I spent yesterday gathering advice for planting my expanded herb garden. I’ve resolved never to have homemade pizza again without fresh basil sprinkled on top! Yesterday I spoke with two amazing women, a friend who runs her own nursery here and my amazing Idaho S-I-L. (The one who taught me to make this salsa.) I thought you might like to hear their thoughts. But first, you have to see what my S-I-L gave me last year:
Seriously the best birthday gift ever. This is an herb garden she started from seeds for me. I almost cried I was so happy. I have managed to keep much of it alive since, so I feel ready to expand. So here, from Laura (my local California girl) and Cherie (my Idaho girl) are a few tips for growing your own herb garden.
1. Do it. It is so much cheaper than fresh herbs from the grocery store, and you will have basil for your pasta and Tai food, mint for your lemon aid, rosemary for your potatoes, thyme for your chicken dinner, and you will generally be a happier and better fed person.
2. Don’t start with cilantro. It’s trickier than other herbs and may get you frustrated if you’re not a diligent grower and harvester. (UPDATE: though I just got a comment from Sherry who makes it sound easy. Thoughts, anyone?)
3. Pick a sunny spot with good drainage. Most basic herbs love the sun and don’t want to be too wet. Just a few like partial shade, like cilantro (which we’ve already decided is high maintenance), lemon balm, and mint. If you want to plant in a container, you can plant each herb separately or put them all together in one big bowl. Or plant them in pots according to the recipes you like to use them for, a Tai pot, an Italian pot, a chicken dinner pot. Use a soilless potting mix that will drain well.
4. Speaking of mint, plant it alone, in its own pot. It will take over all the other herbs and take over your whole yard if you let it.
5. Pick a spot near the kitchen if possible, so you can step right outside and snip off a sprig without having to hike across the yard.
6. You can start from seeds, but start with at least a few from plants for instant gratification. Big woody plants especially are good to just buy as plants (rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano). Be sure to water them before you transplant. Grassy herbs grow quickly from seeds (chives, parsley) and my S-I-L recommends starting these and other seedlings right in the pot or the outside spot where they’ll be living permanently, if weather allows. The grassy herbs especially are delicate and don’t like being transplanted. UPDATE: The most helpful article I found for planting from seeds was this one.
7. Plant some perennials. I’d never realized how many herbs will come back year after year. Try sage, thyme, lemon thyme, chives, oregano, fennel, marjoram and mint. A few of these will get too mature and woody after a couple years. Sage and thyme especially you may want to replant every few years.
8. Try a few annuals. You have to go with basil for sure. Big-leafed sweet basil or genovese basil are good all-purpose basils. Plant them when it’s hot outside, when you plant your tomatoes. My S-I-L also likes lemon balm and dill.
9. Don’t over water. Water every few days when the top few centimeters of soil is dry. Don’t over fertilize. Once a month should be enough. If the soil is too fertile, the plants will produce too much foliage and won’t have the intense flavor that a good herb should have.
10. Once the plants are taller and established, throw some mulch down over the soil. It will keep weeds from growing and keep the soil moist. Leave a bare spot of soil right around the stem to avoid a slug problem.
11. Harvest often. Harvesting promotes growth. It keeps plants in their growing cycle instead of letting them mature and finish their life. So stop by your garden before dinner each night and snip away. (Never tear.) You can harvest up to a third of the foliage. And if you see a flower, clip or pinch it off. Once an herb flowers it’s trying to finish its life cycle.
12. If you want to try to keep your plants through the winter, you have some options. Rosemary can thrive by a sunny window. You will lose basil, thyme, and sage after a frost, but you can also try variegated basil, which doesn’t flower like other basils so it can be brought in during the winter near a sunny window and last for months.
13. Eat it! In order to use fresh herbs instead of dried, double or triple the amount called for because fresh herbs aren’t’ as concentrated. Try to add them near the end of the recipe. If you harvest herbs and can’t use them right away, chop them up, put them in ice cube trays, cover them with a little boiling water and freeze them to use in soups once the weather turns cold.