I've been growing and using herbs for more than 40 years. You'd think I'd know just about everything there is to know on the subject. Right? Wrong. I recently pulled out a chart that I'd composed 20 or so years ago that listed the herbs that can be grown in the coastal Lowcountry and when to grow them. In today's climate, it does not fly.
The list of herbs to be grown in summer or winter has shrunk, as many varieties can now be listed as herbs to grow all year long.
Has the climate changed that much in a couple of decades? I'm guessing it has and what a treat for herbalists who can now cut red flowering pineapple sage, lemon balm, marjoram and mint marigold in January. There will always be a list of winter herbs that can't take our long, warm summers. Dill, coriander, burnet and lovage are planted in autumn, they will flower and set seed when spring days become warm.
The occasion for this herbal review was an invitation from Judi Kirby of the herbal special interest group in Sun City Hilton Head to meet and talk about herb growing in the Lowcountry. We asked Lorene Thornbury, president of The Hilton Head Herb Society, to come along to talk about what has kept this 42-year-old organization active in the community.
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The talk was informal with lots of questions from the floor. I'd brought sample herbs from my garden to pass around and identify; some were easy (basil, sage), some not so (turmeric, Cuban oregano). As herbalists well know; the herbal information today is mostly about herbal medicinal uses. There are only so many ways you can make pesto. I asked the audience for guesses as to the No. 1 herb both medicinal and culinary: The answer is garlic. And No. 2? Fairly new on the scene: turmeric.
Other questions follow:
Question. How do you spare parsley from caterpillars and still provide them nourishment?
-- Kathleen Boggs
Answer. Tough question. You want the beautiful butterfly to follow. Maybe have two parsley plants; let the one go to the worms and isolate the other until the season is over. Readers: Do you have any ideas?
Q. Should you fertilize herb plants? If so, what should you use and how often?
-- Sandra Wright
A. Organic plant foods are the choice of growers who believe that the type of fertilizer -- chemical or organic -- can affect the flavor and performance of herbs. Best results come from using organic fertilizers at half the recommended rate, in conjunction with liquid feeding at half rate. Don't feed dry chemical fertilizers to plants in containers, as they can burn the roots.
Q. Which herbs do you bring inside for winter and which herbs can be left outside?
-- Kay Mills
A. With some herb plants in containers, you're in and out and in and out. You've simply got to go with the weather prediction. Parsley, rosemary and thyme can stay out. Not so with sage. You don't want chives to freeze, although they will "come back." Many perennial herbs will turn to mush; new growth will resume in spring. They could use a rest. Your bay tree is just as beautiful in January as it is in June. Mint? Pray that it dies.
Q. When growing herbs in containers, is it best to use plastic or clay pots?
-- Lorene Thornbury
A. Herbs are well-suited to growing in containers. In fact, it's easier to grow them in pots then in the ground. Invasive herbs such as mint and lemon balm can be made to behave in containers. You can place them where you want them, in the sun or part shade, and near the kitchen door. With our climate; I go for clay pots. Better to have them a tad dry, then drowning. And here's a new trick -- double pot. If you buy an herb in a plastic pot and the roots are coming out the bottom hole; find a clay pot that's twice the size, place some mulch and soil at the bottom and place the clay pot within. Cover with soil up over the rim of the plastic pot or mulch; I often use Spanish moss for this.
Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.