Flavorful herbs are lovely, fragrant and easy to grow

Published 12:00am Sunday, March 27, 2011

Convincing a group of kids that herbs are important is easy. Just mention pizza (oregano), spearmint gum (spearmint), dill pickles (dill) and peppermint candy (peppermint), and you’ll have them all agreeing that herbs are great. Adults generally need no such convincing because most of us know that herbs are vital to flavor many dishes. More gardeners should also know that herbs are easy to grow and can add flowers, fragrance and textures to the landscape.

Louisiana gardeners can successfully grow a wide variety of herbs, although some, such as French tarragon and lavender, often succumb to our hot, wet summers in spite of careful culture. When selecting the herbs you want to grow in your garden, consider what you commonly cook with. Look at the herbs in your kitchen cabinet and start off growing those types. But be very careful if you decide to grow and use medicinal herbs. You must know exactly what you are doing. Used improperly, some medicinal herbs can be quite toxic.

Most herbs require direct sun at least 4 to 6 hours a day and excellent drainage. Raised beds are best for most herbs. If raised garden beds are not practical for you and your drainage is poor, try growing herbs in containers.

Locate your culinary herb-growing area as close to the kitchen as possible so it is convenient to use while you are cooking. If you have to walk all the way across the yard to harvest them, they’ll likely be underused.

For growing purposes in Louisiana, herbs can be loosely grouped into cool-season annuals, warm-season annuals (annuals live for one season and then die) and perennials, which live for several years.

Cool-season herbs can tolerate normal winter freezes. They should be seeded or transplanted September through early February. Plant transplants rather than seeds now because we are late in the cool season, and you can still expect to get acceptable harvests in May or early June. Excellent herbs to plant now are parsley, cilantro or coriander, celery, dill, chicory, fennel, borage, arugula and chervil to name a few.

Terrific warm-season annual herbs are basil (in all its myriad forms and flavors), sesame and perilla. They can be seeded in pots now and transplanted into the garden as soon as they are big enough. Purchased transplants could also be planted in late March and through the summer.

Some of the perennial herbs that do well here are mints, lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, Mexican tarragon, burnet, sorrel, society garlic, garlic chives, oregano, monarda, catmint, anise hyssop, mountain mint, French bay, pineapple sage and rue. All of the perennial herbs can be planted now and through the spring using transplants available at local nurseries.

Thyme, sage, catnip, lavender and many of the scented geraniums are perennial herbs that require excellent drainage to survive the summer. They may be more successful when grown in containers and placed in a location that gets some shade in the afternoon during the summer. Even grown under good conditions, they tend to be short-lived and often succumb to root and stem rots in the hot, wet, late-summer season.

Harvest herbs frequently and regularly, being careful not to deplete all of the plant’s foliage. Take no more than one third of the total foliage at any one time. The flowers of herbs also may be used as a garnish or to flavor dishes.

Sometimes the herb garden can be too productive. At these times it is important to know how to preserve the extras. Most herbs can be kept for about a week after harvesting in plastic bags in the vegetable storage section of your refrigerator (but not basil) or with their stems placed in small glasses of water. You can preserve them for longer periods by drying or freezing.

Dan Gill is a LSU AgCenter Horticulturist.