French Tarragon: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Growing, Storing, and Cooking Tarragon

Tarragon, Image Courtesy of Les, Wikimedia Commons
Tarragon, Image Courtesy of Les, Wikimedia Commons

French tarragon is a lovely herb that tastes like a blend of licorice or anise and fennel, with a hint of basil. There is another form of tarragon called Russian tarragon, but it is bitter and coarse. When recipes call for tarragon, they’re referring to French tarragon.

When should I plant tarragon?

Purchase French tarragon in plant form (not seed form – the inferior Russian tarragon is grown from seeds, whereas the better-tasting French tarragon is grown from cuttings or by dividing the plant). Transplant to your garden in the spring.

Where should I plant tarragon?

Choose a sheltered, sunny spot, preferably against a wall or other structure, as tarragon does best when it receives some extra reflected heat.

Can I grow tarragon in the shade?

Most sources recommend full sun, but I’ve found that it will grow in a sheltered, mostly shady spot, if temperatures are warm enough. French tarragon likes warmth, but not very hot temperatures, so if you live in a climate where temperatures reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) or higher, your tarragon will actually do better in partial shade.

Can I grow tarragon in a container?

Tarragon does very well in containers, both outdoors and indoors. Use a container at least 12 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep for best results.

Can I grow tarragon indoors?

Yes, but only if you have a windowsill that gets many hours of sunshine per day or you provide a grow light.

If you’d like fresh tarragon in the winter, wait until December when the plant has died down, divide the plant in half, remove one portion, add it to a container with fresh potting soil, and place it indoors on a sunny windowsill. You’ll enjoy fresh tarragon all winter long, and the rest of the outdoor plant will revive in the spring.

How big do tarragon plants get?

Allow at least 18 inches of space per plant for best results. Tarragon can reach 2-3 feet in height and will typically spread out at least 12 inches.

What type of soil does tarragon need?

Any good quality potting mix will do, but make sure it drains well, as waterlogged soil can lead to root rot. Add an inch or two of compost, and dig it into the top 8 inches of soil before planting.

What ongoing care does tarragon need?

Water lightly, and let the soil dry out between waterings.

Trim regularly to encourage more growth and keep the plant below 2 feet tall (otherwise, it will fall over).

Mulch in the late fall or winter if you live in a cooler climate. Some sources recommend mulching in the summer as well to retain moisture and prevent weed growth.

Remove weeds carefully, as tarragon has shallow roots that can be damaged by rough weeding.

Add a little fresh compost in the spring.

Tarragon’s root system will continue to expand. Use a knife to separate it into two or more root bundles every few years in the spring, and transplant the divided portions to another spot in the garden or another container.

Should I fertilize tarragon?

Unless your soil is very nutrient-poor, you shouldn’t need to fertilize tarragon, as it grows well and develops better flavour without additional nutrients. I’ve found that it thrives without ongoing fertilization, as long as I start it in a potting soil that has a bit of added fertilizer and compost, and add a spadeful or two of fresh compost each spring.

How do I harvest tarragon?

Once the plant is well established, just cut the top one-third off the stems as needed throughout the spring, summer, and fall, until the plant goes dormant for the winter.

Why is there fuzz, white patches, dark blotches, or spots on my tarragon leaves?

Tarragon plants can suffer from various fungal infections. Remove infected leaves (or get rid of the plant altogether if the infection has become widespread). Don’t compost infected plant matter.

To prevent fungal infections, space plants out to allow for better air flow and water the soil rather than watering from above to keep the leaves dry.

How do I store tarragon, and how long will it keep?

Tarragon does not retain its flavour well when dried, so for long-term storage, the best strategy is to freeze it. The easiest way to do this is to add chopped or whole tarragon leaves to an ice cube tray, cover them with water, freeze them, then remove the cubes and place them in a sealed freezer bag for storage. When you want fresh tarragon, just remove a cube and pop it into your hot soup or sauce, or melt the cube in a glass and use a strainer to separate the water from the tarragon leaves.

For short-term storage, you can wrap tarragon leaves in a paper towel, place the towel in a plastic bag, and keep the bundle in the fridge for 1-2 weeks.

Can I save tarragon seeds?

French tarragon rarely flowers and it is not typically grown from seed. It’s a perennial, so in the right conditions, it will revive each spring, but if you’d like more plants, you can grow them by dividing the roots in the spring (use a knife, not a shovel, because the roots are brittle), or from cuttings.

If you find tarragon seeds for sale, they’re from the less appealing Russian tarragon plant.

How do I use tarragon?

Cooking can rob tarragon of its flavour, so it’s best to add it near or at the end of the cooking process.

Tarragon is often used to season fish, egg, and cheese dishes; stuffings and salad dressings; corn on the cob; and flavoured oils and vinegars.

For a variety of delicious tarragon recipes, see Sunset’s 8 Tasty Tarragon Recipes.

For more vegetable and herb gardening articles, see the main Gardening page.

References:

    • Albert, S. (2015). How to Grow French Tarragon. Harvest to Table.
    • Edwards Forkner, L. (2012). The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
    • Hudson, D., & Drost, B. (2009). French Tarragon in the Garden. Utah State University.
    • McGee, R. M. N., & Stuckey, M. (2002). McGee and Stuckey’s the Bountiful Container. New York, NY: Workman Publishing.
    • The Old Farmers Almanac.
    • Tozer, F. (2013). The New Vegetable Growers Handbook. Santa Cruz, CA: Green Man Publishing.