Growing French tarragon

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

French tarragon is one of the most desired culinary herbs.

Chefs use it as a key ingredient for such sauces as bearnaise and tartar sauce. It’s also infused into vinegar to make the popular tarragon vinegar; you’ve probably seen bottles with sprigs of tarragon floating inside. 

It’s the herb that gives green goddess dressing its distinctive color and flavor. A wide variety of foods are seasoned with tarragon, including potatoes, eggs, chicken, asparagus, meats and more. 

If you did not know the plant was in your garden, French tarragon could be easily mistaken for a weed.

When grown under certain manageable conditions, tarragon is a relatively easy herb to grow in the home garden. 

French tarragon requires dry, well-drained soil. While sandy soils are best, it will do well as long as the site is dry. Soils that stay wet for any amount of time will cause the roots to deteriorate.

Some gardeners opt to grow tarragon in raised beds so they can more closely monitor the soil conditions.

French tarragon is one of those plants that doesn’t set viable seeds, as a result it must be propagated vegetatively either by stem cuttings or root divisions. 

This is just a small percentage of sprigs cut from one plant.

Russian tarragon, a close botanical relative, can be grown from seed. However the flavor of the Russian variety does not compare to the French type so it is not used by chefs.

If you want to grow French tarragon you’ll have to ask a gardener friend for a root division or purchase one from a reputable greenhouse.

Like so many other herbs, tarragon’s flavor is enhanced by the slower growth caused by soils that are somewhat deficient in minerals. Therefore fertilizer is only needed to get the plant started. Once it is established, no fertilizer is needed for the life of the plant.

French tarragon is a perennial that is grown in zones two through nine. In the coldest climates a layer of mulch must be applied over the plant in the fall to help protect it through winter.

It is a short-lived perennial which means it will need to be renewed frequently, about every three or four years or so. Renewal is done in the spring by splitting the plant apart into root divisions. Most gardeners use a knife to cut the plant apart but better results can be had by teasing the roots apart to untangle them. 

French tarragon plants form flower buds but do not produce viable seeds

Because the plants are fairly large, about 2 1/2  to 3 feet tall or more, newly divided pieces should be planted no closer than 24 inches apart.

While French tarragon is often dried, chefs prefer fresh pieces to ensure they get the full spectrum of flavor from the herb. 

Cut sprigs can be wrapped and kept in the refrigerator for several days and will retain most of the flavor.  Fresh tarragon cut from your own garden and taken directly into the kitchen to use in a dish is the best. I noticed a subtle but noticeable change in flavor between freshly cut and tarragon that was a couple of days in the fridge.

French tarragon benefits from being trimmed, so harvest sprigs frequently through the gardening season to keep fresh, new sprigs growing. 

In the fall, cold temperatures will kill the tops. At that point, the top of the plant may be cut back and the roots mulched if desired.