Gardening Growth: A Fall Herb Garden
Most gardeners plant their vegetables in the spring for harvest in late spring and early summer. In our part of Texas, it’s also possible to have a fall vegetable garden, but some people just never try it. It really is a shame. But even if you think fall gardening is too difficult, you should at least plant a bunch of herbs.
Herbs are plants that are used as a flavoring in foods. Herbs commonly used in cooking are called culinary herbs. Sweet or savory herbs impart a delicate flavor to foods, while stronger or pungent herbs add spice. Herbs are also planted for their ornamental value.
Choose a sunny, well-drained location. When planting, apply a slow release fertilizer at the rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet. Herbs can be annual (live only one season) or perennial (they regrow from their root system every year). Annual herbs can be planted in an annual flower garden or vegetable patch. Plant perennial herbs on 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 throwing the seed indoors for later transplanting into the garden. You can get seeds from a local garden center or seed catalog, or save the seeds produced by herbaceous plants for next year’s harvest.
Perennial grasses 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 the crowns.
Divide the plants every 3 to 4 years in 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 damp sand in a shady location. In 4-8 weeks, roots should form on these cuttings.
The maintenance of the herb garden is the same as that of a vegetable patch or a flower garden. Water as needed during dry periods. Generally, herbs need about 1 inch of water per week, either from precipitation or from irrigation. Mulch will help conserve soil moisture and reduce weed growth. Because mints prefer moist soils, they need to 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. Do not remove all of the foliage at once. With proper care, these plants will produce for a long time.
To harvest rosemary and thyme, cut the stems when the plants are in full bloom. The leaves and flowers are usually harvested together.
Basil, mint, sage, and marjoram are harvested just before the plant begins to flower. Parsley leaves can be cut and dried at any time.
After harvest, hang the herbs in loose bundles in a well-ventilated room. You can also spread the branches out on a screen, cheesecloth or hardware cloth. Distribute the leaves on flat trays. Cover the herbs with a cloth that will keep dust out but allow moisture to pass through.
Most of the herbs we grow today come from the Mediterranean region, so a hot, dry summer is fine for them. Herbs need good drainage (they do best in a raised bed) and good exposure. Most require full sun. Mints and a few other herbs grow well in shade to partial shade.
â¢ Basil: It 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. The more unusual varieties are Cinnamon, Cuban, Globe, Saint, Lemon, Licorice, Ruffle Violet, Japanese Sawtooth, and Thai. Not all of them are used in the kitchen. Basil is the herb to use in all tomato dishes. It can be finely chopped and mixed with butter. Add fresh leaves chopped in vinegar, crushed garlic and olive oil to make a great dressing for sliced ââtomatoes. It is also used in eggplant, pork, roast chicken, scrambled eggs, and squash dishes.
â¢ Comfrey: It is a vigorous herb with large “donkey’s ear” shaped leaves that look like green sandpaper. A tea can be made from the leaves or the roots.
â¢ Lemon balm: Is a member of the mint family and can be very vigorous. Lemon balm is best grown in a confined bed area or in containers. It can be started from seeds, cuttings or roots. The lemon leaves can be used to make tea or to flavor regular teas. Lemon balm is also added to fish dishes.
â¢ Marjoram & Oregano: Are similar, but the flavor of marjoram is smoother and more delicate. Marjoram varieties include creeping golden marjoram, potted marjoram, sweet marjoram, and winter marjoram. They are best grown from grafts 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, pizzas, soups, stews, fillings and spaghetti sauce. The leaves are best used dried.
â¢ Rosemary: There are many forms of rosemary, ranging from a low-growing ground cover to a bush 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 sprig of rosemary as a brush to brush the grilled chicken or place a few leaves on roasts or baked chicken.
â¢ Chive: The smallest member of the onion family, chives are easily grown from seeds or transplants. Use this herb as you would with onions. It can be used as a garnish or added to baked potatoes, cottage cheese, omelets and sauces.
Cilantro / Coriander: Easily grown from seed and can sometimes grow in the wild. To have a steady supply of young leaves, sow the seeds every few weeks. Cilantro 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 baked goods, sausages, and cooked fruit.
â¢ 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 big green caterpillars that eat dill will turn into swallowtail butterflies, so plant enough for you and for them. Dill is used in pickling. It can also be added to fish, cottage cheese, cream cheese, salad dressings, and most vegetables.
â¢ Parsley: It is probably the most used and least consumed herb in the world as it is mainly used as a garnish. Parsley is a biennial, producing leaves the first year and flowers the next. There are two forms: flat parsley or Italian parsley, and curly or French parsley. Many hybrids of each are available as seeds or transplants. The seeds germinate slowly, but the parsley is worth the wait. It is loaded with vitamins and minerals.
â¢ Sage: doubles as a sustainable landscape plant. It is very drought tolerant and can be killed by overwatering. While it is best to start sage from transplants or cuttings, it can be started from seeds. Sage varieties include blue, clary, garden, gold, pineapple, and tricolor. Everything can be used in the kitchen. Sage leaves should always be dried before use. It can be used in peas, chicken, egg and cheese dishes, pork and poultry stuffing.
â¢ Thyme: Is a good ornamental plant in flower beds and rockeries. There are over 400 species of thyme, including common, English, golden, lemon, mother-of-pearl, silver and wooly thyme. Thyme is used in soups and in fish, meat, poultry and vegetable dishes.
Herbs are wonderful and easy things to grow, in spring, summer, winter, or fall.
Joe Urbach is the editor of GardeningAustin.com and the phytonutrient blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years.