Gardeners have grown herbs for centuries to flavor food, for medicinal purposes, to discourage insect invaders and for religious ceremonies. Herbs are a delight to the senses—sight, smell, touch and taste. Many herbs grow well in North Texas and several were grown in the Dig’s herb, butterfly and vegetable gardens. Most herb plants desire full sun, although a few tolerate and even prefer shade. Herbs for Texas gardeners, according to the Texas AgrilLife Extension Service and the Herb Association of Texas, include:
The DiG Herb Garden
At the Dig in 2011, we planted coriander (cilantro), chervil, garlic, onions and sage. We added ginger mint, stevia and curry herbs for tea. For the Mediterranean cooking enthusiasts, we grew basil, bay, thyme, sage, dill, parsley and fennel. We planted some Mexican mint marigold – also known as Texas tarragon – which grows more successfully in Texas than French tarragon and offers bright yellow flowers in the fall. Purple coneflower and calendula added color as our medicinal herbs.
Planting and Care
Herbs may be grown from seed or transplant. Annual herbs, such as basil, get a quicker start and perform more reliably using transplants. Cilantro and dill grow well either from seeds or transplants. Perennial herbs, including thyme, sage and rosemary do best as transplanted seedlings. If planting mint, give it its own space or place it in a container, as mints spread rapidly and have difficult roots to remove when they invade another plant’s space.
Plant herbs in rich, well-drained soil enhanced with two inches of compost. Follow directions on seed packets for depth of planting. Place transplants at a depth equal to the depth in their seeding container. Water in well after planting. Check water needs for each type of herb in your garden, as many – but not all — prefer dry growing conditions. Most herbs benefit from a light application of fertilizer twice a year. Use a balanced, slow-release fertilizer or a nitrogen-only fertilizer, if the area has been well composted or fertilized with a balanced fertilizer the previous year. Cut back or deadhead herbs when stems turn brown or to delay the plant bolting and going to seed.
Harvesting and Preserving
Herbs can be used fresh or dried to flavor meat, soup, stews, salads and vegetables. Harvest herbs just prior to flowering. You can prune as much as one-third of the plant without doing harm to future growth. (“Herb Gardening in Texas”; Sol Meltzer; 1997.) Mid-morning is a good time to harvest herbs, as their essential oils are optimized just after the dew burns off and before the mid-day heat.
Drying herbs is the best method of preservation, according to the National Center for Food Preservation. You can use a dehydrator set to 95°F to 115°F. Clean the herbs with cool water and shake before placing on a single layer in the dehydrator. On humid days, raise the dehydrator temperature to 125°F. Herbs have completed drying when they crumble or stems break apart. For less tender herbs, like rosemary, sage and thyme, you can dry them by hanging bunches in a well-ventilated area and allowing them to air dry. Alternatively, herbs may be dried in an oven set at its lowest temperature or in a microwave — following manufacturer’s instructions. After herbs are completely dry, store them in an airtight container.
Depending on the severity of the winter weather, rosemary, thyme and sage may continue to grow through cold weather allowing them to be harvested fresh all year in North Texas.
A preservation option to drying herbs is freezing them. Clean herbs and shake off excess water. Place them on a cookie sheet in the freezer. After they are completely frozen, remove from cookie sheet and place in plastic freezer bags — or you can place the cleaned herbs directly into freezer bags and place in the freezer. You can also chop herbs and put the pieces into an ice cube tray. Cover the chopped herbs with water and freeze. Once frozen, remove the cubes from the tray and place in a freezer bag. Frozen herbs maintain flavor, but not appearance. Use them for flavoring stews and soups, but not as garnishes.