After sizzling summer, fall just the ticket for herbs

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 26, 2009

’Tis the season.

No, it’s not time for Christmas just yet, but it’s a great time in Mississippi to plant herbs since the sources of great flavor grow best during the cooler months.

Annual types planted in fall generally will perish in the heat next summer but the perennials will provide delectable growth for several years.

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Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.

Most herbs thrive in well-drained soil with a pH of 6.0 to 6.8. Herbs are somewhat drought-tolerant but require moisture for normal growth, according to the Mississippi State University Extension publication “Easy to Grow Herbs for the Landscape.”

They do best in amended soil. Nutrition is important but over fertilization will result in succulent or weak growth.  The Extension publication recommends a 1-2-2- or 1-2-1 ratio such as 5-10-10 or 5-10-5. Many gardeners use a slow-release type. Avoid pesticides and wash herbs well before using them in your favorite recipes.

Chives are small, dainty onion-like plants that grow in clumps. One of the very easiest herbs to grow, they are perennial and have showy rosy-pink flowers in spring.  They can be grown in indoor pots or in a sunny windowsill. Their subtle, onion-like flavor is a favorite with baked potatoes, dips and herbed butters. Provide them with rich well-drained soil and propagate by division. Seeds also are available but often are slow to germinate.

Cilantro imparts that unique flavor that is so popular in Mexican salsas and Asian recipes. A cool-season annual, cilantro can grow to be 3 feet tall in the garden with finely divided leaves that are strong in scent and flavor. Small white or purplish-tinged flowers appear in small flat heads. The seeds are the spice known as coriander. 

Dill can be grown as a cool-season annual in our growing zone. It may grow 3 feet tall in the garden. Both the leaves and seeds are popular as seasonings for pickles and other foods. Dr Lelia Scott Kelly, consumer horticulturist for the MSU Extension Service, recommends freezing the leaves for best flavor retention rather than drying them.  Dill is delicious snipped into a green salad, in herbed butters or with fish.

Fennel seeds can be planted in late fall to ensure germination next spring or planted in early to mid-August for a fall crop. Fennel has feathery foliage and might be light green to bronze in color, depending on the variety.  All parts can be eaten. The leaves taste like licorice and are delightful snipped into salads and potatoes. The stems can be eaten like celery as soon as they begin to fatten if they are cut off at the crown. The seeds are used in Italian dishes and give a very distinct flavor to Italian sausage. Fennel is not limited to an herb garden but will add a unique texture to any ornamental flower bed.

Nasturtiums are easy to grow and the blooms add delightful color to a fall garden. The leaves are bright green and rounded. The flowers come in shades of red, yellow, orange, cream and crimson. Both the leaves and blooms are edible and have 10 times the vitamin C of lettuce. They add a peppery taste as well as color to salads. They can be grown in pots or window boxes but need full sun to produce blooms. Nasturtiums are frost tender so plan to cover them if frost is imminent. If our winter is mild, they might produce blooms until Christmas.

Parsley is a hardy biennial but is primarily treated as an annual here. Low growing and bright green, parsley is attractive when used in a border, herb garden, window box or container planting. Highly nutritious, it contains vitamin A, more vitamin C per volume than an orange, several B vitamins, calcium and iron. Most of us associate it with being a garnish used in restaurants but it is added to Italian dishes and is a critical component in tabouli, a Middle Eastern wheat and vegetable salad. Some gardeners plant parsley in containers with spring bulbs, pansies and violas. The bright green foliage also looks terrific with flowering cabbage and kale or snapdragons.  Curly leaf and flat leaf are the varieties generally available as transplants at local nurseries. Grow it in full sun to partial shade or in a pot on a sunny windowsill.

Perennial herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage can be planted in the fall. Fall planting allows herbs to become established before winter sets in and to develop a good root structure by next spring. Autumn Reid, a former Master Gardener who owned an herb business here several years ago, once commented to me that sage has a much better chance of success here if planted in the fall because it really does not like our hot, humid summers. Herbs make attractive, edible additions to any garden.