Sunday, January 26, 2003
By Diane Pfeil, Horticulture Associate, Texas Cooperative Extension-Bexar County
Do you imagine walking in your garden and being enticed by the scents of herbs? Would you like to know more about growing and caring for these delightful garden additions? Then this week’s article from the Bexar County Extension Office about growing and cultivating herbs is just what you need!
Herb gardening in Bexar County is relatively easy. Herbs require a minimum of care, average soil, little supplemental water once established, and thrive in our climate. They also have few insect problems. Most herbs should be planted in full sun, but some herbs grow well in part shade including mint, parsley, lemon balm, and chives. Raised beds are ideal because they increase the depth of soil, provide better tilth and drainage, and the soil in a raised bed will warm up quicker than flat ground. Incorporate a generous amount of organic material and coarse sand for proper drainage.
Herbs do not like “wet feet.” Water herbs when needed, preferably in the morning. The ideal watering method for herbs is drip irrigation. A drip irrigation system can be as simple as a soaker hose snaked under the mulch to a commercially installed one. Avoid feast or famine watering cycles, and strive for a consistent level of moisture for optimal growing performance.
Mulching your herb garden will help maintain moisture in the soil, keep soil temperature at a healthy level, control weeds, and keep the leaves of the herbs cleaner. If you fertilize, use a balanced fertilizer; if you have added organic matter, additional fertilizer is not necessary.
Harvest herbs on a regular basis. The more often an herb is cut, the better the plant thrives and produces. The best time of day to harvest herbs is early morning (oil content is at its highest), and the best time of the season is prior to blooming. Some experts believe that stress brings out the aroma and flavor of herbs, so do not over water or overfeed. Stress also seems to deter pets.
In cooking, herbs can be used fresh, dried or frozen. To dry herbs, tie in bundles with twine or rubber bands and hang upside down in a dark, dry, warm location. Keep ventilation in mind as you hang herbs to dry. After they are completely dry, put the herbs in airtight containers and store them in a cool, dark place. Spreading herbs on a drying rack is another option. Modern methods for drying include conventional ovens, microwave ovens, or dehydrators.
Herbs can also be frozen for use at a later time. If you plan to use herbs to flavor soups and stews, try freezing them in ice cube trays and water. For sauces, puree the herb in a blender or food processor with enough oil or water to make a paste and fill the ice tray with the mixture. If there is a particular combination of herbs that you enjoy such as basil and oregano, freeze the pre-measured herbs together in cubes or freezer bags. After the mixture is frozen, take them out of the trays and place in airtight bags in the freezer.
Herbs lend themselves to container gardening. Let creativity be your guide as herbs come in a multitude of textures, colors and scents from which to choose. Choose from pots of plastic, terra cotta or clay, recycled buckets, baskets and tubs. Containers can be easily moved for light requirements or to protect from adverse weather conditions.
Herbs can also be mixed into the landscape, adding an attractive variety of texture and color. A few examples are lamb’s ear, dill, yarrow, fennel and Southernwood. Rosemary makes a fragrant drought-tolerant shrub. It is available in prostrate or upright varieties with light blue flowers. Mexican mint marigold is a beautiful perennial with its golden blooms in the fall. It can also serve as a substitute for French tarragon. Plant parsley as a border for a patio or flower bed.
Herbs can be planted solely for the fragrance they emit. Children are fascinated by this characteristic. Plant them along a path so that when one brushes against the foliage, their individual scents fill the air. Fragrant herbs include mint, rosemary, scented geraniums, pineapple sage, lemon verbena and balm, Mexican mint marigold and ginger.
The Herb of the Year for 2003 is Basil. It is an incredible herb that is enjoyed for its rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a hint of mint and clove. There are over 40 known varieties of basil of which Ocimum basilicum, or Sweet Basil, is the most commonly known. It is extremely easy to grow with foliage ranging from pale to deep green, vivid purple and even purple with yellowish foliage. It possesses a wide variety of textures from silky and shiny to dull and crinkly.
Basil is native to India and Asia having been cultivated there for more than 5000 years. It can be used in the herb garden, flower garden, as border plantings, containers, raised beds and hanging baskets. Incorporate basil in potpourris, sachets, and dried bouquets for a wonderful fragrance indoors.
To learn ways to grow and use herbs, plan on joining Bexar County Extension staff and volunteers in the Texas Trail building at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo that runs from February 1-16. There will be a variety of displays on various ways to use herbs, plus an herb garden for you to view all of those herbs up close.