Posts Tagged Basil

Growing Culinary Herbs in the Piedmont

My chive bed this past April.

If you like to cook, you really need to grow your own culinary herbs. Even the stuff you buy “fresh” at grocery stores is a sad imitation of the real thing picked from your garden minutes before it adds zest to your latest dish. We are lucky in the southeastern Piedmont region of the US, because most of our winters are mild enough to prevent root kill to traditional perennial culinary herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage. However, you need to remember a few key points to keep these herbs growing happily from year to year.

Growing herbs outdoors

Purple basil in bloom.

As with flowers, some herbs are annuals and some are perennials. Annuals die at the end of the growing season when the first freeze kills them. Common culinary herbs in this category include basil and dill. Most of the oft-used culinary herbs are perennials, which means the plants survive and expand from year to year. Herbs in this category include rosemaries, sages, thymes, and oreganos. True culinary tarragon is categorized as a tender perennial, meaning it is much more likely to die during a cold spell than a sage or a rosemary.

Even within the perennial herb group, some varieties are more tender than others. You didn’t think there is only one kind of sage or rosemary or oregano, did you? Rosemary cultivars alone number probably in the thirties or forties. Thymes come in a stunning array of growth forms and flavors, and even the sages and oreganos offer several distinct varieties.

Culinary sage in bloom this past spring.

Culinary sage today.

Regular culinary sage is indestructible in my garden. However, tricolor sage — a gorgeous plant with leaves sporting cream, pink, and purple leaves — never seems to handle our winter wet spells, no matter what I try. Purple sage has lovely lavender leaves with a milder taste than traditional green culinary sage. Some winters it survives for me; other years I lose it.

Greek oregano today. Note the late-blooming flowers to the left. Flower stalks are tall in spring, and draw every pollinator in the county.

Traditional culinary oregano is downright subtle compared to the in-your-face aroma and zing of Greek oregano. I recommend growing both. Greek oregano rocks home-made pizza. Both varieties survive winters well for me.

Rosemary ‘Salem’ in my front garden.

Happy rosemary plants grow into large sprawling shrubs in the Piedmont. This one in my front garden is about ten years old, and I hack it back regularly to keep it from overwhelming its neighbors. Some rosemary forms and varieties are much hardier than others in our climate. Prostrate rosemaries look fabulous draping over rock walls, but wet spells in winter always seem to kill mine when I try them. Some rosemaries have blue flowers, some pink, and some white. The leaves of some varieties smell like turpentine to my nose, but many are wonderfully sweet and resinous. The two varieties that survive best for me are Salem and Tuscan Blue.

An October rosemary flower.

My rosemary plants bloom at least a bit almost every month of the year, including mild spells in January. Pollinators adore the flowers, as they do the flowers of all culinary herbs.

You really need to see many of the rosemary cultivars growing together to appreciate their diversity. If you are near Chapel Hill, NC, visit the Mercer Reeves Hubbard Herb Garden at the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  They are the keepers of one of the Herb Society of America’s National Rosemary Collections, which means they — along with botanical gardens in other parts of the US — grow every distinct variety of rosemary known and keep records of bloom time, growth rates, etc. In late spring when all the rosemaries are in bloom, you can really appreciate their diversity.

Lemon thyme in bloom this past spring.

Like the rosemaries, thymes come in zillions of forms and flavors — everything from nutmeg thyme to orange thyme to traditional culinary thyme — and many others! Some are much easier to keep alive in the Piedmont than others. Of those varieties I’ve tried, lemon thyme and traditional English culinary thyme are the two that survive well with no help from me. I love them both.

This post is growing lengthy, so I’ll close with a few tips on growing these culinary necessities.

  • The herbs I’ve described today all originated in the Mediterranean region of the world. To keep them happy here, give them full sun and excellent drainage.
  • Never pamper these herbs. Fertilizer and extra water make them grow fast and leggy, and the essential oils that provide their flavor are diluted. A zingy herb plant in the Piedmont grows in hot, dry, unfertilized soil.
  • Don’t try to grow culinary herbs in unamended clay soil. Mediterranean soils are sandy/gravelly. Think rock garden. If your soil is red clay, build a raised bed and amend the clay with sand and a bit of compost to create a fluffy, fast-draining bed.
  • Mediterranean herbs hate our humid summers. Lower branches that touch the ground often develop fungal problems that sometimes kill the plants. My successful strategy to combat this is mulching with white pea gravel beneath the plants. The white gravel prevents branches from touching soggy ground, and the rocks reflect sunlight back up from the ground deep into the middle of plants, keeping them hot and happy.
  • Besides the white gravel, prune up branches near the ground, especially if they start looking sickly. This is especially important with rosemary plants. Don’t be afraid to prune herb plants. They just branch out and grow more.

Growing herbs indoors

Briefly, the secret here is to stop overwatering them. Really, everyone I talk to at the help desk at the NC Botanical Garden and anywhere else always seems to be doing this to their indoor herbs. Let them dry out completely between waterings, and keep them in your sunniest window away from drafts from doors or heating/AC vents. In other words, approximate Mediterranean growing conditions as closely as you can.

This goes for growing them in pots on decks and patios too. Don’t let them sit in large pots full of wet soil. They will not last long that way. Whenever possible, grow them in the ground, preferably near your house, so that you’ll remember to run out and pick fresh cuttings when you’re cooking dinner.

I’ll write more about growing herbs soon. I still need to cover the myriad basils and dills, not to mention parsley, bronze fennel, savories, garlic chives — and the list goes on and on.

Fresh pasta sauce with rosemary, basil, and oregano from the garden anyone?

Lemon basil blooming in the October vegetable garden.

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Brrr! And Greenhouse Updates

Sweet Alyssum Hordes

It is 38.5 degrees F outside as I type this — and it’s almost noon! In the North Carolina piedmont in late March, that’s unusual — not unheard of, but unusual.  What is usual, alas, at least lately, is that our precipitation amounts fell far short of the amounts promised by the meteorologists.

In fact, I’ve just about had it with the meteorologists. They stand confidently in front of their maps, showing off their myriad computer models, assuring viewers of weather events about to occur. And — at least for my yard — they are always wrong. I must live in some kind of weather netherworld, because my temperatures average ten degrees cooler, except on very windy days, and my precipitation amounts are a joke compared to the numbers reported for areas just 30 and 40 miles away. I am trying not to be paranoid, but it’s hard not to suspect a conspiracy — at least not on gloomy, cold days like today.

To cheer myself up, I dug my winter coat out of the closet and visited my greenhouse. I was not disappointed by what I saw. The germination chamber in the back of the top photo is full of six- and 4-packs planted with tomato and basil seedlings. I tucked the freshly planted pots into the chamber on March 23, and today, all but one pack has visible seedlings popping up — not bad for a little over three days.

The basils actually started sprouting after two days. I’m growing four kinds. Two are culinary basils, rich in aromatics — pesto magic. They are called Aroma 2 and Nufar. I’m also growing lemon and cinnamon basils this year. If you’ve never tried these, you should. The lemon basil adds a citrus-basil zing to salads and just about anything else you try it in. Cinnamon basils are gorgeous plants, and I find them wonderful in desserts. They dress up everything from vanilla ice cream with fruit to my favorite pound cake recipes. I’m getting hungry just thinking about them.

As for the tomatoes, two varieties are already sprouted and out of the germination chamber. I sowed them earlier, because they require the most days to produce fruit. They are Purple Russian and Ferline. Here they are with Sweet Alyssum and Fernleaf Dill seedlings.

Purple Russian and Ferline & Friends

You may want to click on the above photo and check out the plant in the pot at the top. It’s a Chinese Asarum that I got years ago at a plant auction. That purple-maroon blob beneath the leaves is its very cool-looking flower. The long strappy leaves in the pot are yellow Zephranthes volunteers. This little bulb seems to self-sow very enthusiastically in my greenhouse.

As for the tomatoes just emerging in the germination chamber now, Viva Italia was first and most numerous. But Sweet Treats, and Early and Italian Goliath seedlings are also now well up.  Late to the party is Big Beef, which is still showing no evidence of germination. But it’s only been a few days. I’m not worried.

I described all these tomato varieties in an earlier post here if you want to read more about them. If you’re wondering about the crowd of seedlings beside the tomatoes, those are the Sweet Alyssum seedlings that I never managed to transplant into individual pots. I told you about them previously here. You can see that their enthusiasm has not waned.

The first photo shows some of the Sweet Alyssums that I did manage to transplant. They are big enough to put into the garden, just as soon as I am sure we are past freezing temperatures for good. That will likely be another couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I’ll be watering the seedlings every few days with a dilute mixture of fish emulsion and seaweed extract to help them remain vigorous.

The spring veggies in the garden are also doing well. I’ll update you on those another day.

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