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Flavourful Herbs Are Easy to Grow
by Dan Gill
by Dan Gill

email: dgill@agcenter.lsu.edu

Dan Gill earned B.S. and M.S. degrees in horticulture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and is an Associate Professor in Consumer Horticulture with the LSU AgCenter.

He is the spokesperson for the LSU AgCenter’s Get It Growing project, a statewide educational effort in home horticulture utilizing radio, Internet, TV and newsprint. Gardeners throughout Louisiana read his columns in local newspapers, watch his gardening segments on local TV stations and listen to him on local radio. In the New Orleans area, Dan appears weekly on the Channel 4 Morning News, writes a weekly gardening column for The Times-Picayune and hosts the Saturday morning WWWL Garden Show, a live call-in radio program.

Dan is co-author of the Louisiana Gardener’s Guide and author of Month-by-Month Gardening in Louisiana. His “South Louisiana Region Report” and “Only in Louisiana” columns appear monthly in the Louisiana Gardener Magazine.


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.

To dry herbs, harvest them with the stems long enough to easily tie them together. Next, rinse them with water and blot dry. Make small bundles of about three to five stems held together with rubber bands and insert an unbent paper clip or S-shaped piece of wire to make a hook. Hang the bundles in a cool, dry place indoors with good air circulation.

Another way to dry herbs is to lay leaves or short sprigs on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. When the herbs are thoroughly dry, store them in tightly sealed containers labeled with the name of the herb (or herb blend) and the date. You can leave the leaves whole or crumble them to the desired fineness.

To freeze herbs, harvest, rinse and blot them dry. Remove leaves from woody stems and chop the leaves finely. Place chopped herbs in a freezer bag, spreading them out in a 1/2-inch layer. This makes it easier to break off usable pieces later on when the herbs are frozen solid. Force out as much air as possible, seal the bag and freeze. Be sure to label the bag with the name of the herb because chopped, frozen herbs tend to look the same.

For more information on growing and using herbs, check out “Southern Herb Growing” by Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay, Shearer Publications.

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