The women who founded the Herb Society of America in 1933 said herbs are for use and for delight. From basil in spring rolls to fennel seeds in Italian sausage to the lavender essential oil in our diffusers, herbs are more versatile than we give them credit for.
Baton Rouge’s own branch of the Herb Society of America celebrated its third annual Herb Day last weekend with workshops (like how to use herbs in cocktails) and herbs for sale. The society hosts other events throughout the year, like a Kentucky Derby party, coming up in May.
We at 225 dig herbs so much that (gardening puns aside) we wanted the Herb Society’s tips on how to plant our own. Now that the weather’s warmer, we asked Mary Williams, vice chair of the Baton Rouge Unit of the Herb Society of America, to share her best tips for growing herbs in Louisiana.
First, the lowdown on herbs. Herbs are classified as perennial or annual. Perennial herbs like mint or rosemary grow up in the same spot each year. Annual herbs don’t. Instead, when pollinators like bees and butterflies fertilize annual herbs like basil, the herbs make seeds that scatter and begin to grow on their own. Annual herbs don’t last through freezes. Perennials do.
“If you have something like mint or thyme or oregano, they’ll grow back up from their own roots, even if the cold will kill them on the top because the roots are perennial,” Williams says.
As long as those winter freezes are behind us, now’s the time to start planting herbs. Herbs won’t grow when the weather’s too cold or too hot. In fact, Williams says summer in Louisiana is the worst time for herb growth because the heat scorches them.
Planting herbs in the coming weeks will give them enough time to mature and take root before late-spring and summer heat up. Fall (through October or so, until temperatures drop) is also ideal for planting herbs. Fennel, for example, thrives in cool weather.
Some plants adapt best to warmer weather. Take basil. Basil grows in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia. “It can deal with hot weather, but this is a good time to plant it,” Williams says.
Growing plants isn’t just about the temperature. Good soil is just as important.
Louisiana’s soil is so acidic that gardeners have to adjust the PH level of the soil for most plants to do well in the ground, Williams says. Her solution? Mixing a couple of handfuls of crushed limestone with the soil.
Don’t worry, apartment-dwellers. If you don’t have a yard, you can still make your herb garden dreams happen. Balconies and patios that get sunlight are ideal places to grow potted herbs. Potted herbs might not last indoors because of the limited sunlight but can still grow in a windowsill that gets a lot of sun, Williams says. Just be aware of size. Some herbs like dill and fennel get to be three or four feet tall.
Ready to grow your own garden? Here are five ways to use herbs:
• Dried to add flavor to food. Sage, tarragon and rosemary are great for this.
• Dried to make potpourri. Lavender, lemon balm and spearmint work well.
• Pesto. Basil is the main go-to, but oregano and parsley are worthy substitutes.
• In cocktails. Lavender mint julep, anyone?
• Fresh off the sprig. Use in anything from fruit salad (basil or mint) to lasagna (oregano).