To grow tarragon is not necessarily difficult. But there are some facts you should be aware of to increase your chances of success. And some of these facts may actually surprise you.
Tarragon is a perennial herb hailed as the most important herb of them all in French cuisine. Tarragon is however also a somewhat misunderstood herb.
And it usually comes down to understanding the differences between different tarragon varieties. Here today we will focus on how to grow tarragon of the Russian (Artemisia dracunculoides Pursch) and the classic French (Artemisia dracunculus) variety.
There is a third variety, Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) better known as Mexican Marigold Mint. And if you live in a hot climate this is the variety for you. Mexican tarragon - also known as Texas tarragon - is used as a substitute for French tarragon and is primarily grown in hot climates. Whereas the French tarragon has a tendency to stop growing when it gets too hot, the Mexican variety thrives in hot climates and plants grow even during the hotter times of the year. French tarragon on the other hand can survive hot summers, but as a herb it prefers mild summers and cold winters.
Many people have planted tarragon seeds and rejoiced as their new tarragon plant grows and thrives into a beautiful herb plant. But then their joy of growing tarragon turns into disappointment when it is time to harvest the herb. The flavor and aroma is not quite there.
But it is not something you did or that growing tarragon is difficult. And it has nothing to do with the merits of growing tarragon as a herb.
You have have simply been growing tarragon of the Russian variety that is indeed milder in aroma and sometimes even leaves a bitter aftertaste.
How can I be so sure that you planted Russian and not French tarragon?
It is quite simple, it is not possible to grow the culinarily hailed French tarragon from seed as the plant produces sterile flowers.
French tarragon needs to be grown from cuttings or root division. The seed packets you see in stores are, as you may have guessed by now, Russian tarragon seeds.
- Grow Tarragon – French or Russian?
- Growing tarragon from cuttings and seeds
- How to care for your French tarragon plant
- Preparing you tarragon plants for winter
- Harvest and store tarragon
- How to use tarragon
- Problems when you grow tarragon
Grow Tarragon – French or Russian?
The tarragon plant is an open growing loosely formed herb with narrow dark green leaves and grows to a height of about 60-80 cm (20-30 inches). But this is in many ways where the similarities end.
There are almost as many differences between Russian and French tarragon as there are similarities.
Most people prefer French tarragon to the Russian variety simply because it is the classic herb. But there are also gardeners that prefer the milder taste of the Russian variety or choose to grow the Mexican variety due to a hot climate. And after all, each variety serves a different but useful purpose in cooking.
This article will primarily focus on how to grow, care for, harvest and use French tarragon.
We will however also cover how to grow Russian tarragon and point out the main similarities and differences between the two herbs.
Growing tarragon from cuttings and seeds
If you are planning to grow tarragon at home you first need to decide if you want to grow French tarragon or Russian tarragon.
The two varieties of herbs are similar but they do have different needs and are also grown in different ways.
Most gardeners opt for French tarragon as it is the classical version we know from French cooking. The taste is sweeter than the Russian tarragon but there is an anise or licorice flavor undertone that some people dislike.
The Russian variety is on the other hand milder in aroma but there is a lingering aftertaste that some people perceive as bitter.
Russian tarragon do however have the advantage that you can grow the plant from seed. And it is visually an equally if not more impressive looking plant.
How to grow french tarragon in your herb garden
French tarragon cannot be grown from seed. Instead you need to grow it from stem cuttings, root cuttings, root division or by simply buying a small plant from a local gardener.
1. Growing French tarragon from stem cuttings
I grow and plant tarragon from cuttings every season. But it is not as easy as just placing a basil cutting in a glass of water and watching the white roots grow.
I do not use rooting hormone for my cuttings as I use my herbs in the kitchen. Please do contact me if you know of an effective, organic and food safe rooting hormone suitable for tarragon growing.
I find that creating a small greenhouse using plastic bags works best for me. Still, I always plant more tarragon cuttings than I need as there is no guarantee that they will all develop roots.
1. Use a pair of clean garden scissors to cut branches from the plant.
15 cm (6 inches) is a good size. Cut the branches at the semi-hard wood part of the branch.
At the very base you have the woody stems. At the other end of the branch you have the new growth with soft tips. You want to make your cut somewhere in between where the branch is firm but not wooden.
2. Gently remove the leaves from the lower half of your stem cuttings.
3. Now insert the cuttings into a pot with regular potting soil and water thoroughly.
If there is a lot of new growth at the top of the cutting, tip you stem cutting with a pair of scissors just above a lower pair of leaves below.
4. Next insert 3 longer sticks into the soil.
Place the sticks at the edge of the pot and position the sticks in the shape of a triangle.
5. Place a plastic bag over the top of the pot.
Make sure that the sticks prevent the plastic from touching the leaves.
6. Use a rubber band or piece of string to tighten the plastic bag to the base of the pot.
7. Finally, make a couple of small holes in the plastic bag for ventilation.
And there you have it, you have created a mini greenhouse that will provide a good growing environment for your tarragon cuttings. By tipping the cutting we try to promote root growth over growing new shoots.
2. Dividing your tarragon plants
I find that early spring is the best time for dividing tarragon. Your plants are full of life and energy and cannot wait to grow.
Gently squeeze your plants from their pots or dig them out of their growing place.
Now simply divide the root system into equal size plants and plant in pots or in your garden bed.
Dividing the root itself is quite easy. Just make sure to use a well drained soil with plenty of compost or organic matter to give your new plants the best possible start.
3. Buying a French tarragon plant
We all have to start somewhere and sometimes it is easier and better to buy a healthy and strong plant from a reputable garden center.
Replant your French tarragon herbs in a larger pot or container when you get home. You want to make sure that the root system has room to grow and often plants that you buy have a tendency to be on the verge of being pot bound.
Use a well drained soil and mix in a generous helping of compost or organic matter.
How to care for your French tarragon plant
French tarragon likes a spot with sun to partial shade where it is protected from the wind. But not a spot that is too hot. Full sun during the morning that turns into half shade during the hotter parts of the day works best for us. This is another reason to consider planting French tarragon in pots that are easy to move.
If you live in a climate with hot summers and mild winters you may find that Mexican tarragon is a better alternative for you. Whereas French tarragon has a tendency to stop growing when it gets too hot, the Mexican variety plant continues to grow even under hot conditions.
French tarragon requires a well-drained fertile soil with plenty of organic matter. Planting tarragon in soil that is too compact will lead to wet soil and will thwart the herbs development and may even lead to root rot. Here using a raised garden bed will help with drainage.
French tarragon plants can grow big and established plants respond well to being divided into smaller plants every couple of years.
If you plant French tarragon in a pot it is better to water the plant using a water bath. Watering from above will unnecessarily risk compacting the soil and increasing the risk of root rot.
Pot planted French tarragon should be repotted and given fresh soil at least every other year. There is no need to replace all the soil. One alternative is to use a bigger pot and increase the soil level. Even better, this repotting can be often planned to coincide with well needed root divisions of established plants.
Do not overwater your tarragon plant. French tarragon much prefers an occasional mild dry out to constant overwatering. Check with your finger and water when the soil is dry 3 cm deep (1 inch). If you have grown other herbs like rosemary, thyme or oregano in the past you will know that too much water will sometimes harm more than it helps.
As the plant develops you should continuously harvest the leaves to use in cooking or store for later use. Continues harvesting stimulates growth and helps the plant develop and grow stronger.
How to grow Russian tarragon
Unlike French tarragon you can grow the Russian variety from seed.
To tarragon from seed you sow the seeds in starter pots indoors early spring (March – April). Sow your seeds on the surface using a lean potting soil.
As the seedlings start to develop, move the pots to a spot with good light that is not too hot. If the growing environment is too hot with plenty of sunlight you risk producing weak and leggy seedlings. Focus on providing good light and keep the developing seedlings in a room temperature environment of approximately 15-20 degrees Celsius (60-70 F).
Given normal to good conditions you should have strong seedlings to transplant outdoors about 6-10 weeks later (May – June). When the seedlings reach about 10 cm (4 inches tall) they can be transplanted outdoors.
Always spend a week or two hardening your plants before moving them outdoors permanently.
Russian tarragon grows well in a well drained leaner soil and you should leave approximately 30–40 cm (12-15 inches) between seedlings. Growing tarragon of the Russian variety will give you bigger plants compared to growing the French version. And when you are growing tarragon you need to allow space for the plant to develop a healthy root system.
Preparing you tarragon plants for winter
When you grow tarragon in pots you should protect your plants as winter approaches. Neither French nor Russian tarragon would be considered delicate herbs, still you need to make some arrangements to help your plants survive winter to thrive another year.
Do not be overprotective and bring your pots inside your house during winter. I once lost several plants as I thought it would be a great idea to bring them indoors into our heated garage. Tarragon can cope with a colder climate; it just may benefit from a bit of help in freezing temperatures.
You can keep your tarragon pots covered outdoors or in an unheated garage, greenhouse or conservatory. Just make sure you harvest all the leaves you need well before the first frost (at least 4 weeks) and then leave the plant to wither down to its winter slumber at its own pace.
If freezing temperatures you should protect your pots by covering them with an insulating layer of for example bubble wrap and raise them off the ground. The tarragon plant does not need water as it rests and slumbers through winter.
Harvest and store tarragon
Harvest time for garden tarragon is during the growing season from spring to early fall. But it is wise to let young plants get established before harvesting leaves. And as we enter late fall to winter the plant needs to be left alone.
The best way to use tarragon is of course to pick the leaves fresh and use them in your cooking. Garden to table is a beautiful thing. Pick the leaves one by one or cut fresh sprigs using a pair of scissors if needed.
But you can also harvest tarragon and store for later use. You can choose to dry or freeze the tarragon leaves. Did you know that dry tarragon leaves have a more intense aroma and flavor than the fresh leaves. But as tarragon is an aromatic herb this can work both ways as you sometimes just want to add a subtle layer of flavor.
Dried leaves should be stored in an airtight container in the dark for longer durability. And always make sure that your leaves are completely dry before freezing them.
Do remember that French tarragon is a very aromatic and potent herb and that a little can go a long way. Store your French tarragon leaves in sensible portion size parcels for ease of use.
How to use tarragon
As you most likely already know tarragon is a must have ingredient for bernaise and hollandaise sauces. But tarragon can do so much more.
Tarragon goes really well with fish, meat and all things involving eggs. Adding fresh tarragon to an omelette or scrambled eggs for a sunday brunch is a real treat.
Tarragon flavored oils and vinegars are also favorites. Simply add branches of tarragon to your oils or vinegars to infuse a wonderful layer of flavor. Keep the mix at room temperature and do a taste test every other day or so to find the correct balance of flavor for you.
Problems when you grow tarragon
When you grow tarragon you are often spared from problems with fungal diseases and other problems. It is however good to be aware of a few pest problems that can occur.
Same as with many other herbs tarragon can suffer from powdery mildew and downy mildew. If you see the tell tale white powdery deposits on the leaves you should consider growing in a cooler location and remember to keep the soil evenly moist.
As for companion planting tarragon does well with other plants that share similar soil conditions. Further it is believed that the strong aroma of tarragon helps repel pests and insects. This aroma factor is also cited with regards to growing garlic and my own anecdotal experience does support the claim.
My final word here today will be from my mother. She told me never to grow tarragon next to parsley. And I live by that – but I leave it up to you to decide for yourself.
Helpful resources: Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University University of Illinois Extension