Autumn-Season Herbs

By William Scheick
Contributing Editor

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 circle.

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 drainage.

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.

Thyme proves 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.

Like other 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.

Fans 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 weather.

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.

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