Thanksgiving in the Herb Garden

Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme (and Chives!)

by Elaine Homstad, Fairfax Master Gardener
herb gardenAn herb garden brings pleasure to the eyes as well as the palate.

Your summer herb garden is a joy! Great herbs for the summer garden include basil (of course!), which is an annual, as well as tarragon and oregano, which are both tender perennials, meaning that they will come back in the spring if they are planted in a sunny, protected location.

But…what about your fall garden? In Fairfax County, we generally do not get our first frost until late October or early November. And even then, if your herb garden is in pots, or in a semi-protected spot, there are several herbs that will easily survive until Thanksgiving. Great herbs to have in your garden are parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and chives. These are all perennial herbs, except the parsley which is a biennial. It is generally better to treat it as an annual, though, and replant it every spring, as the second year growth may not be as flavorful.

So, which ones do you chose, and how do you plant and care for them?

Here are some excellent choices to include in your herb garden that are hardy enough to survive a little frost, and still be harvested into December:

You can choose either the curly or flat leaf parsley. Italian flat leaf parsley (Petroselinum neapolitanum) is the preferred one for cooking, since it is more flavorful. Curly parsley (Petroselinium crispum) is commonly used as a culinary decoration, but can also be used in cooking, if a less peppery, but still distinctive, flavor is desired.

There are many types of culinary sage. Sage can be quite prolific, and you need to be aware of that when you plant it. Be sure to give it plenty of space. Additionally, it should be pruned back by about half (ideally by using the leaves) in July. You will still have a very bushy plant in November. For culinary use, the best type of sage to have is Common sage (Salvia officinalis). Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), which bears lovely red flowers, is attractive to bees and hummingbirds, and has lovely citrusy (they really smell like pineapple!) leaves. It is not, however, a variety that will withstand frost.

Upright rosemary is the best type to have. The primary species is Rosmarinus officinalis. Although it is classified as a perennial for Zones 8-10, if it is in a sheltered spot that gets full sun, it can easily survive our winters. In times of snow or ice, inverting a large bucket or trashcan over it can help protect it from the elements and ensure its survival.

This is another plant that has many cultivars. If you are choosing thyme for your herb garden, be sure to choose the culinary type, Thymus vulgaris. Other types of culinary thyme include Lemon thyme (T. x citriodorus), English thyme and Silver (variegated) thyme. There are also other wonderful thyme plants that are great for planting along walkways, often marketed as “steppables.” These are also known as Creeping thyme.

This is a wonderful herb to have in your garden. There are two main types of chives: garlic and onion. Onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are the most common, with a rounded blade and a pronounced, though subtle, onion flavor. However, Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are an interesting addition to your herb garden. The leaves are flatter, and have a mild garlic/onion flavor. The flowers are a beautiful pale purple bulb shape, and are wonderful for either decorative or culinary uses. A word of caution when planting Garlic chives — it is a rampant spreader and self-seeder and will pop up all over your garden, once established. Onion chives, on the other hand, are “clumpers” that will return from year to year, but stay manageable.

Growing these herbs is actually very simple. All have very similar growing requirements. They need full sun (six hours minimum); well-drained soil, amended with compost but not too rich; and generally do not need to be fertilized. They actually do better with benign neglect rather than loving attention. Rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme particularly do not like overwatering. Parsley and chives, being more water-rich plants, can use regular watering, but will yellow and rot at ground level with too much water.

It is very important to keep your herbs pruned to prevent them from becoming leggy or going to seed. Frequent harvesting is encouraged, harvesting from the outer edges of the plant toward the center. If you cannot use all your herbs, you can easily find instructions for herb preservation in books or online.

These plants are also naturally resistant to most insect damage, due to their natural oils. You may see some leaf damage on your parsley, primarily from caterpillars of the wonderful Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, but such damage is generally minimal, and you can discard those leaves if it bothers you. Aphids and spider mites can sometimes be a problem, particularly during the drought conditions which can occur here in July and August, but good cultivation practices of sanitation and pruning will usually control these pests. It is always important to try the least intrusive methods of control. Since you are going to be consuming these herbs, you will want to stay away from the use of pesticides or other chemicals.

Starting these herbs from nursery plants is the easiest way, although they can also be started from seeds, cuttings, division, or layering. The Virginia Cooperative Extension website has some great information about herb gardening at

Your autumn herb garden will reward you with a bounty of herbs that are ideal for your Thanksgiving table. Add them to your favorite stuffing recipe for a great treat, or try my family favorite, included here.

 Scarborough Fair Sausage Stuffing
1 large loaf potato bread, cubed and dried OR
2 bags stuffing croutons
2 1lb rolls pork sausage
3 cups chopped onions
3 cups chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
1/4 cup chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 cup chopped fresh thyme
1 cup chopped fresh parsley
4 Tbsp butter
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup half-and-half
1-2 cups turkey or chicken stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
OPTIONAL: 2 Tbsp white miso paste, 1/2 cup dry white wine
Sauté sausage in the butter, breaking it into small pieces (a potato masher works great for this). Add onions and celery and sauté until onions are translucent and sausage has lost its pink color. (If using the miso paste, add it to the mixture, stirring in well.)

In a large bowl or pot (I use a big stock pot, in which I sautéed the sausage and vegetables) add the cubed dried bread and all the herbs. Mix to combine and cool down the cooked ingredients, then add in the eggs, 1/2 & 1/2, (wine, if using) and some of the stock. Mix well, adding more stock as needed to moisten, but do not make overly wet. Add freshly ground pepper, and salt to taste. (If you used the miso paste, keep in mind that it is salty.) The mixture should hold together loosely, and the dried bread should retain some of its shape.

You can either stuff your bird with some and bake the remainder in a casserole dish, covered with foil, or cook it all in casserole dishes. If you want a crunchy top, you can remove the foil for the last 15-20 minutes. Total cooking time (outside the bird) should be about 45-55 minutes at 350 degrees. You can lengthen or shorten the time depending upon the cooking temperature of what else may be sharing the oven.