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Discover How to Grow Tarragon, The King of Herbs

  • Bob Styer
  • Herbs
French Tarragon In A Pot Outside

Ok, well, at least tarragon is the King of Herbs in France, but it doesn’t have that distinction in the rest of the world.  Basil, turmeric, and many other herbs carry that title depending on the country or region that you’re in.  In France, tarragon is among the four “fines herbes” favored in French cuisine.  The other three are chervil, parsley, and chives.  At any rate, let’s find out how to grow tarragon in pots or in the garden.

This staple of French cooking has an anise flavor, but it’s more complex than that.  You’ll also taste combinations of bitter and sweet, mint, eucalyptus, pepper, and vanilla.

It’s far more elegant than other anise-flavored herbs like fennel.  Tarragon is an ingredient in marinades, Béarnaise sauce, soups, and egg dishes.  It also pairs well with fish, beef, lamb, chicken, and asparagus.

Tarragon can be grown as an annual or a short-lived perennial (about three years at the most).  Like many herbs, growing tarragon in pots is a great way to get your harvest if you’re short of space or like to grow it that way.

Would you like to learn about other herbs? Check out our post “The Complete Guides to Growing Culinary Herbs” for links to those articles.

Types of Tarragon

There are three main types of tarragon, and they all grow 18 – 36 inches tall:

  • French Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa).  A member of the daisy family, this is a perennial that doesn’t produce viable seeds.  You must first get a plant and then get more plants by cuttings or root division of the original plant.  Early spring is the best time to cut and divide the plants.  French tarragon has a superior flavor to Russian or Mexican tarragon.  French tarragon leaves are darker, smoother, glossier, and more pungent than the other varieties. Now here’s a major secret about tarragon that isn’t know by everyone:  Be wary of tarragon seeds sold online or in stores since seeds only come from Russian or Mexican tarragon.  French tarragon doesn’t have viable seeds.
Russian tarragon with flowers
Russian tarragon with some flowers
  • Russian Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides).  Also a member of the daisy family, this plant is hardier than the French tarragon.  It could be grown from seed in areas too cold for French tarragon.  The flavor doesn’t compare to French tarragon and might have bitter overtones.  Some people use the Russian variety for cooking, but its mild flavor isn’t recommended.  The young leaves make an excellent addition to salads and other fresh foods.
The flower of Mexican tarragon for growing tarragon in pots
The flower of Mexican tarragon
  • Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida).  This plant tastes like French tarragon, but it isn’t true tarragon.  It’s related to marigolds and has flowers like marigolds, but the leaves are like tarragon.  Mexican tarragon grows from seed and is an acceptable substitute for French tarragon according to some opinions.

Despite cooking differences, all three types of tarragon have the same health features.  They’ve been used since ancient times for sleep problems, toothaches, menstrual issues, water retention, digestive issues, reducing blood sugar, and heart problems.  The essential oil can even fight staph and E. coli infections.

PET WARNING:  Fresh and dried tarragon are toxic to dogs, so if your dog ingests tarragon, call the vet immediately.  Symptoms could include diarrhea, vomiting, uncoordinated movement, excessive salivation, seizure, and coma.

Planting and Caring for Tarragon

This article will only deal with French tarragon since it’s the preferred variety.

Tarragon needs well-drained soil with some sand (for aeration) with a pH between 6.5 – 7.5.  To help the soil, mix 1 – 2 inches of well-aged compost into the top 6 – 8 inches.

The compost will feed the tarragon during its initial growth.  It also improves soil aeration and drainage.  When mature, the plants will reach a height of 24 – 36 inches with a spread of 12 – 15 inches.

As mentioned earlier, French tarragon has to propagate by cuttings or root division.  You’ll have to buy living plants if you don’t have a friendly neighbor already growing tarragon.

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Survival Garden Seeds - Russian Tarragon Seed for Planting - Packet with Instructions to Plant and Grow Big Flowering Herbs in Your Home Vegetable Garden - Non-GMO Heirloom Variety
Survival Garden Seeds - Russian Tarragon Seed for Planting - Packet with Instructions to Plant and Grow Big Flowering Herbs in Your Home Vegetable Garden - Non-GMO Heirloom Variety
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Growing Tarragon by Root Division

If using root division, dig up an established plant with a spade so it exposes the roots and crown.  Use a knife to cut the root crown into two or more sections.  Please don’t cut the sections with larger gardening tools like shovels or hoes.

They’re too cumbersome and could damage the plants.  Root division is easiest in the early spring when the new shoots are coming up.  Prune away any dead roots or other debris.

Transplant new shoots into pots or a growing bed to give them more growth.  Beds should have the soil prepared down to 6 – 8 inches.

The plants will be ready to transplant to their final location in a couple of weeks.  Of course, if you’re growing in pots the divided tarragon could be grown in its final pot to save a step.

Growing Tarragon by Cuttings

Stem cuttings should be 4 -8 inches long and taken from below a node.  Remove the lower third of the leaves and dip the cut end in the rooting hormone.  Next, plant the treated cutting in sterile sand mixed with 1/3 vermiculite or potting soil.  Keep the soil moist but not soggy during the rooting process.

Rooting is faster with the hormone, but it isn’t necessary.  Roots will also form if you place the cut end in a glass with about an inch of water.  Replace the water every few days to keep it clean.

Once the roots have formed in 3 – 4 weeks, transplant the cuttings to a pot or the garden after the last spring frost.  The plants in the garden should be 18 – 24 inches apart, with rows 2 – 3 feet apart.

Growing Tarragon by Layering

This is an easy way to propagate French tarragon from an established plant.  Bend one of the stems down until it touches the ground.  Next, anchor the branch to the ground with a forked stick or a piece of stiff bent wire.

The anchor point should be about 4 inches from the top of the stem.  Roots will form in about four weeks, and the branch to the original plant can be cut and the anchor removed.  The new plant is now ready for transplanting.

Growing Conditions for Tarragon

This herb prefers full sun but not in hot climates.  If the temperature exceeds 90o F, plant it in partial shade.  Shade screens will work if you don’t have any other options.

When tarragon plants are young, keep the soil moist until you see new green top growth.  Tarragon is drought-resistant once the plants are mature.

At that point, the soil can dry between waterings but only stay dry for a short period.  The plants hate standing water or overwatering.  Water the plants about once a week, but more often in arid climates.

Prune the plants while they’re growing to help them become fuller.  Also, pinch off any flower stalks that form to keep the leaves at full flavor.

Overwintering Tarragon

Tarragon has some winter hardiness and grows best in Zones 4 – 8.  The plants will go dormant when cool weather comes, and the leaves will turn yellow.

Then cut the stems back to 3 – 4 inches long.  In areas with cold winters, cover the soil with a 2 – 4 inch deep mulch of pine boughs, straw, or dead leaves to protect them.

At the end of winter, when the worst weather has passed, remove the mulch and cut back any remaining stems to 1 inch long.  Add a layer of well-rotted manure or compost to give the shoots their initial feeding.

After 2 – 3 years, the plants stop being productive and need replanting.  Do this by dividing the plants or rooting some cuttings.

French tarragon doesn’t need fertilizer while growing since its flavor intensifies in nutrient-poor soils.  Tarragon needs compost or organic fertilizer only when it’s first planted or sprouted in the spring.

Harvesting and Storing Tarragon

The best harvest time is from late spring to early fall.  Fresh tarragon is best, and it will keep in the refrigerator for 2 – 3 weeks.  To do this, wrap it in a wet paper towel and seal it in a plastic bag.

To freeze tarragon, put the sprigs in freezer bags.  Once frozen, it will stay for six months.

To air-dry tarragon, tie the stems in bunches and hang them upside down in a cool, dry, dark place.  After drying, remove the leaves and store them in airtight containers.

You can also strip off the leaves from fresh tarragon by running your fingers down the stem.  Be careful because the leaves bruise easily.

Dry the leaves in a microwave by placing the leaves on paper towels.  Run the microwave for one minute.  Next, check the leaves for dryness.  Continue microwaving for 10-second intervals until the leaves are dry and crunchy.

Tarragon can also be dried in a warm oven (less than 200o F) or an herb dehydrator.  Place the leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper for oven drying.  Keep the oven door open to watch the leaves and prevent scorching.

Dried tarragon will stay in storage for one year.  It doesn’t spoil after one year; the flavor gets so weak that it’s not worth using.

Companion Plants for Tarragon

  • This is one herb that’s a good pest-repellant for most vegetables.
  • Most gardeners feel that tarragon improves the flavor of eggplant.
  • Chives, garlic, and cilantro will protect tarragon from spider mites.
  • Tarragon likes to grow near cilantro, basil, and parsley since they need similar growing conditions.
  • Since they have different growing conditions, rosemary, oregano, sage, and thyme don’t grow well with tarragon.

Pests and Diseases of Tarragon

Tarragon is typically pests-free since it repels nearly all insects.  But spider mites can sometimes be problematic.  Remove spider mites by spraying them with water or treating them with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap.

Sometimes tarragon will suffer from powdery mildew or rust.  The mildew looks like a white powder on the leaves, and it will cause the leaves to shrivel.

Remove the affected leaves and burn them or throw them in the trash.  To solve this problem, water the plants more and provide more cooling shade.

Rust looks like orange, yellow, or black spots or even blisters on the leaves.  It could also distort the stems and make them look pale.  Remove the infected plants and burn them or throw them in the trash.  Spray the plants with neem oil or organic insecticidal soap to prevent rust.

Overwatering causes root rot, which is a common problem with plants.  Remove any plants that have damage from root rot, and decrease the amount of water the plants are getting.  If you have any plants growing around standing water, move them to a better spot with well-drained soil.

Final Thoughts

In many areas, it can be challenging to find fresh French tarragon.  It could become a money crop for enterprising gardeners, especially when combined with the other “fines herbes.”  People with a taste for French tarragon can’t do without it.

Last update on 2024-07-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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