Get down and dirty in the garden
Cynthia Meredith has been gardening with herbs, reading about herbs, and discussing herb gardening in Texas for more than 20 years. She has owned The Herb Cottage (www.theherbcottage.com) for over 10 years, selling herb plants to people all over our state.
As fall continues with more rain and still greatly fluctuating temperatures, some of the best herbs are really coming into their own. Even though we've had quite a few warm days in between some picture-perfect fall days of cool, dry, sunny weather, the cool season annuals are thriving.
Cool season annuals are herb or flower crops that do not succeed in our hot, humid summer weather. These varieties need the lower temperatures of our fall, winter and early spring to be at their best. The most commonly grown herbs of the cool season annuals are cilantro, dill, arugula and chervil along with the edible flowers of calendula, violets and nasturtiums. If you're going to grow edible flowers, as with the herbs, be sure they haven't been treated with chemical pesticides or fungicides.
Photo courtesy of HERBALPEDIA™
Nasturtiums like cool weather but cannot take a frost. I always plant them in the fall just in case I can get some blooms before our first frost. Then I plant them again in the very early spring and grow them out until the hot, humid weather takes them out in early summer. These would do well in north and far west Texas if planted in early spring. Both the flowers and the leaves make a peppery addition to salads.
The one herb many in Texas and among my Farmers' Market customers wait somewhat impatiently for is cilantro. This herb seems to engender either love or hate. There isn't much middle ground, as in: "Oh, cilantro's OK, I guess." People seem to either really love the flavor of this herb or they detest it. Cilantro is used in almost all Tex-Mex dishes. Even though it's found year-round in the produce department of the grocery store, often the bunches are large and one or two dishes a week doesn't use up all that is purchased and there is considerable waste... unless you have chickens to feed it to! Growing cilantro yourself allows you just enough for each dish you use it in.
Photo courtesy of www.ehow.com
Cilantro likes a sunny spot to grow in. Water needs are average. The one issue with cilantro in our southern Texas area is that a few warm days during winter will cause the plant to bolt, or to send up a flower stalk. That signals the end of the regular growth of the plant. The leaves turn from the flat, parsley-like leaves to sort of a ferny appearance.
Photo courtesy of www.fragrantfields.com
The cilantro plant is starting to bolt - notice the ferny leaves forming.
Umbrels of small white flowers appear at the top of the flower stalk. While the plant is in bloom, however, it is still usable. The ferny leaves can be used just as you would the flat leaves, and the flowers can also be eaten. The leaves and flowers also make a nice filler in a cut flower arrangement.
Photo courtesy of HERBALPEDIA™
If you let the plant flower and go to seed, the ripe seeds are known as the spice coriander.These are useful in baking and in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Invariably some seeds will fall from your plant and there you'll have more cilantro when the soil and moisture conditions are right for the seed to germinate. Or you can collect the seed to save and share with other gardeners or plant later.
A packet of cilantro seeds is inexpensive and holds far more seeds than you need to plant at one time.
To have fresh cilantro all season, you can do what is called "succession planting". This method means you plant a small amount of seed at given intervals... say every 3 weeks or so. That way, you have new plants coming along as the older ones are fading out or bolting. Cilantro seed, or coriander, is a large seed, easy to handle and does well directly seeding in your herb, flower or vegetable bed. You can also start the seeds in little containers for transplanting.
Cilantro also does well in a container if you like to grow your herbs that way. If you live in the northern or far western parts of Texas, and want cilantro all winter, you should grow it in pots. While cilantro can take a light freeze without much damage, a hard freeze will kill it. Watch the weather, and if a hard freeze is predicted move your cilantro indoors until the weather warms up.
If you like cilantro, do yourself a favor, and grow your own. It's one of the easiest herbs to grow and loves our cool Texas seasons.