Texas' climate makes it possible to grow herbs all year round with few exceptions. Above is an herb garden with basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme and sage. Photo courtesy of Joe Urbach
Growth in gardening: A fall herb garden
Most gardeners plant their vegetables in the spring to harvest in late spring to early summer. In our part of Texas, it is possible to have a fall vegetable garden also, but some folks just don’t ever give it a try. That is a real shame. But even if you think fall gardening is too hard you should at least plant a bunch of herbs.
Herbs are plants that are used as flavoring in foods. The common herbs used in cooking are referred to as culinary herbs. Mild or savory herbs impart a delicate flavor to food, while the stronger or pungent herbs add zest. Herbs are also planted for their ornamental value.
Select a sunny, welldrained location. At planting, apply a slow-release fertilizer at the rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet. Herbs can be annuals (live only one season) or perennials (grow back from their root systems each year). Annual herbs can be planted in an annual flower garden or vegetable garden. Plant perennial herbs at the side of the garden where they won’t interfere with next year’s soil preparation.
Some herbs can be established by planting the seed directly in the garden or by starting seed indoors for later transplanting to the garden. You can obtain seed from a local garden center or seed catalog, or save the seeds produced by the herb plants for next year’s crop.
Perennial herbs can be propagated by cuttings or by division. Herbs such as sage and thyme can be propagated by cuttings. Chives can be propagated by dividing the roots or crowns.
Divide the plants every 3 to 4 years in the early spring. Dig them up and cut them into several sections. Or, cut 4- to 6-inch sections of the stem and place the cuttings in moist sand in a shady area. In 4 to 8 weeks, roots should form on these cuttings.
Care for the herb garden is the same as for a vegetable or flower garden. Water as necessary during dry periods. Generally, herbs need about 1 inch of water per week, either from rainfall or from irrigation. Mulch will help conserve soil moisture as well as reduce weed growth. Because mints prefer moist soil, they must be watered more often.
The leaves of many herbs, such as parsley and chives, can be harvested for fresh seasonings. Gradually remove a few leaves from the plants as you need them. Don’t remove all the foliage at one time. With proper care, these plants will produce over a long period.
To harvest rosemary and thyme, clip the tops when the plants are in full bloom. The leaves and flowers are usually harvested together.
Basil, mint, sage, and sweet marjoram are harvested just before the plant starts to bloom. Parsley leaves can be cut and dried anytime.
After harvest, hang the herbs in loosely tied bundles in a well-ventilated room. You can also spread the branches on a screen, cheesecloth, or hardware cloth. Spread the leaves on flat trays. Cover the herbs with a cloth that will keep dust off but allow moisture to pass through.
Many of the herbs we grow today are from the Mediterranean region, so hot, dry summer weather suits them perfectly. Herbs need good drainage (they do best in a raised bed) and the right exposure. Most require full sun. Mints and a few other herbs grow well in shade or partial shade.
• Basil: This is one of the easiest herbs to grow, even from seed. However, basil is tender, so expect to lose it at the first sign of frost. Many varieties and flavors of basil are available. The most common is sweet green basil. More unusual varieties are cinnamon, Cuban, globe, holy, lemon, licorice, purple ruffled, Japanese sawtooth and Thai. Not all are used in cooking. Basil is the herb to use in all tomato dishes. It can be chopped fine and mixed with butter. Add fresh chopped leaves to vinegar, crushed garlic, and olive oil to make an excellent dressing for sliced tomatoes. It is also used in eggplant, pork, roasted chicken, scrambled eggs and squash dishes.
• Comfrey: Is a vigorous herb with large, “donkey-ear” leaves that look like green sandpaper. A tea can be made from the leaves or roots.
• Lemon balm: Is a member of the mint family and can be very vigorous. It’s best to grow lemon balm in a confined bed area or in containers. It can be started from seeds, cuttings or roots. The lemony leaves can be used to make tea or flavor regular teas. Lemon balm is also added to fish dishes.
• Marjoram & Oregano: Are similar, but the flavor of marjoram is sweeter and more delicate. Varieties of marjoram include creeping golden marjoram, pot marjoram, sweet marjoram and winter marjoram. They are best grown from transplants or root cuttings. The most common types of oregano in Texas are Origanum vulgare, the low-spreading plant used in Italian or Greek foods, and Lippia graveolens or Lippia palmeri, the bushy shrub known as Mexican oregano. Marjoram and oregano can be used in the same foods — meats, pizza, soups, stews, stuffing and spaghetti sauce. The leaves are best used dried.
• Rosemary: There are many forms of rosemary, ranging from a low-growing groundcover to a bush that grows up to 4 feet tall. Rosemary is a hardy plant that thrives in hot, dry climates. A strong herb, it is often used in meat dishes, especially chicken. Use a branch of rosemary as a basting brush for barbecued chicken or place a few leaves on top of roasts or baked chicken.
• Chives: The smallest member of the onion family, chives are easily grown from seeds or transplants. Use this herb any way you would use onions. It can be used as a garnish or added to baked potatoes, cottage cheese, omelets and sauces.
Coriander/Cilantro: Is easily grown from seed and can sometimes be found growing wild. To have a steady supply of young leaves, sow seeds every few weeks. Coriander is used in Mexican dishes. The leaves have a strong, “clean” flavor. Use only young leaves; the older ones are too strong. The seeds have a flavor similar to orange and are used in pastries, sausage and cooked fruit.
• Dill: One of the easiest herbs to grow from seed, dill will easily become a weed if the seed heads are allowed to dry on the plant. The large green caterpillars that eat dill will turn into swallowtail butterflies, so plant enough for you and them. Dill is used in pickling. It can also be added to fish, cottage cheese, cream cheese, salad dressings and most vegetables.
• Parsley: Is probably the most used and least eaten herb in the world because it is used mostly as a garnish. Parsley is a biennial, producing leaves the first year and flowers the next. There are two forms: the flat-leaved or Italian parsley, and the curly or French parsley. Many hybrids of each are available as seeds or transplants. The seeds germinate slowly, but parsley is worth the wait. It is loaded with vitamins and minerals.
• Sage: doubles as a durable landscape plant. It is very drought resistant and can be killed by overwatering. Although sage is best started from transplants or cuttings, it can be started from seed. Varieties of sage include blue, clary, garden, golden, pineapple, and tri-color. All can be used in cooking. Sage leaves should always be dried before use. It can be used in blackeyed peas, chicken, egg and cheese dishes, pork, and poultry stuffing.
• Thyme: Is a good ornamental in beds and rock gardens. There are more than 400 species of thyme, including common, English, golden, lemon, mother ofthyme, silver and woolly. Thyme is used in soups and fish, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes.
Herbs are wonderful and easy things to grow, spring, summer, winter or fall.
Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years.