Learn about how the author succeeds with Southern herb gardening in a difficult climate.
Southern Herb Gardening
It was 1989, and my life was like a Dali painting gone berserk. Seventeen years in a highly stressful profession had prepared me for permanent residence in a padded room somewhere; the big “four-oh” was staring me in the face like an angry cobra; and both of my children were under the age of eight. Something had to change: I needed to make a new decision about what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I took an extended leave of absence. As I played with my dandy collection of house plants and did a bit of horticultural reading, I found that I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty (what I like to call dirt-diving). I also began to realize that the landscape planting around our house was truly awful. Oh, it was neat and well kept, but it was dull: the plants were the same low-maintenance, evergreen, Southern standby shrubs that everyone else had. I began driving around my city, getting ideas and learning which plants grew well, and gradually I began to see a glimmer of design potential for my own home.
At this point, several very timely events occurred, after which I never looked back. One was my first pungent whiff of santolina; I think that’s what really got me started thinking about herbs. Then I happened across a copy of Samuel J. Touchstone’s Herbal and Folk Medicine of Louisiana and Adjacent States. Touchstone is one of my area’s most captivatingly colorful, knowledgable, and personable luminaries, and my eyes were opened to the staggering array of native and naturalized herbs in our area. As my excitement grew, several people told me, “You can’t grow herbs in the South!” Well, throw down the gauntlet to ME! Farming runs in my family, and I just couldn’t resist such a challenge.
Then, at the apex of this crossroads of my life, Lady Luck led me to cross paths with Bertha Reppert of The Rosemary House in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. This enthusiastic woman swept me under her wing and became my mentor, generously bestowing encouragement, direction, and knowledge.
But alas, Bertha lived two hardiness zones away, and she had four seasons where I had three. Obviously, I’d have to do a bit of improvisation and adaptation to deal with the legendary Southern Detriments: stifling heat, horrendous humidity, a constant siege from the entire insect world, high water table with no drainage at or below sea level, and rich, acidic soils. Perhaps the greatest challenge was the truly irrational climate, which consists of three seasons—Hot, Wet, and Cruddy.
So I began reading, and over the course of one entire cold, drizzly Cruddy, I ferreted out every scrap of information I could find on local soil types, the availability of seeds and plants of herbs which grow well in our crazy clime, and the labor required to restructure my suburban yards into Herb Havens. Since I’m a full-fledged readoholic, this was not an unpleasant task. And along the way, I became ever more captivated by the history and lore connected with herbs. It was irresistible: relatively low maintenance, a plentiful supply of vitamins, culinary enhancement, potpourri, hair and skin improvement, household applications, crafts, not to mention the free trip to odoriferous paradise.
Armed with all this information and inspiration (my blessings upon Phyllis Shaudys, Bertha Reppert, and Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay!) and the goodwill and muscles of my spouse (who should be sainted), I was ready to get this herb show on the road.
Our main problem, and our most important accomplishment, was getting the herbs’ feet out of the bayou water table to allow the necessary drainage. (“Why do these beds have to be so high?” grumbled Saint Spouse.) We used 4-inch landscape timbers on footings of bricks and boulders to raise the bed at least 16 inches high—a necessity for this area. (“We’re building FENCES!” ranted the Saint.)
As for climate, my fellow Sun Belters, don’t be misled by gardeners who are living in and writing from the “Temperate Zones.” Connecticut and Vermont are a world away from our relentlessly scorching Southern summer sun and the completely unpredictable, warmishly-cold-rainy “winter” (Cruddy). Yes, we do have a year-round growing season, but oh, what we Dixie gardeners must go through to revel in this subtropical clime!
First of all, we never “dream of a White Christmas.” So how can we entice a perennial plant into a much-needed period of dormancy when “Happy New Year” may usher in a week of mid-seventies temperatures—followed the next week with mid-twenties, drizzle, and sleet? Well, we just have to trick the little greensters into a seasonal sleep. This is done with a fairly severe pruning back after the first hard freeze, followed by bedding down with heavy mulch, topped with evergreen boughs for an extra blanket. (Recycle those Christmas trees!) The really tender perennials such as lemon verbena and pineapple sage may get a plastic cover—a freezer-bag tent or a large garbage-bag swaddling, depending on size, or a tucking-in with one of the commercial mesh “warmth covers” that’s available in long rolls. My bay tree and lemon eucalyptus get such warm overcoats on windy, rainy nights below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
And what is “full sun”? Around here, it’s a heat stroke! Only the strongest survive the searing, egg-frying Southland sun. In my years of trying out hundreds of herbs, I’ve found that the only ones that can take it are vetiver, lemongrass, epazote, curry plant, sweet Annie, green santolina, Cuban oregano, and some thymes. (There probably are others I haven’t tried.) The solution, which is second in importance only to the raised beds, is a well-placed deciduous tree, preferably NOT a fruit tree, aimed to shade from around noon to about 3 p.m. from late May through September. When water is needed during those baking months, put it on only in the late evening. With the frequent rains and constant high humidity, the soil tends to stay damp, and when Ol’ Sol roasts the earth, roots cook. Frankly, I’d rather deal with a little potential mildew or fungus than boiled roots! And thanks be to Ceres: I’ve not had the problems I could have.
Enter The Enemy: Southern Garden Pests
So we’ve got the raised beds, the preferred conditions for our favorite herbs to thrive in this area, and the weather sort of figured out. Now our hard-earned success is sending out a homing beacon to every sap-sucking, leaf-eating, disease-carrying insect on the North American continent! Whitefly Gestapo, aphid terrorist swarms, spider mite hordes, mealybug gangs, the caterpillars and larvae of every critter that eventually flies—they’re all here to eat our plants. Cutworms, grubworms, flea beetle sneak attacks, nasty red ant beds—and all led by those major thugs, the slugs! How can I be environmentally conscious when every creeping, crawling, and flying herbal smörgåsbord-seeker from Guatemala to the Yukon has cast a hungry eye on MY plants? It’s a brutal, winner-take-all battle, complicated by the fond hope that I might eventually consume some of my own garden’s bounty. And I haven’t even mentioned those little herb-bandit squirrels, which are prolific among our over-abundant live oak, pecan, and pine trees.
Several strategies have emerged for keeping those voracious critters befuddled. The most acceptable include companion planting, pyrethrins, close examination and hand-picking of the despicable destructos, and attack with a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol or a small paintbrush and liquid detergent or cooking oil (a pump spray of these concoctions will do, too). Another approach entails quality time with my daughter: an hour after nightfall, we slink outside, armed with non-iodized salt and a flashlight, for a full-fledged slug-bust! (Zapping other ruinous nightstalkers garners extra points.) If such massive assaults fail, and you’re not inclined to use more toxic solutions, DISCARD THE PLANTS!
Please don’t be alarmed. If Southland herb gardening were as dire as all this seems to indicate, there wouldn’t be so many of us gracious, hospitable, slow-talkin’ Suth’ners doing it. Once we have faced the problems, we can go about solving them, and we have lots of shortcuts and tricks up our sleeves. One I strongly suggest is soil testing. Strange pockets of varying acid and alkaline soils are tucked from one end of Zones 8 and 9 to the other. Pine trees usually indicate an acid or clay soil; San Antonio sits on a huge limestone slab, which makes for very alkaline soil. Complete soil analyses (including mineral content) are available through your Parish/County Farm Agent for a very small fee. Be prepared to amend your soil; most herbs prefer a loose, friable, neutral-to-alkaline home. Several types of do-it-yourself products are obtainable at nurseries and garden centers.
The Southern Zones
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently revised (1990) Plant Hardiness Map of North America defines 11 zones according to average minimum annual temperatures ranging from below –50 degrees (Zone 1) to above 40 degrees (Zone 11). Each zone represents a change of 10 degrees. A zone number associated with a plant generally indicates the coldest zone in which you can grow the plant outdoors. Normally, though, these ratings are quite conservative, and you’ll find few herbs listed with ratings below zone 3.
When you try to interpret zone ratings, remember that many other factors besides average minimum annual temperature affect plant survival and growth. In the southern zones shown here (7 through 10), maximum temperatures may take on greater importance, and in all zones, local differences in temperature, and in humidity, precipitation, and soil character—in mountains, around a large city or lake, within a neighborhood, or even in a backyard—can be extreme.
Zone 8 is an excellent example of such extreme differences. It includes the flat, sandy stretches of North Florida; the rich, silty, hilly spheres in the Mississippi and Red River Valleys; the dry, alkaline expanse of the Texas Hill Country; and a huge clay tract running south of the highlands from East Texas to Georgia. It contains regions that get fairly regular winter dustings of snow, and sections where once-in-a-blue-moon snow flurries cause chaos and panic. The broad Texas–New Mexico plateau receives more intensely hot, drying summer sun than does the coastal Southeast, which is often overcast and rainy.
One thing that distinguishes Zones 8 and 9 from the cooler zones is the number of different seasons in a year. In Zones 8 and 9, there are three—Hot, Wet, and Cruddy—which reveal themselves differently in the vastly differing areas within the zones.
Southern Herb Gardening: Trial and Error
I discovered with great sadness that I could not grow some of Bertha Reppert’s pet herbs—including angelica, lamb’s-ears, mullein, goldenseal, and scented geraniums—but I was determined to find substitutes. French tarragon detests my humidity and rich, acidic soil, but I found Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida) a superb tarragon stand-in. This well-behaved perennial has to be used fresh, as it doesn’t dry or store well, and it’s a bit milder than tarragon, but it provides leaves for 10 months, it likes west sun and medium water, and it’s a good background plant—four feet tall and stately—which festoons the garden with a riot of purple and yellow “marigolds” in the fall. Prune to the ground and mulch after the first big freeze.
In our year-round growing season, some varieties of tomatoes will produce a second crop if planted in August. Fennel, dill, parsley, calendula, cilantro, and a few others are best planted in the early autumn. And so many nifty herbs are evergreen down here. Those that peak in the cooler months include salad burnet, santolina, winter savory, soapwort, myrtle, sweet woodruff, some garden sages, a few of the silver-leaved artemisias, and southernwood (my pet). In winter-sunny, slightly protected areas, tansy, thymes, and oregano stay green and productive.
In this climate, there are “challenge herbs” and “E-Z grows”. Because I tend to be a plant collector, relishing the challenge of growing and keeping alive the unusual and sometimes rare herbs, I polled some of my closest herb-growing pals on the South’s “Top 10 E-Z Herbs to Grow”. From easiest to least easy, they are basil (unanimously), oregano, mints, marjoram, tansy, comfrey, lemon balm, purslane, dill, and the sages.
My friend Joyce insists that “everyone should at least attempt to grow rosemary and English pennyroyal.” The latter, which grows in mostly shade, helps curb the annual deluge of fleas; the former “just because everyone should try to grow it!” Joyce’s Southern Rosemary Formula involves cool, dry roots; humidity and medium-strong sun on the leaves; very alkaline soil; and a dressing of clean, dry, pounded-to-powder eggshells, applied before watering or a rain. The trick is to find the right spot and work a palmful of lime into the new home soil. “Arp” and “Cumberland” varieties seem to do the best around here. Joyce also adds sweet Annie, yarrow, epazote, and chives to the “E-Z Southern Herbs” list. And a healthy sprig of horsetail (compliments of Ozarks Herbalist Jim Long) has adapted well to our area and is one of my absolute favorites!
Well, these days we’re up to our elbows in garden soil. And we’ve discovered, to our delight, that tropical herbs, provided with a roof over their heads and a degree of warmth during the Cruddy months, do wonderfully in the South. My tropical gang so far includes patchouli, coffee, aloe vera, Asian limno (Limnophila aromatica, a lemony stir-fry culinary herb), and Phyla scaberrina (formerly Lippia dulces), “the sweet herb”. But they are another story.
After all I’ve been through in this Southern-style herbiculture odyssey, one question remains unanswered: Why aren’t we selling our countless, often large slugs as escargot sans shell? If we could export them to France, we could kill the national debt with the third shipment!
Kae Snow-Stephens is resident herb lady, staff artist, and house “hippie” at Akin’s Nursery in Shreveport, Louisiana, and a member of the ArkLaTex Herb Society.
• Read more about herbs grown in the South:
Favorite Southern Herbs.