An Herb Garden for South Florida
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Many years ago, I tried growing herbs. Without a plan, we went to the local garden center, bought whatever they had on display, found a sunny spot, and stuck the plants in a small raised bed (I couldn't even tell you what soil we used or what month it was). Inevitably, the plants withered away and the bed promptly became a litter box for stray cats. I decided to try again; this time, armed with more gardening experience and tons of available information. There are countless videos on Youtube and gardening books, but there is still a shortage of information specific to gardening in south Florida. Much of the information on the internet for USDA zone 10 is written by gardeners in southern California who don't have to deal with anything like our humidity and summer monsoons; or the challenges of limestone bedrock and sandy soils with very little organic matter, distinct wet and dry seasons, bugs (so many bugs!) and lest we forget, HURRICANES.
We've been programmed to think of an herb garden as only made up of the typical French and Italian herbs, but I've compiled a list of less commonly grown herbs that are more tolerant of the drought, heat, and humidity that we experience in south Florida. Keep in mind, many of these herbs also have medicinal value. Sometimes, we just have to throw in the towel and adapt our cooking methods!
Classic Kitchen Herbs
While there are many other herbs besides what I've listed here, these are generally tolerant of heat and drought. My advice is to grow them in planters with a well-drained potting mix and plenty of air circulation in full sun. You can start these herbs in the fall to enjoy all winter, because they may or may not make it through our hot, rainy summer. Many are native to a much drier climate than ours, and can succumb to our humidity and summer rain, but I have found success growing these classic kitchen herbs:
Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis): Home grown bay leaves have such an intoxicating aroma that is unlike store-bought dried leaves. Bay laurel is a slow growing tree that can be easily kept as a shrub. My tree is planted in the ground and kept at a height of about 5 feet, but I think it would be fantastic in a large container as well. If you're into the formal garden look: imagine symmetrical planters of narrow and multi-branched bay laurel flanking your home's entrance, instead of those topiaries that serve no purpose. Every time you have to trim it, save some leaves for drying. You will have enough dried leaves to gift to friends and family!
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris): Keep this plant trimmed consistently so it doesn't get leggy and sparse up top. It will grow well in a hanging basket, or as the "spiller" in a container of other Mediterranean herbs.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus): A small shrub that would also look great framing an entryway in a container garden. I wouldn't be able to resist touching the leaves and releasing the scent as I pass by. It grows best with very well-drained soil and full sun.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare): A hardy perennial that is easy to dry for storage; similar growth habit to thyme.
Basil (Ocimum spp.): Quite possibly the most popular herb to grow in home gardens! There are so many different varieties available, but the one used in Italian cooking is sweet basil. While I love sweet basil, these plants don't love south Florida (try growing them in the winter). They are very susceptible to diseases and pests. I've found the greatest success when growing them in containers with a high-quality potting mix; the ones I grew in the ground (even mulched), were weaker and more susceptible to pests. There are a few disease-resistant varieties, or you can just grow spicy basil varieties like Thai, Tulsi, or African Blue. They are heat resistant, but I have found they grow best when provided with a bit of afternoon shade. While the spicy basil varieties are not as great for cooking, they have medicinal value, and their flowers are excellent for pollinators.
Subtropical and Tropical Herbs
Culantro (Eryngium foetidum): It's too hot for cilantro to really thrive here. Culantro is a more intensely flavored relative of cilantro and an essential ingredient in Puerto Rican cooking (where it's called recao). It is actually an understory herb, meaning it would prefer some shade and moist soil with a humus top layer, but it was growing and THRIVING in pure sand at my parent's house in Key Largo - it was consistently irrigated by the air conditioner's drain. You can make a simple Puerto Rican style seasoning base by blending a couple of culantro leaves with onions, garlic and bell peppers. I pour this mix into ice cube trays or zip lock bags and freeze them, so I always have them handy for cooking.
Cuban Mint (Mentha nemorosa or Mentha x villosa): If you can't find it, spearmint is a good substitute. You may want to grow mint in a container to control growth. My plant is growing happily in the shade of a fruit tree with lots of mulch and moisture. It will sprawl along the ground, making a nice low ground cover. It lends itself well to both sweet and savory dishes, teas, and of course, Mojitos. This one is best grown in the winter months, since our summer rainy season may prove too challenging for it to thrive.
Cuban Oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus): No one knows where this plant came from and it has a bunch of different names: Mexican mint, Indian borage... one look at its succulent, furry leaves hints at its drought tolerance. I've found that it prefers some shade, but grows happily in our native sandy soils. I definitely recommend planting it in a container, because it will start to sprawl everywhere (make sure it is very well drained - it will suffer from root rot if the soil is kept too moist). It even started to climb up my fence (I've grown it for years, but just recently cut it back and moved it to a container). It has a really strong flavor and camphor scent. We use it to make olive oil based herbal sauces; like a chimichurri-style sauce for grilled meats or a lemon and garlic herbal dressing to pour over cassava.
Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides): A very popular Mexican herb that has a unique flavor. It also has well-documented medicinal value. You can add it to dishes like you would add cilantro. Word of warning, though: The flavor of this herb takes some getting used to and is not for everyone! It's also a prolific self-seeder, so keep it trimmed to harvest the young leaves.
Papalo (Porophyllum ruderale): Another intense Mexican herb with medicinal value that can be used like you would cilantro. You can find seeds online.
Mexican Tarragon (Tagetes lucida): This small, semi-woody shrub has pretty yellow flowers and has a flavor that is a good substitute for its French cousin. To be honest, I don't typically cook dishes that call for tarragon, but this is an excellent herb to add to pickled vegetables, homemade vinegar-based fermented hot sauces, or seafood dishes. This plant is also called Mexican mint marigold, and has the same pest-repelling qualities as other marigolds. Plant it next to tomato plants to keep hornworms away!
Mexican Oregano (Lippia graveolens): Not related to the European "oregano" at all. This small, semi-woody shrub has an upright, sprawling form. In my experience, it tends to exhibit some nutrient deficiencies in our sandy soil (yellowing leaves), so make sure it has some organic matter; otherwise, it makes an excellent groundcover. Performs well in partial shade or full sun. Its flavor has citrusy, licorice-like, peppery notes. I break the rules and use it in tomato-based pasta dishes.
Dotted horsemint (Monarda punctata): This a Florida native perennial, also known as spotted bee balm. Not only is it a must-have pollinator attractor for wildflower gardens, it can be a good substitute for Mediterranean thyme and oregano because it contains some of the same volatile oils (mainly, thymol). Like many other members of the mint family, spotted horsemint can be a rather aggressive grower. Be sure to give it plenty of space, about 3 feet around or more because it will reseed readily. This plant has medicinal value, but be very careful not to overdo it! The thymol content is very high.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus): This is another herb with an intoxicating aroma. It is a native of subtropical India, so naturally it grows very well here. It can take up significantly more real estate than the other herbs. It can tolerate partial to full sun and take up about a 4-foot-wide space (and about 5 feet tall). It can be useful as a pleasantly aromatic privacy screen for a patio or balcony! Very tolerant of our sandy, nutrient-deficient soils.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Perfect for a spot in full shade with a lot of organic matter and moisture (I periodically throw yard waste at its base and make sure it is very well mulched). The flowers are also very ornamental; it definitely gives a tropical look. Since the edible rhizomes are shallow, they don't need more than a couple inches of rich soil on top of our sand and limestone. It is tropical, so it will die back during the dry season, but it will pop up again bigger and better than ever when the summer rains return. The time to harvest is when the leaves die back in the winter (for this reason, don't plant it where it's going to be a focal point). I like to juice it and if there are too many to use right away, the rhizomes can be frozen.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Like turmeric, ginger is tropical and needs a lot of water and organic matter. If I had to choose, I would say turmeric was easier to grow. They can both be grown from rhizomes purchased at the supermarket too. Also, they are best planted where they won't receive a lot of root competition from nearby plantings.
Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum): Similar to scallions, with more of a garlicky overtone. This herb is capable of growing well into the heat and monsoons of summer. Imagine it as an edible substitute for small edging plants like liriope and mondo grass! It will have a more upright growing habit in full sun, but tolerates some shade as well.
I plan on continuously updating this list as I continue to experiment. Get in touch with me on social media to share what you're growing!