Climate specialists define
November through February as the Central Texas cool
season. Anyone who has seen children perspiring
uncomfortably inside their Halloween costumes knows why
October is omitted from the cool-season category.
Even so, reasonable hopes for autumnal herbs begin
in October, especially in the northern half of our
state. Certainly the ground contains enough warmth for
anyone who wants to start with seed. On the other hand,
many in-ground cool-season herbs prove hard to maintain
beyond mid-December, which leaves us with about two
months or so for an optimal outcome. Given that tight
timeframe, purchased potted plants (my preference) offer
quicker, more certain bounty than seed.
During the autumn season
our in-ground herbs might best be limited to smallish,
well-defined areas that allow for easy watering or
protective covering, as needed. Basic bed designs
include squares or rectangles with walkway rows. Curved
patterns always add extra eye-appeal to a layout. I
particularly like petite, self-contained arcs located
along plant-bed edges.
Complete circles outlined
in stone and divided evenly into pie-slice sectors
always impress. However, if aiming for a complete herb
circle requires more space than you have available or
want to cultivate, consider fashioning only three
adjacent pie-slice portions. When growing herbs, at
least, a satisfying design does not require an entire
The use of large stones to outline an
herb bed allows for the addition of new soil — ideally a
mixture of 50 percent inorganic solids and 50 percent
organic matter. If the soil already in place is being
reutilized, loosen its surface to aerate what the prior
months have compacted and, at the same time, work in
substantial amounts of compost. Unlike tap-rooted
comfrey, most herbs root shallowly and so do not need
much dirt depth. On the other hand, they do benefit from
organic amendments to gritty soils with excellent
Calculating sun exposure usually proves
to be a more serious issue than space allotment. October
sunlight remains pretty intense, capable of withering
young herbs unprotected by afternoon shade. During that
month my herbs enjoy “broken” light beneath live-oak
canopies. As October segues toward December, however,
the sun “sinks” lower and lower toward the southern
horizon, leaving our herbs with less light and warmth.
That’s why some people prefer to grow their greens in
containers that can be moved from one setting to another
as needed — not only to adjust for available sunlight
but also to allow for a mad herb-dash into the garage to
dodge an overnight freeze.
Two of my favorite herbs don’t give
a hoot about freezes: rosemary and oregano. I have
celebrated the marvel of rosemary’s landscape
versatility in an earlier article (TG Nov./Dec.
2017) and simply report here that (in my experience) no
herb surpasses this one’s extraordinary performance as
an all-season plant. Although every rosemary variety
yields edible foliage, some cooks prefer ‘Spice Island,’
‘Alba’ and ‘Barbecue’ — cultivars that withstand winters
in the lower half of Texas.
My in-ground Mexican
“oregano” (actually Poliomintha longiflora)
blooms and endures year after year as a dappled-light
companion plant in the lush greenbelt separating my
front yard from the street. My well-established,
wide-potted Italian oregano proves just as
drought-tolerant and winter-hardy, lasting for years
beneath a live oak while requiring almost nothing from
me during tough times — a mere blanket, for instance,
during two 18º-days last winter! This mountain-native
spice benefits from watering now and then, excellent
drainage (no waterlogged roots) and modest pinching back
for compactness or to prevent bolting. Besides Italian,
try Greek, Russian and Syrian oregano to find the
flavors you prefer.
Cool-season culinary sage (salvia) readies itself as an
ingredient for Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Of course
this drought-tolerant, alkaline-soil sun-lover has other
culinary uses, though its pungency limits my own
kitchen-use of it. Instead, I simply enjoy its vibrancy
and abundance, especially deep-green broadleaf varieties
with white-margined foliage — so beautiful, I think of
them as ornamentals. In fact, culinary sage comes in so
many colorful selections that it’s easy to fashion a
beautiful cool-season islet of companioned lime-green,
grey-green, purple-green, golden-green, tri-color and
other variously variegated types.
far more useful to me in the kitchen, where sprinkles of
it garnish stews, soups and salads. It remained an
essential plant in colonial American kitchen gardens,
where it and other herbs were grown for many medicinal
purposes. Thyme shares sage’s low level of care as long
as it receives enough sunlight and its roots do not stay
wet. And also like sage, the many varieties of thyme
allow for a vibrant bedding mixture of features, ranging
from upright branching types to creeping selections
ready to cutely sprawl over container or rock edges.
Quaint lore, often involving the afterlife,
surrounds both thyme and sage. The Greek origin of the
word “thyme” refers to “spirit,” and so this robust herb
has long contributed to rites of passage furthering a
deceased person’s post-life journey. Sage, on the other
hand, has an equally long history of being burned
(smudging) to spiritually purify — “salvia” means “heal”
— the habitation of a departed spirit and also to sooth
the feelings of the living. None of this lore interests
bees, butterflies or hummingbirds, which delight in the
healthy floral treats of bolted sage and thyme.
LEMON BALM, PENNYROYAL
mint-family members, cool-season lemon balm (unlike
fussy lemon verbena) might be a bit too effortless to
grow. Given a chance, this two-footer will try to fill
in every available space in your garden bed, in sun or
light shade. And it’s not fussy about soil type, either.
Lemon balm’s genus name Melissa refers to
bees, which readily loot the small flowers of this
vigorous herb (also known as lemon mint). Gardeners
relish the scent of its leaves, which can be used
lightly in teas and salads. Deer, on the other hand,
prefer to avoid the foliage due to its citrusy essential
oils (geraniol, citronellal, geranial and neral). Two
fun-facts about these citrusy leaves: in colonial times,
American settlers added lemon-balm oil to jams in lieu
of lemon juice; today, some people disperse this herb’s
foliage on the ground to deter squash bugs.
of homemade tea might prefer apple-scented Roman and
German chamomile rather than lemon balm. Although Roman
and German chamomile are different plants, both produce
lovely daisy-like flowers and both are truly
autumn-season herbs. They easily withstand Central Texas
winters and generally wither away during our hot
European pennyroyal — a highly
aggressive mint-family relative of lemon balm that
likewise requires containment — has historically been
utilized as a pest repellant. Colonial American
settlers, for instance, relied on it to ward off fleas.
That was less wise than it seemed at the time, however.
High doses of its peppermint-scented oil (cyclohexanone
pulegone) actually prove to be toxic when applied to
pets or humans. Surprisingly, boiled pennyroyal (also
known as fleabane and mosquito plant) was also a
colonial standby for adding a hint of mint to food and
drinks. Adults only! — if you are tempted to try this.
I simply enjoy the beauty of pennyroyal. I also
appreciate the care-freeness of pennyroyal’s
bright-green creeping branches, even if they can get out
of hand. It’s easy to value this herb’s cool-season,
“weedy” vigor as it completely spreads across a garden
sector that I’m too lazy to utilize more productively
this time around.
Like rosemary, comfrey is an all-season herb in Texas.
Branched, very deep taproots account for its cold
hardiness and heat tolerance — making it a “forever”
perennial. As with mints, be sure you want comfrey
before planting it — it readily spreads underground,
where even a remaining piece of an extracted taproot
might generate a new plant. In fact, this herb can be
simply propagated from small cuttings of its roots.
Comfrey’s foliage mounds sprout quickly once comfrey
roots become established. Eventually, even in late
winter in Texas, these two-by-two-foot mounds sprout
small white, lavender or pink floral bells that “toll”
for bees and other beneficial pollinators. Its abundant
leaves can be mulched to nourish other crops. As an
unfussy companion planting, “managed” comfrey brings
health to a garden.
Usually long and wide leaves
would limit a plant’s drought resistance. Not in
comfrey’s case, however. The compactness and bristled
undersides of its foliage restrict moisture loss, making
comfrey a drought buster throughout the year.
Sweet woodruff, a lesser-known plant these days,
provides a pretty autumnal groundcover for garden spots
too shady for other herbs. It emits a divine smell that
has appealed to people as far back as records mention
the plant. Displaying starry (palmate compound) foliage
and white lacey flowers, this herb pleases the eye as
much as the nose.
In light shade, sweet woodruff
excels when planted in soil enriched by organic matter.
It needs water during droughty stretches. Like
pennyroyal, sweet woodruff spreads by runners and can
become equally invasive in fostering settings. With both
herbs, however, relying on large stones to define their
restricted bed enables easy access for sheers to sever
any stolons sneaking over rock edges and searching for
new territory to conquer.