People who love eating organic fresh food and enjoy being in gardens, but have no experience growing plants successfully, sometimes approach me with claims of being genetically inept at horticulture. Often they have not chosen plants that are appropriate for their climate, soil, or watering schedule, or they have not found the plant to "give back" in the manner expected. They give a plant, say a bell pepper, months of attention, watering, weeding, and protection from neighborhood animals, and after 5 months one tiny pepper appears right before the plant dies. This has happened to me. That is why I suggest starting with easy to grow herbs that are useful in so many ways, and will "give back" in plentitude.
If you start with common familiar herbs, such as mint, parsley, oregano, and chives, and plant them in containers or directly in the ground, you can have a low maintenance, year-round, freshly picked herbal bouquet of culinary enhancements readily available. Many herbs are drought tolerant and pest resistant, and make excellent companions for your fussier annual plants, like tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce. A classic companion plant combination is tomato and basil. The scent of basil keeps insects away from the tomato plants, and you have the bonus of a delicious combination of tastes.
Besides detracting the insects that will devour your leafy and fruiting plants, many herbs will attract beneficial insects, like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, which are necessary to pollinate your fruiting plants. Top pollinator attracting herbs include lemon balm, hyssop, lavender, thyme, rosemary, and mint. As a note of caution, if you are buying herb plants, purchase plants from an organic supplier to insure the plants have not been cultivated with pesticides that are toxic to pollinating insects. Ironically many commercially grown herbs and flowers for pollinators have been grown using pesticides with neonicotinoids, which have been linked to colony collapse disorder in bee populations.
It is also no surprise that herbs that attract pollinators affect our olfactory senses as well, and make fragrant herbal teas and herbal pillows. Chamomile, spearmint, sage, and fennel are a few herbs that come to mind as aromatic and tasty, with added medicinal affects. The medicinal use of herbs is especially attractive to gardeners interested in finding multiple uses for the plants they lovingly care for. Feverfew, lemon balm, chamomile and skullcap have long been used to in infusions to give relief from anxiety, headaches, and insomnia. Calendula, comfrey and borage are excellent ingredients for skin care. With a little guidance, you can go from growing herbs to making your own lotions and lip balms.
So, with a minimal investment of time and energy, you can grow a versatile herb garden that will provide culinary, aromatic, and visual enjoyment. In addition, you can help provide habitat for pollinators, and maintain an inventory of medicinally useful plants and companion plants to annuals in your garden. Check the Transition Berkeley website to learn more about growing herbs, for updates on places to purchase pesticide-free herb plants, for event listings, and for resources to help you succeed in growing a beautiful and useful garden.