Holiday shrub enhances both garden and cuisine

January 15, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener

If your household is like mine, there is considerable activity putting things in storage and in their newfound locations after the holidays. It is also time to begin anew with resolutions and goals as well as anticipation for brighter, more colorful and productive outdoor gardens.

Placing holiday shrubs in good growing conditions in anticipation of their increased productivity is one garden practice that will reap rewards for you into the spring and summer - and beyond. After use in design or decoration, the holiday shrub rosemary (Rosmarunus officinalis) should be moved outdoors to relish full to partial sun and benefit from nature's humidity.

It will not continue to prosper well inside in dry air. As an herb, it will likely withstand cooler temperatures and grow into the spring and summer, providing desired cuttings for tasty cuisine.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus) is one of the easiest herbs to grow. Most "accidental deaths" of this plant are due to over-watering. Good drainage is a must, so a raised bed is advantageous if you have Victoria's black gumbo. Sandy soil need not be amended; mulch around it like everything else in the garden.

Full sun is best, but it can take light shade. It performs quite well in the South Texas heat and drought. After Rosemary is established, it needs only minimal watering even during the summer.

Rosemary and lavender pair quite well together with light and water requirements. My rosemary plants withstood the freezes of 2001 when the temperature dropped to 22 degrees. There are many different cultivars, and the upright variety and gray-needled varieties are said to be more cold-tolerant than the prostate variety.

Rosemary can be propagated from seed or from cuttings, but seed is not recommended unless you are a very patient person. It can take two years to reach 2-3 inches in height. One year after Christmas at the local home improvement store, the rosemary topiaries went on sale, and I brought one home and planted it. It began to die, but came back to life in March or April. This was an inexpensive way to buy a large rosemary bush.

I enjoy using herbs in my cooking, but I take caution in how they are grown. It is probably best to purchase all herbs from an organic nursery or one that can assure you that the herbs were grown either organically or with pesticides approved for the appropriate edible crop.

If you do buy one of the rosemary topiaries, please remember that this outdoor plant will not grow well in the dry indoor heat. Bring it in for limited times, but return it to the sunshine and humidity of the outdoors as often as possible until you can plant it.

Caring for your rosemary bush could not be easier. Whether you garden organically, or otherwise, follow all pesticide recommendations, because rosemary, as other vegetables, is edible. If you use it frequently in cooking or wreaths, there will be no need to prune.

Always try to gather stems of rosemary for cooking in the morning or evening, because the flavorful oils in the needles will be most concentrated at those times.

If you do not prune your bush enough with daily use, prune it in the spring to a manageable size. Both the prostrate and upright rosemary bushes can be worked into a beautiful xeriscape landscaping plan.

Several of the most common questions asked about all herbs are:

How do you use them in cooking?

How do I cut them up for cooking?

How do I know which herb goes with what dish?

First, cooking in itself is an individual expression, so cooking with herbs is also according to your own taste. When I'm cooking a dish and I'm unsure which herb to use, I go into the herb garden and smell the different herbs, keeping in mind the dish I'm preparing.

Always err on the conservative side when unfamiliar with the taste or amount of the herb. Practice is a good teacher.

Rosemary adds that extra zest to various types of dishes, and is easy to prepare for cooking. To cook a pot roast, I just cut two or three stems, wash them, and throw them whole into the pot. I do the same with soup or chowder. They are easy to take out before serving.

To cut up Rosemary, I strip it from the stem by running my index finger and thumb down the stem to take off the needles. Then I pulse them in the food processor.

Frequently, I prepare four to five herbs at the same time in this manner for spaghetti sauces.

Properly plant and care for your holiday rosemary - then bon appetit!