Herb Appeal

Story and Photography by Judy Barrett

One of the great things about autumn in Austin is that we get to experience the whole range of the seasons within about a 24-hour period. It’s winter when we rise and blazing summer by mid-afternoon, with a blink of spring and fall mixed in—making it challenging to know just how to dress or what to plan for outdoor activities. For the gardener, however, autumn is the perfect time for planting just about everything. Need to add trees to the landscape or plant some wonderful antique roses? This is the right time.

If you hope to harvest fresh salads for weeks on end, put your seeds in the ground this weekend. Shrubs, perennial flowers and early-spring bloomers can all be planted in Austin’s autumn and will flourish more enthusiastically than if planted in spring.

Fall is also the perfect time to plant herbs. Herbs are easy to grow, don’t require ultra-rich soil and are grateful for any bit of compost that comes their way. I suggest planting them haphazardly throughout the garden—mingled with other plants and veggies—instead of relegating them to the lonely herb patch. Many herbs are drought-tolerant, and most of those that do well in Central Texas are perennial plants that continue to flourish during the winter months. Adding herbs to the landscape is as simple as digging holes and dropping the young plants into place.

If there’s no room in the ground, herbs are happy to grow in containers. Select herbs that have similar watering needs, and the rest will take care of itself. Rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano all thrive in conditions on the dry side. Dill, cilantro and mint prefer a little more water and a bit richer soil. Most herbs need sun, but mint will grow happily in some shade, as will parsley, comfrey and chives. Basil has to have heat, so wait until spring to plant it.

Herbs not only play well together, but they are assets to other plants in the garden as well. Roses and members of the allium genus (onions and garlic) are a winning combination. The alliums keep the roses healthy by repelling pests and emitting sulfur that discourages fungi, and the roses make sure the alliums get plenty of compliments. Herbs used as landscape plants help keep the vegetable garden green throughout the winter and invite beneficial insects. Talk about multitasking!

Rosemary is a great shrub for sunny spots and the perfect herb for holiday decorating and cooking. Its piney aroma and appearance make it just right for wreaths, candle rings and arrangements, as well as for hearty holiday dishes. Sage is also popular during the fall, adding its heady scent to specialties like stuffing. Sage enjoys growing in cooler weather when the humidity is not so high, so get it going now and it will reward you with beautiful blooms next spring.

Cilantro, dill and parsley all grow from fall to spring. Mother Nature will not be fooled on this one—even though they would be great to flavor summer veggies, these herbs just hate hot weather. They’ll go to seed no matter what you do. Instead, grow them now, freeze or dry them and enjoy them in your winter and spring salads and other dishes.

Chives, garlic chives and society garlic also enjoy the cooler weather of fall and spring and die back during the summer. Planting now will guarantee a great show of blossoms in pink and white next spring. Garlic should be planted all over the yard—not just because of its aforementioned protective qualities, but because its nice green leaves remain throughout the brown season. Chives and society garlic make great border plants around flower beds. Instead of planting monkey grass that doesn’t do anything but just sit there, plant chives that bloom, taste good and keep pests away from your garden.

Oregano and mint make great ground covers; passion vine looks exotic and makes a tasty tea, and comfrey is said to heal all wounds. Get some herbs in the garden now; you’ll be so glad you did!

Judy Barrett is the author of  What Can I Do with My Herbs? How to Grow, Use and Enjoy These Versatile Plants and What Makes Heirloom Plants So Great? Old-fashioned Treasures to Grow, Eat and Admire, both from Texas A&M Press.

Editor’s note:
Edible Gardens will feature guest writers, herbalists and horticulture experts on a rotating basis.