By Vicki Blachman
Ever wonder what the word “easy” means to a gardener? When you think about it, these are the folks who consider hard work their favorite way to relax and have fun. So what would “easy” plants look like? After some thought, I’ve come up with a few possible answers.
An “easy” plant would be one that didn’t consume all of our available time and energy so we’d have plenty left over for all of those other hundreds of plants we collect. It might be a perennial so that once planted, it would only require a little maintenance, such as a light pruning or top dressing with compost and mulch. Easy plants would tolerate a wide range of humidity levels and wouldn’t consume our entire allotment of precious water during the summer. They’d be tolerant of full sun to dappled shade. And if necessary, they’d thrive happily in tall containers so as to be a little easier on the bad backs we’ve earned from years of not knowing when it’s time to stop.
How convenient that under these guidelines, many herbs make the cut. Honestly, the hardest thing is eliminating so many from a “top five” list. It’s no surprise they’re favorites of experienced gardeners while also being perfect for launching a nervous novice into a lifetime of herb gardening. But before I give you my list of the top five, let’s talk about four favorites that failed to make the list: basil, mint, sage and thyme.
Basil couldn’t be easier to grow, even from seed; and it’s generally considered the one herb to grow if you could only grow one. One reason it didn’t make the cut is it must be replanted each year and only grows in warm weather. Unfortunately, this leaves an empty spot in the garden (or container) during cooler months. Of course, we all know that’s not really a problem if you alternate it with something like dill that thrives in the cold then relinquishes the space as warm temps return. But basil’s also disqualified because Italian chefs believe its fresh, delicate flavor demands it be added at the end of cooking, or preferably after cooking, making it a bit trickier than it seems. I hear you disagreeing with me, but hey! I had to cut something and what could engage you faster than an argument over our favorite herb?
So what about the others? Sage’s unique flavor and fuzzy gray leaves add a touch of tradition to any herb garden. But those same fuzzy leaves make it challenging to grow near the Texas coast where we “enjoy” near-constant high humidity. In comments starting with “Everything I’ve read says this is supposed to be easy to grow, but …” sage, thyme and mint vie for top spot as the few herbs people complain about. Wide fluctuations in soil moisture during our typical Texas summers are also particularly hard on thyme and mint. Yes, raised beds and drip irrigation at soil level will make a huge difference. In fact, those two things, combined with a soil that’s high in organic matter, are keys to success in growing most herbs throughout the widely varied regions of Texas. Given plenty of moisture, mint is even capable of moving to this next category.
Some herbs are actually too easy to grow, and controlling them quickly becomes a drain on your gardening time. Our ongoing drought conditions will keep some of these herbal thugs in check, but one will actually grow through a crack in the asphalt or sidewalk under the full blazing heat of the Death Star! It’s epazote Chenopodium ambrosioides, and also known as Dysphania ambrosioides. Not easily found in your local market, this is one you may be tempted to grow for that authentic pot of Mexican-style beans. But be wary of herbs like this hombre that easily take over a garden, popping up everywhere through spreading roots or by flinging seeds to the four winds.
So what did make the list? A mix of old favorites chosen for their durability in Texas gardens and the great flavor they bring to our kitchens with little or no effort. We can learn a basic rule of herb gardening from each, and as an added bonus, their blooms attract and support an assortment of beneficial pollinators throughout the year. If you’re new to herbs, start with transplants rather than seeds.
Not only first in alphabetical order, it’s also the first herb I recommend novice herb gardeners plant. There are two basic types, commonly called onion chives or garlic chives. Onion chives (Allium shoenoprasum) will taste like a mild green onion and add a nice “herbal” flavor to almost any savory food. Adding a sprinkle of freshly minced chives to a dish just before serving is one of the easiest ways to start incorporating fresh herbs into your cooking because it’s so easy to do and so difficult to get wrong. As onion chives easily lose their flavor when heated, it’s also the best way to use this herb. (I know, you’re thinking about basil again. You may be right.)
Onion chives’ small, pale lavender-to-pink blooms appear in the spring and are powerful honeybee magnets for the garden. Use these edible orbs as garnish or toss into a fresh green salad for added flavor and color. If you prefer a more assertive version, grow garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) with their hotter, stronger flavor. Their white floral “umbels” appear in summer and are also highly attractive to bees. To distinguish between the two chive types, identify the mature plants by their leaf structure. Small round tubes are onion chives and flat blades are garlic chives. Given good drainage and rich soil, both types will spread in clumps that are easily divided. Garlic chives grow larger and somewhat more easily than onion chives.
Although possible to grow from seed, start with transplants at first to give you something to cook with. It will get you in the fresh herb habit.
Mexican mint marigold
It’s hard to imagine this herb garden staple wasn’t widely grown that long ago. It took the persuasive power of Madalene Hill to get Tagetes lucida introduced to the nursery trade, and we’ve been grateful ever since. If you’ve been discouraged by attempts at growing French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus), this sturdy plant may be the solution. Its peppery flavor and scent have been compared to tarragon; and while they are significantly different, it is possible to substitute Mexican mint marigold in recipes calling for French tarragon. Until familiar with its flavor, use a light touch and add it late in cooking to prevent the flavor from cooking away.
In the garden, it grows approximately three feet high and wide. My poorly treated plant has to reach out for full sun with its roots in light shade. It still provides a generous fall bounty of small deep-golden flowers and reliably returns each spring if a freeze knocks it down to the ground.
Four to six hours of full sun are ideal for most herbs, but many will also perform well in light shade.
There’s a confusing number of oreganos from which to choose. A favorite of many is Origanum x. majoricum, both for its winter-hardiness and a delightful flavor that lends itself to far more than pizza. It’s one Origanum you won’t mind chopping up and tossing with fresh salads as its mild flavor is sweet, never too hot or harsh. However crossbreeding, common names and poor labeling make it difficult to know for certain what you’re purchasing: oregano or marjoram, Greek or Sicilian, spicy/hot or fragrant/mild. Rather than relying on a label or name, trust your senses to choose the one for you. My favorite tends to have smallish green leaves with pale silvery shading and only the slightest fuzz. Lightly brush the leaves to breathe in the scent and then taste a leaf. If you detect a spicy foundation rounded out by sweetness, you’re on track. If it’s overpoweringly spicy, hot or pungent, keep looking.
Oregano can easily grow quite large. Get in the habit of cutting the plant back by about one-third in the early fall and again in spring to keep it manageable. I tend to let mine bloom as a nectar source for the bees, then cut it back fairly severely and add compost around the plant.
Remember, whether finding the right plant or choosing what herb to use in a particular dish, trust your sense of smell. If it smells like it will be delicious, it probably will be.
Find rosemary a sunny, well-drained spot in your garden and, once established, it will require surprisingly little of you. In fact, rosemary is one of those plants more easily killed by a gardener’s frequent coddling than by neglect. Common practice has been to water lightly and often. This doesn’t encourage the formation of deep roots, and does allow the soil to dehydrate rapidly. A better practice is to top the soil with a thick annual dressing of three inches of compost, covered with two to three inches of mulch to keep moisture and temperature fluctuations to a minimum. Check your plants in the morning for signs of wilting (rather than in the afternoon, when moderate wilting is a plant’s normal response to heat) and water deeply as needed. If tempted to water more often, try misting the leaves occasionally instead to emulate the coastal fog that is common to its native habitat.
It’s also helpful to find a site where rosemary will be protected from icy north winds in the winter. Often these drying winds, not the cold itself, are what kill a plant. Where it’s possible to plant rosemary so that it can tumble over a stone wall, prostrate rather than upright varieties are at their showy best. They reliably blush out in thick clusters of blue blooms each fall, often continuing throughout the winter and providing bees a welcome nectar source. If upright varieties better suit your garden, take cuttings to promote new growth. A heavy pruning after a long spell without one can be hard on the plant.
For cooking, the fresh needle-like leaves are a world apart from anything available dried. In fact, in my book dried rosemary doesn’t even exist — it’s that unacceptable. Don’t limit rosemary to savory items. A natural affinity with lemon and orange makes it a natural addition to lemonade and margaritas as well as any citrusy sweets. Add a small measure of finely minced rosemary to the recipe, gradually increasing the amount to your individual preference.
Check moisture levels in the morning, then water deeply and less frequently to encourage deep roots. Your herbs will be healthier and require less water overall.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) almost didn’t make this list. Far too often this member of the mint family is allowed to grow without restriction, fostering a perception of a harsh, unpleasant soapy flavor. But therein lies the lesson it brings. Frequent use is healthier for the plant and ensures a flush of young tender leaves will always be available to add a lovely flavor of honey-tinged citrus to cooking and tisanes. In fact, the simplest use of lemon balm is a hot beverage made by infusing hot water with the fresh leaves.
Sweet Melissa, as it’s often called, grows very easily in light-to-moderate shade and needs minimal watering once established. Since the Middle Ages, there are records of its use for a soothing or calming effect. It was even considered worthy of cultivation by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The name “Melissa” comes from the Greek word for bee, possibly because its small white flowers attract bees in noticeably large numbers.
Use your herbs often and keep frequently trimmed to encourage a bushy growth habit. The tender new leaves will taste better and the plant will be healthier.
There were so many herbs that barely failed to make the cut: bay laurel, winter savory and more. Their last lesson for us is there are so many more than just five herbs that are worthy of your attention and gardening energy. Hopefully, you caught me sneaking in hints on how to grow many of the others not included here and your garden will literally grow far beyond these five basic backbones of the Texas herb garden.