When gardeners talk about the cultivation any loose assemblage of plants, say vegetables, succulents, flowers or even bulbs, the discussion will eventually include comments about their preferred season.
It is impossible to speak for long about any group of plants without appreciating their unique seasonality. In colder eastern and northern climates there seems to be a thorough understanding of what grows in spring, versus summer, versus fall, versus winter.
Perhaps due to our mild coastal climate, local Orange County gardeners sometimes assume that we can grow any plant at any time of the year. Not so.
The world of herbs is a wonderful example. Herbs are a widely varied collection of plants, and as such many have very strong, seasonal prejudices. Experienced gardeners learn these preferences and grow herbs. For instance, summer heat-lovers, like basil, mint and tarragon are about as comfortable in November and December a summer beach party. Don’t bother, wait until next summer.
Regarding herbs, frequently I hear the oft repeated remark from one gardener to another, “I can’t grow (fill in the blank)” or “That’s too hard to grow”.
I just heard it again yesterday. A customer was lamenting that he couldn’t grow cilantro in his garden. He had tried several times and had failed each time. “It’s too hard to grow” I heard him telling another gardener.
Hmmm, I thought to myself. Was it that cilantro was hard to grow or was it that he had been trying to grow a cool plant in a hot season? After talking with him for a moment I confirmed my suspicion . . . . he repeatedly had been planting cilantro in the summer to use in his Mexican dishes. It was a recipe for disaster in Orange County. It isn’t that cilantro is difficult to grow; it was that he was trying to grow it at the wrong time of the year.
In Orange County, herbs like cilantro, chervil, parsley, anise, dill and fennel are all plants that grow during our cool winter and early spring months. This is their time. If you’ve failed at these in the past, try again now and any frustrations with these herbs will likely disappear.
Cilantro, chervil and parsley are related plants. Small leafy herbs, they are grown primarily for their foliage, which when used fresh, adds a somewhat delicate flavoring to many dishes and salads. These are all small plants, suitable for borders or containers, or even used in an ornamental garden. They prefer to be grown in cool, moist, humid conditions and dislike long warm days, especially cilantro and chervil, which seem to almost melt before your eyes when planted at the wrong time of the year.
Anise, dill and fennel are also allied plants. Anise and dill are famous for their licorice flavored foliage and are a fine addition to salads, used in soups or as a seasoning for several fish dishes. The feathery leaves of dill can be used fresh or dried and are used in salads, vegetable dishes, soups or as an addition to many different meat dishes.
After harvesting foliage from anise, dill or fennel during the winter and spring, the plants can be allowed to flower and set seed. The seeds of all three of these herbs add a second season to the plants and can be easily harvested and stored. Used whole or ground the seeds add zest to breads, cheese and salad dressings. Fennel seed is a common ingredient in Italian sausages and for flavoring of pork.
If you’ve tried growing cilantro, chervil, parsley, anise, dill or fennel in the past without success, don’t blame the herb. Perhaps you had invited these plants that prefer cool winter weather, to a sizzling hot summer party. Try again, but this time the invitation will be to a cool, winter get together, with mittens and scarves. I think they’ll have a great time.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar.
Questions from Readers November 21st.
Question: I read your article last month about using corn gluten meal as an organic and safe way to prevent weed seeds from sprouting. Of course, I procrastinated and now I’m seeing thousands of little seeds sprouting everywhere. Is it too late?
Emily, Costa Mesa
Answer: Yes and no. Corn gluten meal does need to be spread before weed seeds germinate. But, there are still plenty more weeds seeds that still haven’t sprouted, so even applying it now will have some benefit. What I might suggest is to work through the garden first with a long handle how or a shallow cultivator, knocking down as many of the young seedlings as possible. Then sprinkle on the corn gluten meal – and don’t procrastinate this time. Five pounds will cover 250 square feet and prevent a lot of work later on..