5 Fun Spices You Can Grow. Not Herbs … SPICES!

I think you’re officially ready to graduate from growing herbs … to growing spices. That is my opinion as someone who knows you not at all.  Here are 5 you can grow just about no matter where you live.

About 5 years ago on a plane flying home from Memphis, Tennessee my mother tried to stump me with a magazine quiz about food.  “What’s the difference between an herb and a spice??!!!”,   “What’s a plant that is BOTH an herb and a spice??!!”.  I didn’t get a chance to answer her because by the time I opened my mouth, Betty’s “I hate flying” medication kicked in and she’d begun to drool.

It’s a common thing to confuse herbs and spices, but they’re definitely different and both very important.  Without the both of them a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken wouldn’t be nearly as exciting.  Well it kind of would because anytime food comes in a bucket it’s exciting.

The easiest way to explain the difference between herbs and spices is to say:

Herbs are leaves of plants.

Spices are anything other than leaves of the plant.  (stems, seeds, roots, tubers)

This weekend I’m bunking down with my seed catalogues and planning out this year’s vegetable garden with an entire plot dedicated to spices.  I already grow a fair amount of spices, but having then all in one place will be … I don’t know … fun.  It might be too early to start planting your vegetable garden but it isn’t too early to start fantasizing about it. And really what is life without a little fantasy?

I’ll tell you what it is, it’s a life where you aren’t having dinner with Idris Elba. So a life that sucks.

Here are 4 spices I already grow and 1 I’m adding to my collection this year.  (Some are perennial and some you have to plant every year.)

5 Spices You Can Grow



If you grow cilantro you also grow coriander.  It’s one of the few plants that produces both useable leaves and seeds.  So herbs and spices!  Take that my drooling mother.

Coriander seeds can be harvested by pulling them off of the plant once it’s flowered, gone to seed and started to dry.

What to use coriander in:  If you’re adding cumin or cilantro to a recipe chances are you can throw in some coriander too.

Coriander is a self seeding annual.

Buy seeds here.


I first realized you could grow your own paprika a few years ago when one of my fellow gardeners mentioned doing it.  Prior to that I never even thought about what paprika even was, where it came from or how to actually grow it.

Paprika is just a dried, ground up pepper.  A … sweet paprika pepper.  They’re a small – medium sized pepper and just one plant will give you a fair amount of peppers and therefore paprika.  It was one of my favourite things to grow and do last year.

What to use paprika in?  Well, I don’t know anyone who makes potato salad without topping it with paprika. Also dust any poultry you cook with it for flavour but mostly to get a good colour on your skin.

Peppers are a perennials up to zone 9 but they’re mainly grown as annuals everywhere else. If you want you can try to bring the plant in and overwinter it but really … is it worth it?

Buy seeds here.


Cumin seeds are one of the main ingredients in chili powder.  I always use chili powder AND cumin in my chili recipe.  Seeds can be used crushed or powdered but always, always toast them first.

THIS is the spice that’s going to be new to me this year.  From what I’ve seen the plant looks similar to a cilantro plant and the flowers heads look similar as well.

What to use cumin in? Chili, Indian cooking, Mexican cooking, almost any time you’re using hot peppers or cilantro a bit of cumin will work.

Cumin is a self seeding annual.

Buy seeds here.


Yes!  Saffron!!!  Otherwise known as the plutonium of the spice world. A little does a lot and it’s wildly expensive.  The thing is, once you know how it grows, the price of saffron doesn’t seem all that crazy.

Saffron is the stamens from one very specific, fall flowering crocus.  Like other crocuseses, croci??, crocuses???, they will multiply.  So your first year you may only get a few stamens but as the years go by and your plants increase in size and number you’ll have enough saffron to feel rather wealthy.

I grew saffron a few years ago and harvested some, but the next spring they didn’t sprout again and I kind of forgot where I planted them (in large pots) so that was the last time I harvested my own saffron, lol. I bought more bulbs this year but haven’t got them in the ground yet (they’re supposed to be planted in the fall) so fingers crossed that I actually have success this time. Although all signs point to me  not harvesting saffron again, lol.

Saffron bulbs are perennials in zones 5-8.

What to use Saffron in? Potato soup, fish dishes, chicken dishes, bread, and desserts.

Get bulbs here. (note these are most successful when planted in the fall, but you can try planting them in late winter/early spring if you can work the soil)


I grow cayenne peppers for their heat obviously.  Cayenne peppers are relatively hot you see.  Just a good amount of hot.  Not so much that eating one would get you a billion views on YouTube but not so mild you’d get zero views.

Cayenne peppers grow like any other hot pepper.  To use them you can let them dry whole, freeze them, or dry them then chop them or grind them.  Chopped will get you hot pepper flakes, grinding them will get you cayenne pepper powder.

Peppers are a perennials up to zone 9. (see Paprika peppers above)

What to use Cayenne Pepper in? My go-to recipes that use cayenne pepper are my Curried Chicken Salad, Sweet Potato fry dipping sauce and my Kansas City Rib Rub recipe.  But cayenne pepper can be added to ANYTHING you want to add some flavour and heat to.

Buy seeds here.

Now if you’ll excuse me Ryan Gosling is waiting on the couch for me because he’s really excited to go through the seed catalogues.  He’s going to be so upset when I tell him we have to cut it short because I’m having dinner with Idris later.

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  1. Barbara says:

    I’ve been gathering saffron for years from bulbs I planted in Spring. It blooms in Autumn, unlike our familiar Spring crocus. Certainly give it another try!

  2. CeeBee says:

    What about black peppercorns?! We use so much of those and they are so expensive to buy.

    • Karen says:

      Pepper is a hot weather crop. So it can really only be grown in hot places unless you’re incredibly dedicated to growing peppercorns. :) It takes a couple of years for the plant to produce peppercorns so it’s a bit of a “thing”. Unless you live somewhere really hot! Like India. :) ~ karen!

  3. Marna says:

    That was great! Did not know about the paprika especially. Thanks :)

  4. Jacquie Gariano says:

    On your list for “Blue Monday” should be seed catalogs. I love to get them and then spend a day or more going through them to dream garden. I end up with so much more than I can do with my limited space. We have grown peppers for paprika and I have kept them whole and ground them when I need paprika, really fresh ( I too would like to know how to smoke it) ( maybe your next project this summer ???) We’ve grown cilantro but for some reason I never harvested the seeds. I’ll try that this year. I’ve grown dill but it is so invasive that I have to grow it in a container. Off to read more garden catalogs. Thanks for the wonderful info.

  5. Gigi says:

    For all you cilantro=soap followers out there, I feel ya. But there is hope in sight. I too hated the taste of cilantro in anything, the only one in my family of 10. I grew tired of having to make special, cilantro-less homemade salsa and other foods just for me. Sooo, I began to eat micro amounts of fresh cilantro and gradually worked my way into loving- craving it every summer. It didn’t even take a whole summer to become acclimated to it. Now, we are constantly trying subsequent sowings, and different types because here in Missouri, as soon as it gets hot it starts getting leggy then bolts, working it’s way to coriander. If only that cure worked for Okra—can’t stomach the slimy stuff.

    • Penny says:

      I see I’m a year late with this reply. Oh, well, here goes: you can stop okra from being the devil’s snot-tubes simply by topping and tailing them as usual and then dropping them into a bowl of water with 4 tablespoons of white vinegar. I have no idea *how* it works, but it does!

  6. Jody says:

    This year I’m going to grow horseradish. I thought they were a type of radish but they are a perennial where the root is shaved to make the condiment. Horseradish can be invasive so into a pot it will go.

    • Karen says:

      It is invasive. It’s all over my garden and digging it up doesn’t seem to matter. If you leave even one bit of root in the ground it’ll come back. It’s worse than a dandelion! But it is fun to make horseradish. ~ karen!

      • Eileen says:

        A friend once bought a house with a garden that had been taken over by some strange leafy plant. Turned out to be horseradish. Which she hates. It took years and continued vigilance to “root it out.” (ha) I have been trying to grow it in big pots…success rate: meh….

  7. Sarah McDonnell says:

    does sassafras grow up there?? They are lovely, umbrella shaped trees with leaves that make file gumbo and bark that makes root beer. Also, sumac for za’atar . Do those count as spices?? So consider them on your list. Oo! And elderberry!! They are pretty and useful. Sort of like Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island. Smoked paprika is so Ginger.

  8. Becky says:

    Does coriander taste like cilantro?
    I’m in the ” cilantro tasted like soap” group, and wouldn’t want to grow soap seeds.

    • Karen says:

      Not to me they don’t. Coriander is sweeter and something you could put in desserts even. BUT … I like cilantro so I might not be the best judge. :) ~ karen!

    • Donna says:

      Both taste pretty bad to me, like cheap soap powder, but I notice that the seeds are a little less likely to have that taste. But it is a genetic based problem, no cure in sight yet, so I just avoid both. I think life is too short and there are millions of really good things to eat in this world, so why eat something you don’t like? My motto; try everything (except for foods that gross you out the minute you think about them, like raw fish eyeballs I inadvertently ordered in Japan) and then eat what tastes good to you.

  9. Meg says:

    I am so excited about saffron. I’ve been amazed by saffron since a friend’s wedding years ago, where they served saffron and pistachio ice cream. It was unbelievable.

    I’m sure you’ll tell us if you have success with all of these, including cumin and the re-attempt at saffron; I can’t wait!

    *yearning for a garden intensifies*

  10. Jan in Waterdown says:

    If you like toasted cumin seeds, sprinkle them on root veggies before roasting….. like carrots and rutabaga. Tastes and smells divine!

  11. Lynn says:

    Wow I just never even thought of even trying to grow Cayenne Pepper, Paprika or heaven forbid Saffron. It just never crossed my mind to even try.
    I love all 3 of them smoked Paprika is heavenly, Saffron is just so expensive I use it sooo rarely.
    Would love to know correct way to smoke Paprika if anyone knows?
    I can not handle Cilantro I guess that’s why I am not fond of Coriander go figure .
    Karen is a fantastic teacher.

  12. Shannon Cruz-Herr says:

    What a fascinating and empowering article! Question: For converting the peppers into spices (cayenne and paprika) do you use the whole dried pepper or just the seeds?

  13. Oh…good one! Now you have to tell us how to “smoke” (not in cigarette form) our paprika because that is my favorite to use in the kitchen. Just looking at the bottle of smoked paprika is kinda sexy.

    I purchased one of those inside, water only, light, plant growers you recommended and will be planting tomatoes on one side and lettuce on the other this weekend. Any advice will be appreciated, otherwise I’ll just follow the directions.

    Thanks, Karen.

  14. Eileen says:

    I tried growing caraway once. The plant produced prodigious amounts of seeds, but refused to relinquish them. So I ended up with a bagful of twiggy caraway and after trying to pick the seeds out every time I needed some…the rest went to compost.

  15. Kerri Bailey says:

    I do not agree with you on what is an Herb. Herbs are not just leaves, you don’t know what you are talking about. Stop spreading wrong facts.

  16. Leslie Wallace-Munce says:

    Wow you taught me something new

  17. Mary W says:

    I can’t eat cilantro (lack enzymes) so it tastes like detergent and cumin tastes like a wet dog smells. SO, I wish you could tell me how to grow Madagascar Vanilla other than moving to Madagascar. I bake and vanilla beans are so expensive. Never tried Saffron since I didn’t want to really love something that costs that much. HELP with vanilla and I’ll be forever grateful.

  18. Tarra says:

    Coriander/dill in flower also attracts beneficial bugs. Sowing small patches along the edges & corners of raised beds works well. If you put some seeds in around the edges of a garlic bed when planting in the the fall you can get some early herb. Coriander in flower is beautiful behind a row of beets or red chard. Dry stalks of coriander/dill/chevril can be used as mulch and will sprout a few more volunteers in place. Haven’t bought coriader or dill seeds in years! I’ll add cumin this year too

  19. Jen says:

    We are on the same wavelength, Karen. I’m growing cumin and paprika for the first time (always grow cilantro and cayenne) and excited to smoke the paprika peppers because smoked paprika is next level awesome and we use it on almost everything (soooo good in eggs).

  20. ChrisC says:

    You can also grow your own turmeric.It grows like a ginger plant.I grow mine in a large planter.Just make sure you buy it from an organic grocery store.

  21. Melissa says:

    Thanks Karen! Now I will have my own coriander! Which I never seem to be able to find at the store when I need it. Add Spice Girl to your list of accomplishments. ;)

    • Karen says:

      Hahahaha!!! Now we’re going to have to come up with a Spice name for me. Stuffy Spice? Doer Spice? Sarcastic Spice? Also, apparently there are different varieties of cilantro some more prized for their seeds (coriander) than their leaves so research it a bit. ~ karen!

  22. Jackie Johnson says:

    I did not know the difference between herbs and spices, although I have grown both thru out the years. Thanks for this new piece of knowledge.

  23. Anna Lee says:

    Here is a great way to use a lot of paprika. This is from my mom’s handwritten recipe. Note we call this Zagadeener because we were Americans in Germany and didn’t know how to spell anything but the correct spelling is Szegediner.
    4 yellow onions
    olive oil
    4 cloves garlic
    fennel or caraway
    round steak or pork steak
    bottle of beer
    sour cream
    sliced pickles
    toast or crackers
    This all goes in a big pot and cooks all day.

    4 big yellow onions sliced thin and sauteed in olive oil
    4 entire cloves of garlic chopped fine and put in with onions.
    Add a spoonful of fennel? or that other hungarian spice…..
    Slice up round steak and pork steak thin and add
    Might be about 5 pounds of meat all together.
    Let this cook for awhile . Add about 4-6 T of good paprika
    Add a bottle of beer. Cook for awhile
    Add a lot of canned broth to fill the pot up. Cook for a couple of hours.
    Add a can or two of sauerkraut. Cook some more. Just before serving add a carton of sour cream. It should be very dark red and taste tangy. Serve it with big sliced pickles and toast or crackers.

    • Demetra says:

      I LOVE this recipe! The normal ness of it sounds like your mom just telling you what she did so you could do it. Like my grandma would have done. I have loads of crocuses coming up already in Memphis. I’m gonna be harvesting saffron!! My hubby will be so happy!

    • Karen says:

      Sounds good! Perfect winter meal. ~ karen!

    • Jacquie Gariano says:

      This sounds so great. I’m going to try it this week. We need something warm and filling here in VT. Thanks for the recipe.

  24. Merrilee says:

    I’m planting a purple garden! I have no clue why I decided it was important to have a “theme” this year but why not?! So I’ve got planned eggplant, tomatoes, even peppers. But I cannot find purple pumpkins! If anyone has seeds or knows where to get seeds please let me know! And I now want to try a container of cumin! Tried curry last year and it was both beautiful and delicious.

    • Idaho Girl says:

      Last year I grew purple tomatillos, so add that to your list.

    • Carole Badger says:

      Many years ago I grew “royal purple beans”. Made it much easier to see them among the green leaves when time to pick. Also had lovely lavender flowers. Good luck with your garden.

    • june says:

      I’ve never seen true purple pumpkin. You can find a blue-gray variety called Jarrahdale thru a number of sellers. Just google the name to see a number of sellers including Burpee and Johnny’s.

  25. Mary says:

    Hi Karen, you have inspired me to plant crocus for saffron. The last package I bought was $30/ounce. I did not buy a whole ounce. Here’s my favorite saffron recipe. It is based on Spanish Yellow Rice from the Columbia Restaurant in Tampa, FL.

    1/2 cup olive oil, 1 Spanish onion, green pepper, 4 garlic cloves, 2 tomatoes, chop all and saute in Dutch oven, add 2 bay leaves, 2 cups rice, 1/2 teaspoon saffron, 2 teaspoons salt, and 4 cups chicken broth. Bring to boil, lower heat, cover, then cook for 18 minutes. I usually serve with black beans and baked chicken.

    Thanks for your website, I’m really enjoying it.

  26. Juana María says:

    Smoked sweet paprika is also perfect for lentil soup!!!

  27. Tina says:

    Last week my DIL sat me down and went through her seed box to decide what I want planted. She has 110 pepper plants planned! She is really into the different kinds of peppers and different heats and dries and cans them for winter. I’m only getting 4 little plants from her this year.

    (She’s gutted the formal dining room in their house and turned it into a room for growing year round lettuce, tomatoes and some peppers and herbs but also plants her seeds. She has an intricate lighting system. It’s kind of impressive!)

    (Oh, I already knew the difference between herbs and spices.)

  28. Paula says:

    Learn something new everyday! This one is the icing on the cake – thanks Karen!

  29. Peggy Grobmyer says:

    Just this week I was discussing with a friend the difference between a herb and a spice. We didn’t know which, if either, category garlic would fall.

  30. Rose says:

    Add annual Dill and perennial Fennel. Like Cilantro/coriander, you can use the leaves and seeds of both. Guard your saffron with chicken wire cages. The critters love to dig them up and eat the bulbs. That’s probably why your’s didn’t come back.

    • Sabina says:

      Yes, and you’ll get swallowtail caterpillars, they love dill and then you’ll have beautiful swallowtail butterfly companions for your monarchs!

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