Herb gardening

By Lori Murray, Cameron County Master Gardener

Now that the first Norther has arrived and given us a taste of cooler weather, many gardeners’ thoughts will turn to winter herb growing. Most herbs prefer our winter months to the brutal heat of South Texas summer, and herbs in our gardens offer a double benefit.

They are lovely to look at, and they add to flavor of our food. Some even have beautiful flowers as well as tasty leaves. They are currently available at nurseries and at the farmers’ market. Herbs can be grown in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers, but all of them need well-drained soil. Most are annuals. In case you are new to using fresh herbs, the rule of thumb in cooking is to use three times as much of a fresh herb as a dried one.

Parsley thrives during our winters. Originally from southern Europe, it has two main types – curly and flat-leafed. The plant grows in clumps and will spread out over a good-sized area.

It will grow in full sun or light shade and likes a rich, moist soil. The curly variety makes a good ornamental and a nice garnish for plates. The flat-leafed variety is best for cooking because it is more flavorful and stands up to heat better. When parsley blooms, it will die, but you can pinch it back and extend its life if you pay attention to its growth.

Dill is an aromatic annual with a single stem and feathery leaves. Plant it in well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. It needs our full winter sun and adequate moisture. Butterflies in their caterpillar stage love it. If the soil is too dry or lacking nutrients, this herb will quickly bolt (run to seed) so pay attention to its needs.

Cilantro is a member of the carrot family. It has delicate, light green leaves on a slender, branched stem. The small flowers are off-white. Cilantro likes full sun during our Valley winters. It has a long tap root so it is difficult to transplant unless first grown in a container and then planted outside. Allow plenty of space since this herb, like parsley, will spread and cover quite a large area.

Oregano is one of the most common herbs grown in home gardens. It has dark green leaves and white to lavender flowers. It spreads by underground runners and can increase quite a bit in a single season. The flavor is quite strong. Pinch back or harvest the plants frequently to make them bushy.

Basil is a favorite culinary herb. There are many types, which vary in size, color, and flavor, but sweet basil is the one most commonly used. The plant grows to a height of one to two feet with leaves two inches long and an inch wide. The leaves are delicious chopped and sprinkled over fresh tomatoes. (The leaves at the top of the plant are the sweetest.)

One of the few herbs to withstand our summers, basil likes full sun or very strong indirect light and evenly moist but not wet soil. Pinch off the short tips when the plant is four to six inches tall to encourage branching. The flowers are creamy white or purple-tinged, but pinching them off as they form will produce more leaves and increase the productivity of your plant. Basil is one herb that will tolerate our summer heat.

Herbs are generally easy to grow and are seasonal plants in Valley gardens. They provide us with a great deal of satisfaction for little effort if we make a winter culinary garden one of our traditions.