Nothing can be as rewarding as selecting and snipping fresh cooking herbs from your very own home grown garden. But the challenges of Florida’s hot, humid summers can make herb gardening a challenge – unless you know what to grow. A little knowledge mixed with good soil, the right light and some tender loving care will create the perfect recipe for growing your own fresh delicious herbs.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) – Basil has a pleasant scent, and is a favorite plant for any herb garden in Florida. There are many varieties of basil, and color can range from traditional green to purple. The most common type is sweet basil, known for its flavor in Italian cooking. Basil likes bright light and warm weather, and grows very well in southern Florida where there is little danger of frost. Although most common forms of basil are grown as annuals, some of the other varieties like, Holy Thai and African Blue, will thrive like a perennial in South Florida. Basil grows best when the tops are pinched off, like you would do with coleus plants. The result is a fuller, bushier plant with many more shoots.
Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – Bee balm is actually a member of the mint family. This perennial herb is best suited for tea, and is said to have a uniquely refreshing taste. Pulverized leaves can be used as a remedy for bee stings (hence, the name). And bee balm is also used as a topical wash for skin rashes and irritations. Bee balm will attract bees, butterflies and other pollinators to your garden, and does best in Florida gardens north of zone 10. Although I prefer to have bee balm in my flower garden, its red spiky flowers are a nice addition to an herb garden.
Chive (Allium schoenoprasum) – Chives are perennial plants and members of the genus, Allium. The flavor of chives is much milder than that of its relatives – leeks, onions and garlic. Chives are easy to care for in South Florida, and only need watering when the weather is extremely arid. Chives thrive year round, and can be divided and propagated in the late fall. However, they will spread rapidly when left on their own. Because they usually grow no higher than six inches and produce minute, globular clusters of lilac-colored blossoms, they make an excellent edging plant for Southern flower gardens.
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum)– Being half Puerto Rican, I had unknowingly eaten culantro in many of my grandmother’s dishes and stews for years. The Puerto Ricans call this herb recao, and grind it up with onions, green peppers and garlic and add this paste to stews and sauces. It has a distinctive scent and taste that is very similar to its relative cilantro. However, this biennial herb is indigenous to the West Indies and continental Tropical America, and, therefore, grows extremely well in South Florida’s wet and warm climate. This herb has made its way into American mainstream herb selections in local garden centers. One additional benefit of having culantro in your garden – it’s reported to be a natural defense against destructive aphids.
Dill (Anethum graveolens) – Dill grows wild and fills meadows in many areas of our country. Because dill reseeds so well and can take over a garden if left unchecked, it is commonly referred to as dill weed. My dill plant attracted by neighbor’s attention, and he asked why I was letting this big weed grow so large in my garden. But weedy or not, dill is a hardy South Florida herb. It develops quickly, and can reach the height of 4 feet tall in just one Florida growing season. An annual in cooler climates, dill grows as a short lived perennial in South Florida. Dill is feathery, fragrant and delicious. It is a key ingredient in dill pickles and is a wonderful addition to soups, stews, sauces, casseroles, mashed potatoes and cream cheese spreads.
Mint (Genus Mentha) – Mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow in South Florida. There are quite a few different varieties of mint – peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, and orange mint to name a few. Mint prefers moist soil and a bit of shade. When exposed to too much light, plants will be small and leggy. Mint is a fast grower, and its quickly spreading roots can overtake a garden. My best advice is to plant mint in the ground in a container that will contain the roots, and harvest it often.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) – Although curly leaf parsley is one of the most common varieties in South Florida, I much prefer the flat leafed Italian parsley in my herb garden. Italian parsley has a strong aroma, and is a wonderful flavor addition to any soup, stew, casserole or salad. It can be used as a garnish, and is a great breath freshener after a spicy meal. Grow your parley in partial shade, and keep the soil moist but not soggy. Parsley is a biennial. It will last two years, and will die after it flowers, so plan on replenishing it every other year.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – I love rosemary for its hardiness in South Florida, and would encourage you to include this wonderful plant in your herb garden. This Mediterranean native grows well year round, and, once established requires little attention. It grows equally well in full sun to partial shade, and is very aromatic. Its needle-like leaves are perfect as a garnish, and can be added to any number of different dishes. I wouldn’t broil lamb without it!