By Sharon Burnette – Hopkins County Master Gardener
When my husband and I moved to East Texas fifteen years ago, I looked forward to having a garden and especially an herb garden. At first my focus was growing herbs for cooking. Over time I learned herbs are found almost everywhere and have generally been defined as “the useful plant”. In addition to cooking, herbs are used for making scents and perfumes, aromatherapy, herbal healing in folklore and modern medicine, landscaping, attracting beneficial insects and deterring unwanted insects and wildlife. Because herbs hybridize readily, new varieties are created every year for specific markets or needs.
Using herbs in your landscaping requires assessing the location being considered as to whether you need low hedges and borders, background plants, tall plants, sunny or shade-tolerant plants, or ground covers. Different herbs can meet a variety of needs. The key to growing herbs, like any plant, begins with keeping the soil healthy. Successful gardeners are continually working to improve and maintain good soil by assessing the soil at least every planting season and then adding the necessary amendments. These amendments help to maintain desired soil depth (18 inches), fertility, microorganism health, and needed space between particles in soil for optimum air and water circulation. An excellent amendment is compost, whether homemade or commercial. Herbs require soil with good drainage—herbs left in standing water leads to root rot.
Annual herbs should be watered like any annual plants; for example, treat basil as you do other heat-lovers. Lavender, rosemary sage, and thyme grow best when leaves stay mostly dry. For best results water them at ground level. This is especially true with lavender which I discovered when the lavender in my vegetable garden was doing so much better than that in my flowerbeds. Difference being we use drip irrigation in the vegetable garden. The other herbs are a bit more tolerant.
Mulching will help conserve moisture and keep the soil cooler in the hot Texas summer months. However, don’t pile it up around 4-inch herbs; most small herb plants need good air circulation, or their stems will begin to rot. Especially pull back mulch when planting rosemary, lavender, sage and thyme. A better option for these Mediterranean natives is a layer of loose gravel which improves drainage and reduces stem rot. Gravel also reflects heat up into the plant’s dense center helping dry any wet leaves.
Herbs do need to be fertilized; however, be careful not to over fertilize herbs—it produces lavish overgrowth but diminished flavor. For example, over fertilization of some herbs, like mint and basil, increases flowering, reducing leaf production and flavor. Cutting off blooms before flowering will save more energy for leaves and maintain flavor. The best way to keep your herbs in shape is by using them and gently pruning often to avoid excessive leaf drop that produces bare, woody stems.
I enjoy continuing to incorporate herbs into our landscape. In addition to my herb garden, I have them in my vegetable garden, flowerbeds and container pots. Some of my favorite herbs are rosemary, basil, lavender, pineapple sage, and Mexican bush sage. Pineapple sage and Mexican bush sage bloom summer to early frost drawing both hummingbirds and butterflies. There are herbs to fit your every need!