These days, Tarragon can be purchased in most supermarkets. Tarragon (like most herbs) tastes best when it has been freshly cut. Therefore if you are a true epicurean, it is worth the effort to have a fresh stock of it in your garden.
French Tarragon has a far superior taste to that of Russian (or false) Tarragon. If you want to use it in your kitchen, it is the only one worth growing.
Finding plants (not the seeds!)
While Tarragon is not particularly difficult to grow, it may be quite difficult to get your colony started. This is because true French Tarragon rarely (if ever) is grown from seeds. This is because the plants never set seeds in temperate or cold zones.
Most Tarragon is grown from divisions of existing plants, or from rooting shoots from mature Tarragon plants. That means that you will have to find some actual plants to put in your garden.
If you are lucky, you may be able to buy some plants from a local nursery or garden centre.
My experience is that Tarragon plants are very hard to find at nurseries. You may have better luck getting part of a plant from a fellow gardener in your area.
Planting and Cultivation
Once you actually have your plants, the cultivation of Tarragon is actually pretty easy. It does not need to be coddled at all. In fact, it seems that the more you ignore it, the better it does. However, there are a few basics that you will need to know to be successful.
The most important step is to find a very sunny spot with well drained soil. Well-drained soil is the key here. While quite hardy, Tarragon is prone to root rot, so continuously wet soils will likely kill your plants. If you forget everything else you read here, remember that Tarragon will not tolerate wet or soggy roots.
(If all of your soil is soggy, don’t despair. Tarragon grows very well in pots. Just be sure that the media in the pots drains well.)
Once you have found the right spot, plant your young plants 45 cm (18 inches) apart. The root system becomes quite large so the plants need a lot of room. Be sure to plant in late spring after the danger of frost has passed.
Every 2-4 weeks, you can fertilize the plants. A good 20:20:20 fertilizer works well. However, any general plant/shrub fertilizer should do. Once you have established your plants, follow the simple maintenance rules below, and your Tarragon should be there for you every year.
Tarragon is a perennial herb. I like perennial herbs. This is because they come back year after year from the same root system. If you follow a simple maintenance regimen, your Tarragon should come back year after year.
- Feed with a good fertilizer from time to time. Like most herbs, Tarragon will need feeding during the growing period to reach its full flavour.
- Divide every 4 years. Tarragon has a root system that becomes quite large. In fact, the plants roots will literally strangle each other if they are not divided regularly, and planted in fresh soil. Most sources indicate that you should divide your plants every 4 years to maintain flavour and plant vigour. However, many growers divide their plants more frequently; even yearly. This division can be carried out in either late autumn or early spring. Alternatively, if you have access to new plants you may opt to start new plants every 4 years.
- Weed and water as required. Tarragon can tolerate very arid soil. That said, a little water now and then will certainly benefit your plants. However, if you have fairly regular rain you may not need to bother. Plants will benefit from removal of weeds. Remove weeds by hand while they are still small.
- Tarragon is only Half-Hardy. While Tarragon is somewhat hardy, it does not tolerate very cold winters (it is after all native to the middle-east). Therefore, if you have cold winters you should cut the plants down to an inch or so from the ground in late fall, and cover the roots with mulch. Straw or leaves will work well.
Harvest Tarragon shoots during the growing season as needed. The top 8-10 inches of the plant seem to have the most taste. Whole plants may be cut and dried at the end of the season. However, Tarragon retains much more flavour if it is chopped up and frozen inside of ice cubes.
As mentioned before, Tarragon is usually propagated from root divisions, or from cuttings from mature plants. Root division was discussed earlier
If you wish to propagate Tarragon from cuttings, the process is pretty straightforward. In early / mid summer, snip off about 3-4 inches of a main shoot or a side shoot where you see new tender growth. Pinch off all but the top two or 3 sets of leaves.
Carefully insert the cutting into a sterile growth medium. Soil less starting mix works well for this. In the first few weeks, mist the leaves a couple of times a day. The rootless plants are able to absorb some water through their leaves which gives them a better chance of surviving until they grow some roots. Keep the potting mix damp but not soggy. In 3-4 weeks, you should have a new plant!
Growing in Pots
As mentioned before, Tarragon ultimately develops a large root system. Therefore, if you choose to grow yours in a pot you should use one that is at least 30cm (12 inches) in diameter. 45cm (18 inch) pots are better.
Be sure to grow in a medium that drains well. Many have reported good success with using peat moss (or potting mix) with a generous amount of coarse sand incorporated into it. This allows for good drainage.
Since potting mix usually doesn’t contain compost, the only nutrients that are found in most mixes are the inorganic fertilizers that are added when they are blended. These nutrients will soon get used up, so you will have to fertilize your potted Tarragon more often than if it was grown in the ground. Every 2-3 weeks should suffice.
One of the advantages of pot cultivation is that you can bring your plants indoors when the weather turns cold. This works well because Tarragon is perennial and will grow year round. This enables you to have a year round source of this delicious herb. You can fertilize less frequently in winter months as the plants growth will be slower due to the fact that there is less light.