With the oppressive summer heat past in many regions of the country, now is a wonderful time to fill your garden with fragrant, flavorful herbs that enhance your home cooking, salads, autumn barbecues, roasts and holiday dinners. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, herbs add an extra dash of nutrition to your meals, and culinary professionals use them as attractive garnishes for culinary masterpieces. From a sprinkling of chopped chives over a baked potato to sprigs of rosemary adding flavor to a baked turkey, your homegrown herbs will taste better than dried varieties, and when you grow an organic garden, your herbs will be free of pesticides and other health dangers.
Planning, planting and harvesting an herb garden in your ground, raised bed or containers is a family-friendly activity perfect for fall, and after you pick those herbs, your entire family can enjoy cooking together.
Here are some of the top herbs to plant this fall, either in seedling, plant form with healthy growth to it and already-established herbs, or in seed form that may sprout out in nature or be started indoors or in your greenhouse:
--Parsley. Packed with nutritional value, parsley leaves contains vitamins A, B, C and iron, plus appreciable quantities of other vitamins and minerals. Parsley also works to freshen breath when you chew on leaves after an aromatic or spicy meal. Parsley prefers cool fall air to hot weather temperatures.
--Cilantro. The experts at Pineywoods Herb Farm say that cilantro grows well in moderate autumn weather. Wait until October for this herb, since temperatures can still soar in September. The experts advise letting your cilantro go to seed over the winter into spring, so that you can pluck and save the dry seeds for next fall's garden bounty.
--Oregano. A hardy plant, oregano tends to grow well no matter what the temperature, providing flavor for homemade pizzas, casseroles, poultry, meat sauces and meatballs and a wide range of additional recipes.
--Rosemary. A taller plant, this herb is best planted toward the back of your garden for visual appeal and given plenty of space between plants to grow wider. It grows well no matter the temperature and may remain through winter into your next year's garden without any effort at all.
--Tarragon. Providing a subtle flavor, tarragon works well with seafoods and poultry when you don't prefer the taste of stronger herbs, and tarragon thrives in cooler fall weather.
--Basil. Basil is often known as an ingredient in summer tomato salads, but if you pinch off leaves regularly, your basil plant will last long through fall, giving you a sweet Italian flavor for your pizza toppings and fall vegetable salads. Pesto is made using basil and provides a festive green layer to sandwiches and as spreads for warm or crusty breads. Basil hates frosts, so if a frost is forecast, harvest your basil before the cold snap hits.
--Chives. If your chives have been growing throughout summer, they should be divided in the fall, say the experts at Sand Mountain Herbs. You might also dig up your chive plant and bring it inside to pot and continue to use as recipe accents.
--Sage. Another summertime herb, sage will last into fall and can then also be dug up and potted for Thanksgiving stuffing recipes.
Your fall herb garden will depend very much on when you plant the herbs that are named as good performers in your region. Some herbs do best when started in late summer, such as sorrel, marjoram, chives, wild thyme and English thyme, among others.
If you haven't planted in summer, there's still time to establish a hearty herb garden. During fall, you can plant such herbs as wild bergamot, mountain mint, bilberry, bayberry and a number of other late fall herbs that will produce throughout the season.
Speak with your local nursery specialist to get specific and regionally based advice on organic plant fertilizing, and as an added bonus, many nurseries offer free classes on growing herbs. Community education classes can also offer your herb harvest with their inexpensive classes on cooking with herbs.
And of course, you'll find countless recipes on free online sites such as Allrecipes, Better Homes and Gardens' site, http://www.bhg.com, and Food Network's site, http://www.foodnetwork.com. Eco-friendly sites such as http://www.gorgeouslygreen.com can also help you turn your herbs into green and healthy beauty treatments -- e.g., natural, homemade facial masques, as well as healthy smoothies -- through their instructional videos and recipes.