Herb Gardening Louisiana Style

There are so many herbal plants that could do well in this ­region.

| February/March 1995

The steamy climate of the deep South—hot, wet, stick-to-your-back humid, with winters so mild they stretch the definition of the word—demands its own approach to herb gardening. This area of the United States is in many respects a gardener’s paradise: the rainfall, humidity, and fertile soil ensure dense, lushly green, sometimes junglelike vegetation, and the gardener often spends more time controlling growth than in encouraging it. But these very conditions, so unlike the arid, rocky slopes of the Mediterranean where so many culinary herbs originated, present a formidable challenge to the would-be herb gardener. More and more people are now taking up this challenge—and learning a lot along the way.

In nineteenth-century Louisiana, herbs were commonly interplanted with vegetables in kitchen gardens. As plantations disappeared and the population became more urban, such gardens became scarce. Only in recent years have Louisianians begun planting home herb gardens in great numbers; evidence of this interest can be seen in the recent founding in Baton Rouge and New Orleans of the two newest chapters of The Herb Society of America. Herbs are claiming more prominence in nurseries as public demand for them increases, and this renewed interest in herbs is the main impetus behind a showcase public garden in Baton Rouge that demonstrates on a large scale how herbs can be grown in this climate.

The Burden Research Plantation comprises 450 acres in the heart of Baton Rouge. Once a working plantation, the land was donated to Louisiana State University (LSU) by the family of the retired landscape architect Steele Burden. The original estate, Windrush, was a wedding gift to Steele Burden’s grandmother about the time of the Civil War, and his parents kept it as a retreat, riding uptown in their buggy to spend the weekends there. Steele and his sister, Ione, turned the estate over to the university in 1972 with the stipulation that it be maintained for horticultural research.

Today, the Burden plantation is a fascinating place to visit for many reasons, not the least of which is its Rural Life Museum, one of the finest outdoor folk museums in the United States. Old Civil War-era buildings from plantations around the region have been saved from destruction and preserved here to house eclectic collections—from spinning wheels to horse-drawn hearses—of artifacts related to life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century rural Louisiana.

Burden is also a state agricultural experiment station devoted to ornamental horticulture. In the surrounding acreage, many research projects are conducted, and the public garden areas are oases of beauty and serenity within the capital city. Many herb varieties and ornamentals are trialed here for the state nursery industry to determine which plants do well in this hot, wet climate and how best to grow them. The gardens also allow residents and visitors to see how many herbs, roses, and other ornamental plants look as they grow to maturity in the landscape. Demonstrating to homeowners how they can incorporate ornamental edibles into their landscapes is part of the mission of the public gardens, according to Peggy Reed, the university research associate who maintains the large and graceful herb garden.

The herbs were first planted as an exhibition garden late in 1987 in anticipation of the annual meeting in Baton Rouge the following summer of the International Herb Association (then the International Herb Growers and Marketers Association). The garden has been expanded several times since, and despite funding cutbacks it continues to grow, thanks in part to the enthusiasm and help of local Herb Society of America members.

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