Copy for Waco-Tribune Herald, Lawns & Gardens, September 24, 2010

While we are still waiting for cooler weather, it’s a good time to think about tucking herbs among existing plants or placing them in a new garden area. The pleasures from growing herbs become more than just enjoyment of a pretty garden, but a sensual experience that comes from subtle color, texture, fragrance, and taste as well as the delight of attracting birds, butterflies and insects.

The Waco Herb Society has maintained the herb garden at the Carleen Bright Arboretum on Bosque Blvd. for several years and it is a good place to explore these fascinating plants. There are edible and medicinal herbs as well as those for potpourris, wreaths and flower arrangements. There are also plants there that are not true herbs, but they add color or texture or sometimes, just surprises such as the annual poppies that are so cheerful in the spring.

The herb society garden is an informal design with its unclipped germander hedge and irregular plant placement. This approach allows for experimentation with herb “happiness.” Drought, excessive rains, and record-low temperatures have affected the garden the last five years, but most plants have survived. At the moment there are also examples of plants that have “taken over” such as the basils and the apple mint in the front garden. If the flower heads are not cut back, basil re-seeds vigorously in loose, moist soil and hot temperatures.

Considerable soil amendment, mulching, and some fertilizing has resulted in easy digging and weeding plus good drainage in most of this plot which has both full sun and partial shade. A watering system has helped in the summer, but has also hurt some plants such as lavender and lamb’s ear which require minimal and indirect moisture.

Cedar elms, vitex and pecan trees provide dappled shade and a path allows visitors to identify the many herbs that grow in Central Texas. Most are deer-resistant plants. Herbicides have not been used.

At the back of the bed there is a tall, less common perennial herb called Hoja Santa (Piper auritum) also known as root beer plant, Mexican pepper, sweet anise, and false kava. It’s an aromatic herb with heart-shaped, velvety leaves which can be used as a wrap for meat, fish or poultry. This plant, which can grow to 6’ high and wide, is hardy north to the Dallas area. It Copy for Waco-Tribune Herald, Lawns & Gardens, September 24, 2010 prefers morning sun, afternoon shade and moist soil. The flower is a white cylindrical spike. In winter it should be cut back to a 3” stump and covered with mulch. It can be purchased locally.

Another attractive perennial herb which made it through last winter is Lemon Grass (Cynbopogon citratus). Considered semi-hardy, it must be mulched well in winter. It grows to about 30” in full sun in a hummock-like manner – a large grassy plant. Lemon grass is used in oriental cuisine, in tea blends, punches and salad dressings.

High shade is best for the cool season herb, Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), which is a beautiful garnish with it’s long pointy leaves and minty, lemon aroma. And, it’s one of the easiest of all herbs to grow. If it gets stressed by heat, drought, or cold, it will recover if cut back to the ground.

To find herbs for fall you need to scout area nurseries and garden centers as the varieties vary from place to place, but planting now allows time for roots to develop before frost. Cool season lovers include biennials such as parsley, both curly and Italian, and sages. The perennials – thyme, garlic and onion chives, oregano and rosemary – can be planted and enjoyed before cold weather. Some annuals are still available such as dill, basil and cilantro. Remember that parsleys, mints and chives want some shade and moisture.

Sonia Warriner
McLennan County Master Gardener
Member, Waco Herb Society

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