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Grow herbs all winter, turn them into holiday gifts, decorations

By Judy Barrett
Special to the American-Statesman
Pineapple sage can be used in teas and cooking.

One of the great joys of living in Central Texas is that you can enjoy fresh herbs year-round. If you haven’t grown herbs yet, now is a great time to start.

Unless it is during one of our brief very cold spells, you can also continue planting perennial herbs such as oregano, rosemary, thyme, garlic, chives and sage throughout the winter. Simply put them in the ground, water well and mulch around them to keep the roots from freezing.

Many herb growers keep pots of their favorites going through the winter by bringing them indoors on cold days and nights and putting them back out in the sun on warm days.

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Basil, the major annual herb, will grow in a pot — the bigger the pot the better — as long as it gets a lot of sun and warmth. Parsley, which usually lasts two years, enjoys cool weather but might need protection from hard freezes if we have any. Mints will freeze down to the ground, but they will come back in the spring. You can dry mint for use during the winter by putting it in the microwave on low power for eight or nine minutes, or until crispy but still green. (This includes spearmint, peppermint, pineapple mint and Mexican mint marigold.)

The holidays are a time of year when we are very aware of fragrances, and many of those wonderful fragrances come from herbs.

Take Thanksgiving, for example: What smelled great? Sage in the turkey and dressing is perhaps the quintessential scent of Thanksgiving. Growing your own sage is easy. Although sage hates our hot, humid summers, it quickly revives when the weather cools a bit and is ready to add its unique scent and flavor to holiday cooking.

It takes only a small amount of sage to add great taste to poultry, beef, veal, pork and sausage. A tea of sage leaves is also very soothing if you succumb to a cold or other holiday stress-induced ailments.

Sage is one of the many herbs that do double duty as a decoration as well as a taste treat. Sage dries naturally if you hang it in a dry place. It can be made into small wreaths by itself or combined with herbs to create a large herbal wreath. You can tie sprigs with decorative ribbon and use them to decorate the tree, napkin rings or the mantel.

Rosemary is great for decorating during the holidays, and it makes the house smell wonderful.

Rosemary is another herb that has many uses during the holiday season. Rosemary looks similar to other evergreen boughs that are traditionally brought into the home for decorating, but the smell is uniquely its own. You can make rosemary into wreaths, garlands, swags or bouquets that will add both visual and olfactory appeal to your home.

Because rosemary is beautifully adapted to our growing conditions, there is no reason not to have plenty in your own garden. Rosemary loves hot, dry, alkaline soil. It doesn't mind rocks, drought or the occasional flood as long as the soil drains well. It is an ideal plant for any spot that gets lots of sunshine. Rosemary also has another special characteristic: Deer don't like it.

Don't forget to use rosemary in your cooking as well as your decorating. Like sage, a little rosemary goes a long way, but a little makes food taste great. Add it to meat, vegetables or salad dressings. You can make rosemary tea to warm your heart on cold days. 

Unlike sage and rosemary, bay laurel is not a forceful herb. Neither its flavor nor scent is aggressive. Instead it offers a delicate fragrance and a background flavor when combined with many foods.

Bay laurels can grow into trees or left as a bush. They delicately flavor foods, but you cannot eat the leaves.

More:Three easy to grow Central Texas favorites

Many of us know bay as the small gray leaves in spice boxes, but to the herb gardener, bay trees are a gift that keeps on giving. Easily grown, bay can serve as a large shrug, a small tree, a topiary or a container plant that is tolerant of almost any conditions.

Bay sometimes gets off to a slow start, but it can grow into a huge bush when planted in the ground. Bugs don’t bother it; it will grow in almost any soil; weather makes no difference. It is drought tolerant, cold hardy and evergreen.

The leaves will dry naturally if you cut some branches and use them as decorations or in arrangements with cut flowers. If you have a vase of bay leaves in your kitchen, it looks nice as a centerpiece and is handy for plucking leaves when you make soup, sauce or bake a chicken.

You also can make a tasty tea of bay leaves and cinnamon sticks that is packed with nutrients including vitamins A  and C, magnesium, calcium, manganese, potassium and iron. To make the tea, combine four to five bay leaves (fresh or dry) with a stick of cinnamon in a quart of water. Simmer for about 20 minutes then leave cool. Strain then serve hot or cold.

Remember, though, bay leaves are sharp-edged and should never be eaten. Even after long cooking, they retain their edge. Remove them from food before serving it.

During the holiday season, the herb garden can do duty on all fronts — for delicious food, for unusual gifts and for holiday decorations.

Creating unique and personal gifts from herbs is satisfying both to the giver and the receiver. You can make lovely and delicious herbal vinegars, honeys, sugars and jellies. Bath oils, skin lotions, hair conditioners and other cosmetic potions made from herbs will be treats that can’t be bought at any price — yet the cost to you is minimal. Perhaps the best herbal gift of all would be several small pots of herb plants so your friends can share your love of herb growing.

More:Garden indoors through the winter with potted herbs