Try Growing some Perennial Herbs
By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
Herbs are wonderful additions to your landscape beds. They offer fragrance, color, texture, beauty and best of all, deer avoid them. Who wouldn’t want plants that do all of that. Herbs are very easy to grow. Most herbs need full sun and good drainage.
It is important to get the best cultivar for Southside, especially with perennial herbs, if you want to be successful. Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, is an evergreen perennial so the cultivars of ‘Salem’ and ‘Arp’ are the best ones for this area. ‘Salem’ has a nicer more upright shape than ‘Arp’ but both taste great. Rosemary has an added benefit of having small blue flowers that open in early spring, a very important nectar source for pollinators. Rosemary is available all year so harvesting is not necessary but it will dry just fine.
There are many Salvias out there but Salvia officinalis is the culinary sage. Sage does have some die back in the winter but it generally is available for harvesting fresh all year round. This is the herb we associate with poultry dressing. Culinary sages also come in gold variegated, tricolored and purple as well as green. The flowers are generally blue but some do bloom pink or white. But then there is that beautiful red of the fall blooming pineapple sage, Salvia elegans. The leaves truly do have a wonderful pineapple taste so are great in fruit salads. This species is more bush like in growth habit so needs some space, it can get about 4 feet wide. It is often used as an annual here but I’ve had mine for over 10 years.
Try this Phenomenal Lavender in your perennial flower beds for beauty year after year. This cultivar is the lavender best suited for Southside.
Our gardens wouldn’t be complete without oregano, Origanum vulgare. This is often called Italian oregano. O. vulgare var. hirtum is known as Greek oregano and is much tastier than Italian. Oreganos are associated with Italian cuisine. I love the cultivar ‘Hot and Spicy’ and as someone said when I gave her a leaf to chew “I want this on my pizza!” Oregano has some winter dieback but it is harvestable throughout the year. Also in the oregano family is marjoram, O. majorana. However, it is not perennial in Southside.
We cannot forget lavender, that wonderfully fragrant herb that bumble bees love. There are two types that are hardy here. English lavender, Lavendula angustifolia, is one and the cultivar ‘Munstead” is the best. The other is French lavender, L. x intermedia, and the cultivars ‘Provence’ and ‘Grosso’ are the best. Well they were the best until ‘Phenomenal’ hit the market. This lavender is a sport of ‘Grosso’. A sport is botanically defined as a part of a plant that shows unusual or singular deviation from the normal or parent plant. ‘Phenomenal’ has much more tolerance to the hot, humid summers of Southside than the other cultivars. Its growth habit supports its name because it is robust and large. For culinary purposes, the lavender bud is used. These should be picked when the buds become swollen but before flowers form. Store the buds in a lidded jar in a dark place. I have used the buds in cookies and tea breads.
The last herb I am going to discuss is Mexican tarragon, Tagetes lucida. It is often called Mexican marigold because Tagetes is the species name for marigold. As with the French tarragon, Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa, it has an anise, licorice taste. French tarragon is fine with our winters but hates our summers. Mexican tarragon has no problem with either. It is special because it blooms in November so is having a party when everything else has gone to bed – my kind of plant. It makes a very flavorful herbal vinegar that is great on salads with some olive oil.
You may be thinking all these herbs sound nice but I don’t have much space. Containers are your answer. These herbs need a good size pot, best if it is at least a foot across. They also need good drainage so don’t use those self-watering ones, that will make the herbs unhappy. Make sure there are several holes in the bottom of the pot and you must provide pot feet. I have found that a wine cork cut into thirds works great. It is enough to get the pot off the ground but can support the weight. As for the potting mix; use regular sterilized potting soil mixed with half sand. Do not use the kind with fertilizer or moisture retention flakes. This will provide the needed drainage. Remember these are perennial plants so a once a week watering is plenty and they don’t need fertilizer either. A little extra bonus, the fragrance of these herbs will confuse mosquitoes so put containers or plant in the ground around areas where you commonly sit. You might have to ruffle up the leaves to release their heavenly scent that makes growing these beauties a special treat. Virginia Cooperative Extension has a good publication entitled Herb Culture and Use Pub No 426-420
While we are all still practicing ‘social distancing’ due to COVID-19, and all county buildings are closed to the public, if you have questions gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Put on your facemask and go find these herbs to enliven your landscape.