Whether you're thinking ahead to savory Thanksgiving stuffing, slow-cooked stews or simply a crispy end-of-summer salad that bites back a bit, having a year-round plan for raising herbs can bring a healthy zing to your cooking style and colorful accents to your kitchen garden.
Here are some cultivating ideas for next season:
■ Oregano. Perfect for boosting pizza, bread sticks and tomato-based sauces into the realm of "food of the gods," oregano is an easy-grow, hardy perennial. It thrives in containers and in well-drained soils if placed in a sunny area with a little afternoon shade.
My favorite variety is variegated, with narrow white edging around each quarter-inch-wide green leaf. This low grower reaches only about six inches high, but it spreads to drape charmingly over patio pot edges. It blooms in early fall, making for interesting foliage and late color, and it releases a refreshing minty aroma. Ornamental varieties work well in rock gardens.
Hang some upside down in bunches to dry for winter use. To learn more about individual herbs, search The Herb Society of America Web site, Herbsociety.org.
■ Rose hips. The International Herb Society has named the rose its 2012 Herb of the Year. See details at Iherb.org. Like their cousins the apple and the pear, roses bear fruit, or "hips," after flowering. Because we usually cut roses for bouquets or prune them back to encourage more blossoms, hips are not ordinarily the end goal for rose growers.
With cooler temperatures on the way, though, you might want to leave the blossoms on the plant, to see what develops. Your shrubs will greet autumn with bright red, orange or sometimes purple fruits that somewhat resemble the crabapple. They're best after the first frost for making jelly and tea rich in vitamin C. They're also bird magnets, supporting wildlife with tart fruit snacks. This fall, keep an eye out for roses bearing interesting hips; usually rugosa works well. One caution: If you sprayed plants you plan to consume, be sure to heed label warnings. Better yet, avoid spraying them.
■ Fennel. In my garden, fennel grows five feet tall, clumps of leggy bamboolike green stalks stretching toward the sun, creating fragrant, licorice-scented shade. Topped with a flourish of airy umbrella-spine structures that support tiny yellow flowers, they are a favorite of black swallowtail butterflies. A bronze-leaf cultivar adds a striking yet soft vertical accent to your butterfly garden landscape. The seeds, roots and leaves are edible. I love the taste of fish grilled in a bed of Florence fennel leaves, creating a mock Mediterranean seaweed effect; a light shaving of the crunchy root added to salads; or hot, creamy fennel soup, restorative on a frosty December day. When the seeds dry in late fall, you can collect them to replant in early spring or let them self-seed where they drop. A bonus: Save the dried seed-head stalks to use in fall and winter floral arrangements. I spray-paint mine silver and gold.
■ Calendula. This herb persists after many other annual herbs have dropped their leaves. The glowing orange petals of this composite flower grow in a lion's-mane circle about three inches across, a cheery late-season addition for harvest and Halloween arrangements. The petals are edible and can be scattered in a salad or used to impart a golden color to soups and stew pots. This accounts for calendula's common name, pot marigold.
They are not, however, marigolds but rather members of the aster family. Herbalists have used calendula as a soothing cure-all at least since Roman times. For propagation purposes, gather the odd little bumpy, C-shaped seeds in late fall and replant them in spring in a sunny spot, with protection from the blistering afternoon heat.
■ Sage. You'd be wise to keep sage on hand for Thanksgiving feasts. Pungent poultry seasoning, which is so important in stuffing a bird properly, relies on the strength sage provides, in combination with marjoram, rosemary and thyme. Think about creating your own blend. Although sage's soft and aromatic verdigris leaves fade to gray in winter, the first hints of spring bring new growth on old stems of this small bushy plant, followed by spikes of small, edible, bluish flowers. Bees love them.
Sage is easily available in a green, white and purple tricolor foliage variation for transplanting, and pineapple sage has a fruity fragrance with red blossoms. In your raised-bed garden, with good drainage and lots of sun, it will need expansion space in years to come.
■ Garlic chives. In late summer, these bulb communities send up a crowd of tall stalks. At the tip of each, white flowers unfurl from a wrapping that resembles translucent tissue paper. Dividing the clumps just seems to make them grow faster. They're not picky about soil or sun.
You can slice the hollow leaves and use them just as you would spring chives: as garnish for baked potatoes and ramen noodle soups, or in a stir-fry. The flowers are edible, and they can be dried to use in floral arrangements. Save the seeds to replant, or eat them sprouted, after removing the heavy black seed covers, for a spicy treat. They'll stay fresh until fall's first frost, then they'll disappear, dormant for the winter.
■ Bay leaf. The edible variety of sweet bay leaves grows on a tree, Laurus nobilis. The flavor of fresh bay leaves is intensely superior to those dried and boxed specimens in your spice rack. If you start with a small, rooted transplant in a moveable pot and tame it with judicious pruning, you can have a steady in-house supply. Bay trees are not hardy in Central Kentucky's climate, so you'll need to shuffle them from a summer spot on your porch or patio to a sunny indoor location during the colder months. Use them in slow-cooking stews and sauces, or to create a wreath around your candles for a holiday table centerpiece.