Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs
Herbs in a Swamp
by Kit Anderson
"Impossible." "Can't do it," said the experts, when Suzanne Cannon asked about growing herbs commercially in southern Louisiana. Too hot and humid, she was told, too much rain, soils are too soggy. But she was undaunted, and after ten years of experimenting she's running a thriving business selling herb vinegars.
"Suzanna's of Louisiana" proudly announces a large painted sign on the winding river road in Pointe Coupee Parish, 30 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. Beyond it are 25 raised beds bursting with culinary herbs. At one time, you could have looked back and seen the Mississippi River from here, but the levee, a huge serpentine mound that snakes through the flat landscape for hundreds of miles to prevent floods, looms instead.
Suzanne, an energetic woman in her late 30s, has become a local herb expert. Neighbors, doubtful at first about these green, weedy-looking plants, now come to admire the beds, a mix of colored foliage, bright flowers, and odd bits of sculpture. They've also taken to the vinegars. "One woman came in to buy six bottles of the Creole Mix," Suzanne told me. "It's the secret ingredient in her husband's catfish recipe."
How to Unwater
Most herbs are native to the dry Mediterranean climate, so Louisiana sends them into culture shock. Water rules here. It can rain up to 60 inches a year, occasionally in deluges of 12 inches in a single day. The water drenches the soil, sitting in swamps and bayous that cover thousands of acres, and saturates the air, which can be at 90 percent humidity for months on end.
"You can water, but you can't unwater," says Suzanne. "The books say to plant herbs in loamy soil," she adds, but when rain pounds down with relentless tropical intensity, it compacts loamy soil until the roots can't breathe. Besides, the topsoil had been scraped off the garden area when the house was built, leaving a cement-like silt bed. Drastic measures were obviously called for.
Suzanne first dug a drainage ditch around her half-acre garden area, then laid out a series of beds that measure nine by nine feet--the length of the railroad ties she uses as borders--by nine inches high. After cutting down the weeds, she put the ties in place, securing the corners with nails, and covered the ground with several layers of newspaper. In each bed she mixed three parts builder's sand and one part peat. (She tried river sand, but it contained too much silt, which slowed drainage and brought along weed seeds.)
To keep the summer sun's reflected heat from burning plant stems, she uses a lightweight mulch that won't sink in the sand, usually shredded pine, cypress bark, or pecan shells. When the winds are strong (this is hurricane country), the plants lean against decorative cypress knees she's rescued from the river.