If you love to cook, your own herb garden is endlessly useful and money saving. Over the years and various places that I have lived, I’ve always tried to make space to grow some herbs, no matter how small. Even a tiny garden takes a tiny slice out of the industrialized food system, and gives us more independence – but stickin it to the man is just a perk. I digress. A creative home cook can easily go through several bunches of herbs a week, and at $2-3.00 a pop at the grocery store, just putting fresh flavor in your dishes can really add up fast. A tidy little herb garden will pay for itself in a couple of months, give you years worth of food, inspire you to try new things and before you know it, you’ll cringe at the idea of paying for those hydroponic basil bags ever again. Plus, it literally tastes better when you’ve grown it yourself.
Even if you think you don’t have a green thumb, you may be surprised at how easy it is to keep herbs. If you already know what you’re doing, forgive me if I sound patronizing, this is really meant for people who are just getting started. I hear a lot of people say they kill every plant that comes into their possession. I have the same anxiety about math. The whole thing plants do is grow – they want to grow, even if you try to stop them. Many times even if you give them only a pittance of what is ideal, they find a way to survive. So don’t sweat it, don’t worry about it if something does die, it’s no big deal, just try again. If something looks like it’s wilting away, just google it or leave a message here and find out what it needs. If anything I’ve written isn’t specific enough, do comment and I’ll expand.
I am beginning a new herb garden next to my kitchen – there are no garden beds at all at our new house, so everything is from scratch around here. Nothing is flat either, so I’m choosing to put some simple terraces in to keep my herbs from sliding down the hill when it rains. I just used materials laying around the farm, I don’t want to spend much money. We have old bricks, tons of rocks and some barn beams that are a little too rotted to salvage but work great for holding back the earth. This bed is also way larger than most people will want. So point #1 – Do start small if you’re just getting started. I grow a lot of things that are superfluous to my kitchen just because I like gardening, and I also allow a substantial amount of room for lettuces. You do not need this much space for your garden to be an effective money saver.
Plant things that you already use frequently rather than things that sound good – for example, plant mint if you already drink mojitos, don’t plant mint with the idea that you should start drinking mojitos. Even if it’s true that you should. Once you get going and growing, then add new things a little at a time and see if you actually use them. There are so many subtopics within the herb garden topic that it really can’t all go in one post, so let’s talk in general terms and tips to get started for now.
Plant all summer! One of the things that make an herb garden a great way to get into gardening is that there are no spring deadlines for getting things into the ground. This can be done any time over the summer. I have changed my mind about where to put plants 2 or 3 times in a season, and add new things all summer long and even sometimes into the early fall. If May comes and goes and you haven’t begun, no worries, you have plenty of time.
Plant in a very sunny location. Most herbs need full sun, so watch where the morning and afternoon shadows fall before you pick a spot. You want a good 8 hours of direct sun each day.
Herbs have preferences, but will grow in almost any soil with varying degrees of success. In general, avoid soil that’s too fluffy (100% potting mix is hard for tiny roots to grab on to) and soil that’s too sticky (clay or 100% top soil can suffocate roots). Create a soil bed that’s somewhere in between. It does not have to be perfect to grow stalks with leaves on them. It does have to drain – plant in places or pots that allow water to pass through them rather than pool into dirt soup. This will cause your plants to rot.
Plan and prioritize a little. Again, this is supposed to save you money, not be stressful so I do mean “a little.” Look at the size of your garden bed and consider annuals, perennials and what you use the most of. Annuals, as implied by the name, are plants that must be re-planted every year and perennials are plants that will grow larger, survive the winter and come back year after year. These types will get larger, some of them will get MUCH larger. Read the tags before you buy. Annuals generally take up only the area that you cover with seed.
I like to plant my perennials together and then leave the rest of my space open for seeds. This just seems to make weeding and keeping track of what I’ve planted easier. Do weed, even if only a couple times a season. Even though herbs will grow in spite of weeds, they rob your plants of water, nutrients and sun.
A few things I recommend starting with here in the northeast:
The baby plants below are all perennials and are relatively hardy. Once they’re established they don’t need anything but a trim now and then. Most of them are available at any nursery or even Wegmans during the spring, and can all be grown in pots on a patio. You can also satiate your spring fever with these choices since you don’t have to wait for the last frost to plant them, just some weather in the 50s.
Parsley (curly or flat) is a relative of the carrot, and if you pull up a large parsley plant you’ll find a carrot root structure. Conversely, carrot greens taste similar to parsley (I juice them with the rest of the carrot). So don’t plant a parsley in anything you can’t imagine a carrot fitting in. A parsley planted in the ground can live for years and easily grow to the size of a basketball, so account for this when deciding how much room to leave it. This Italian parsley has been in the ground for 3 weeks. It has established itself, begun to sprout new growth and needs me to cut its older floppy leaves off.
Rosemary is an evergreen but isn’t quite as hardy as its tree relatives. Cover it with a bucket or plastic pot over the hard winter. I put a rock on top to keep them from blowing away. Keep the main center trunk trimmed to make it grow more bush-like than Charlie Brown Christmas tree-like. You will be able to go out in the dead of winter, lift the cover pot and clip off a fresh sprig for your Christmas stuffing.
Thyme comes in several varieties and grows like a ground cover and will sprout new roots from branches that touch the ground (there are thymes that are specifically for ground cover, that’s not what you want here, they are not the same). This is an English thyme. Cut off the oldest shoots in the fall. Even if you only do this every other year your thyme will keep growing and you’ll be able to clip fresh from this plant half-way into the winter.
Sage also comes in several varieties and makes a cute little bush that can grow to a couple of feet in diameter if it has room to spread out. It also is happy with the occasional pruning of older branches.
Basil is everyone’s favorite and is easy peasy lemon squeezy. But it’s not time to plant it yet, so buy some seeds and hang on to them for another few weeks. We’ll talk basil when it’s time to plant.
Dill is another one that’s easy to grow from seed, but again, pick up some seeds and sit tight for a few more weeks.
A few things I do not recommend if you’re just getting started:
Tarragon grows at a shockingly rapid pace, and must be well contained or it will literally take over your garden and then proceed to overtake your lawn. If you do grow it, it must be cut before it goes to seed at which point resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. Nobody uses this much tarragon.
Oregano – I know, I know, it seems like a basic essential but this is also very invasive and difficult to uproot once established. I actually treat it as more of a ground cover. It does make pretty purple flowers if you allow it to go to seed, but again, this will pop up everywhere if you don’t cut it before it seeds.
Cilantro is a favorite of mine but it is quite persnickety. It can discourage you if you start with it. It’s very particular about its growing conditions and bolts easily leaving you with a bunch of little flowers and no usable leaves. I’ll get into this another time.
We could go on about this for a long time but that’s probably enough to get going with. I’ll update you as I add more things, and as things start to sprout, it will be time for pestos!!! enough by themselves to make it all worthwhile. Can’t wait.