Herbs have been grown for thousands of years for their culinary, medicinal and decorative purposes.
October is a great time to plant perennial herbs such as oregano, mint, thyme, chives, French tarragon, winter savory, culinary sage, English lavender and catnip. Plant them now, and the herbs will be putting all of their energy into root growth in the spring. Shoots will emerge early, and the thicker root system will help the plants survive hot, dry weather.
Mary Louise Hagler, a master gardener in training, recommends a soil test before planting. Herbs require a soil pH of 6.5 to 7, which is more alkaline, or basic. With Georgia's acidic soil, you will need to amend the soil with lime or - an old Southern trick - plant herbs with a shovel full of limestone gravel or cement block, which puts lime in easy reach of the roots.
Mrs. Hagler plants herbs in raised beds or pots at her home on Candace Drive in Augusta. Raised beds provide more drainage and make it easier to amend the soil with compost and lime.
Most herbs do well in containers, which also help control invasive herbs, such as mints, that will take over a garden.
Herbs thrive in dry soil. "Don't over-water because it will change the flavor," Mrs. Hagler said.
Herbs love sun. Plant them in an area with at least six hours of full sun a day. They will grow in shadier areas but will have a diminished flavor and grow taller and less bushy.
Use fertilizer sparingly. Lots of nitrogen will reduce the amount of essential oils in the plant, reducing flavor and fragrance.
David and Anna Averett, friends of Mrs. Hagler, have used rosemary as a decorative bush in front of their Walton Way home. The unpruned rosemary is an attractive bush, requires little care and adds fragrance to the front of the house.
Mulching newly planted herbs will help protect them against freezing and thawing soil in winter. Do not cut the herbs back until the spring. The dead foliage helps keep them anchored and acts as a security blanket over the winter.
Be aware of the growth habits of herbs before purchasing them. Many cannot be grown from seeds because they do not transplant well, or the seed will not produce the variety of plant you want. Many plants are best started from cuttings or divisions.
Dividing is the fastest and most successful way of starting many perennial herbs. Herbs grown from divisions include: chives, tarragon, bee balm, catnip, horehound, oregano, peppermint, sweet Woodruff, lady's mantle and tansy.
Mrs. Hagler's herb garden includes lemon balm, nasturtiums, catmint, chives, rosemary, basil, parsley, oregano, lovage, English thyme, purple basil, mullein, bee balm and chocolate and pineapple mints.
Mrs. Hagler concentrates her gardening efforts on flowers but said her productive summer flowers and love of cooking drew her toward herb gardening.
Her neighbor, Nanci McPhain, has a large pineapple sage and other herbs that attracted Mrs. Hagler to herb gardening. "Before I started planting herbs, I would come over and steal some of hers," Mrs. Hagler admits.
Mrs. Hagler has collected many recipes that use herbs, especially Italian dishes, which use basil.
Among the many usages of herbs she has discovered: A rosemary stem can be skewered with shrimp and grilled or broiled. Lovage's celerylike scent and flavor are good in soups and stews, and it can be boiled with chicken for flavorful chicken salad.
Leaves of the nasturtium, one of Mrs. Hagler's favorites because she has grown the plant since she was young, can be used in salads, and the large seeds taste peppery, similar to capers. Even the blooms are edible.
She has also developed time-saving tricks.
"If you like basil and want to use it during the winter, freeze it in an ice cube tray with water," Mrs. Hagler said. "You can just pull them out and use them by adding them to stews or soups."
A tea drinker, she adds the various mints and lemon balm to teas. A pineapple pound cake is flavored with pineapple sage.
"One of the girls in my class put it in the bundt pan before she put the cake mix in, like pound cake," said Mrs. Hagler. "She put leaves of the pineapple sage on the bottom of the pan. The cake absorbs the pineapple flavor."
Reach Valerie Rowell at (706) 823-3351 or firstname.lastname@example.org.