogs in 2018. Her passion is focused these days on growing ornamental edibles, and foraging for food in the urban and suburban landscape.