Tips for growing herbs in the Lowcountry

betsjukofsky@aol.comSeptember 16, 2012 

A summer herb container with basil, lavender and epazote.

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Recently I was asked, "Do you know if there are herb gardens in Bluffton or on Hilton Head Island that are accessible for viewing by the public?"

Honestly, I do not. It's not that the interest in growing a few herbs for their healthful properties and their flavorful addition to food has not increased. It has, but I do not see home gardeners planting and maintaining a sizable herb garden that would contain both annual and perennial herb plants.

Two decades ago, there were such gardens. Whether the decline is due to the gradual change in climate, I can't say. It's hotter and drier now, and the success of a large garden would require more attention, more watering, more weeding and more pruning.

In addition, herbs are readily available in our grocery stores and outdoor markets. But when was the last time you walked out of the market with a pot of turmeric? You know, turmeric -- the second healthiest herb that you can grow in our climate.

This past year, I've added turmeric to the "no salt" blend that I make and use in the kitchen; it lends an orange color and a spicy flavor to the mix.

Do I have an in-ground herb garden? Yes, but it is small and contains only the perennials that can tolerate a bit of shade: rosemary, sage, parsley, bay, turmeric and gotu kola, the brain tonic herb.

The sun-lovers are grown in containers that I can easily move around to follow the sunlight. These small gardens have taken over the herb-in-ground gardens by many of our herb-growers. I'm loving the shallow, dish-type container that was once a hanging basket (wires removed). I set the container in a plant stand for stand-up gardening. Last year, I began to experiment with combinations of herbs and winter vegetables, a colorful Swiss chard with parsley and oregano. They looked great all winter and into spring.

This fall, I'll plant a brocco flower (broccoli) with cilantro and dill and add a calendula for color. The calendula produces gorgeous flowers, but it's not just a looker. The flowers can be made into an ointment by steeping them in boiled water, straining and incorporating the liquid into melted Vaseline. The ointment brings instant relief when applied to skin that's been stung by red ants or wasps.

A summertime container will always have basil. I'm growing three varieties -- sweet, Thai and reddish opal, each in separate containers so as not to interfere with pure taste. With the opal basil, I planted an epazote, the must-have herb for dried bean cookery, and lavender, the secret ingredient in a popular herbal vinegar I make.

Sweet marjoram deserves a pot of its own. It's very hardy here, rewarding the cook with its sweet and spicy flavor all year long. I've known experienced herb growers who declare marjoram their favorite. On the wish list is French tarragon. I've tried every ruse I can think of to fool French tarragon into thinking it's growing in northern New Jersey: Putting it in the refrigerator when it goes dormant in winter, throwing ice cubes at it in July. No deal, it will not tolerate our climate. Luckily we have a substitution in mint marigold or, as it's often called, the Southern tarragon. Same scent, same taste as French, and unsurpassed for chicken and fish cookery.

Mint? Of course, but in its own container. Please.

What is first on the list of healthy herbs that we grow in the Lowcountry?

It's garlic.

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