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As any cook knows, herbs add dimensions of flavor to your food. Dry herbs are easily found in markets and online shops, but fresh herbs are harder to obtain. Also since they only last so long, most of the time you buy more than you need at high prices and more than half goes to waste.
As a frugal (perpetually broke artist) person that bothered me. So .. I started growing my own herbs so I can have a pinch here and a tablespoon there without breaking the bank.
First Consideration – Needs
What herbs do I need? If you cook regularly then you can look back at your last few months menus and list out everything you have used and how often. You will see certain herbs and vegetables rise quickly to the top of your list.
For me my list started with basil, of course, since I use large amounts of it for pesto and other Italian food. After basil came rosemary, thyme, sage, cilantro, green onions and parsley. Add anything to your list you like at this stage .. this is the dreaming stage. Lemongrass? Ginger? garlic? add them all in and prune your list after you read through the other considerations.
For the person that doesn’t cook all that often, you can consider easy to grow herbs that have attractive scents or blossoms such as lavender, mint, and basil. I also suggest green onions or chives, which may not smell as nice, but its hard to beat that sprinkle of fresh chopped green onions on a baked potato or nachos.
Second Consideration – Light
Where do I have a good place to grow these things? Most herbs like lots of light and a relatively warm location. (but not too warm)
Look around your space for a window that gets sunlight most of the day. My kitchen table is right up against a sliding glass door, which made it a natural spot, but you may find the perfect location in a bed room or living room window.
Don’t have a sunny spot? make your own sun! Plants need ‘full spectrum’ lighting, and will not do well with regular artificial lighting without a little help. These days most hardware stores carry full spectrum or ‘growlight’ light bulbs which work in any fixture. So find a nice spot that isn’t too drafty and set up your lamp there for your herbs.
A bonus for you .. if you suffer from the winter blues a full spectrum light can trick your body into thinking you are getting more sunlight and can help even out those winter mood swings.
You can find plant growing light stands already made but .. well .. they tend to the functional, not decorative. If the best spot for your herbs is in your bedroom then you probably don’t want a clunky metal stand cluttering up your sanctuary. Opt for a full spectrum light bulb in a desk lamp or other fixture that is easy to adjust in height as your plants grow.
The next important thing here is a timer. Plug your lamp into the timer, so the lights will turn on and off automatically without you having to remember them. If this is in your room match the lamp timer to your alarm clock. Light can wake you up faster than sound, so consider it a bonus!
Third Consideration – Pets and Children
You love them … but they get into everything. Most herbs are nontoxic for babies and furbabies alike but you don’t really want them digging around and killing your plants.
If you have small creatures that just wont stay out of your herb pots consider hanging pots, a closed bookshelf with glass door, or a tabletop greenhouse. They can still find a way, but it’s going to be harder for Fluffy and Baby to dig up your basil and scatter it around the kitchen.
Tabletop greenhouses or terrarium planters range in size from just big enough for one plant, or a pocket sized garden, and in style from super simple to fancy Gothic enclosures. While you are at it, why not fill the planter bottom entirely with soil and make a little fairy garden with your herbs? Green growing plants make a great focal point in a living room if you want to splurge on a fancier container. I’ve tried to pick out a range, but if you want to search for your own, or a DIY tutorial the magic words are ‘tabletop greenhouse’ or ‘terrarium planter’.
Fourth Consideration – I can kill cactus
Well .. you want to grow herbs and you love them but … your life is so busy that frankly you have forgotten to water a cactus until it died. I think we have all been there at least once. If watering is a big issue for you, look into an automated watering system. This doesn’t have to be fancy, there are many ‘self watering’ DIY projects out there which consist mainly of a bottle and a piece of cloth. This takes watering to a once a week chore which hopefully is easier to handle.
Or you can opt for a fancier solution. The Aero garden is a very nice self contained automated system. This is a hydroponic system which means no dirt for Fluffy to dig, as the plants grow in water. The top is closed, so Baby can’t get into the water. It has its own built in lights, timer, pump and everything so as long as you keep an eye on the red ‘feed me now’ light and check the waterlevel once a week, you are good to go. One thing .. the pump can be a little noisy, so if you require an absolutely silent bedroom to sleep, keep this one in the kitchen or livingroom.
Fifth Consideration – Where am I going to get these?
I’m going to start with the super cheap and easy method and work my way along.
Many herbs propagate (make more of themselves) easily with cutting. What that means for you is next time you buy a bundle of rosemary or sage at the grocery store …. take the extra branches, snip the dried out bottom end off and stick them in a container of water. Leave it in a sunny place and within a week you should start seeing little white roots at the bottom. When the roots are an inch or so long, you can move your new plant into a dirt pot, or your hydro garden.
If you have friends who grow herbs, ask for cuttings of their plants. Transplant them home quickly with the cut ends wrapped in wet paper towel so they don’t wilt. I’ve often been tempted to nip off a bit off of a plant at the botanical gardens, but that is definitely a no-no. (Don’t take cuttings without asking! it’s stealing!) Source: Grocery store, friends
You can also start with grown plants. You can find some at your grocery store like basil and rosemary, or check your local area for a nursery. Failing that, look online. There are many plant and seed merchants that sell online and will send you herb plants without much more expense than a trip to the store. Source: hardware store, plant nursery
The last option, since it can take quite a while, is starting from seed. Many hardware stores and some department stores sell seeds and gardening supplies, but usually only in spring. Again the internet abounds with seed sellers, but I have had good experiences with Gurneys Seed & Nursery, Burpee Seed and Park Seed. Source: Hardware stores, plant nursery
Last Consideration – Get to Know Your Herbs
Every plant has different needs and herbs are no exception. Once you have your list take a little time to read up on each of the contenders on your list. Each one will want a different amount of growing space, kind of soil and so forth. Some plants don’t get along and should never share the same pot. Some grow super slowly, or super fast. Some really shouldn’t be grown inside … oh lemon tree how I wish I lived someplace warmer!
Basil – regular potting soil works for this one. They want lots of light and lots of water. In a good spot they will grow like crazy. Dependent how much you need, you might fill up a whole window-box or 9″ pot just with basil.
Green Onions – Mine don’t like getting their feet wet. So add some gravel or rocks to the bottom of your pot to improve drainage. Many plants don’t like being near onions of any sort so these often do better in their own pot.
Ginger – This one is a super slow grower. As in years. It is semi tropical, so it wants things warm and damp. It grows mainly sideways so you want a large, shallow, saucer like pot. Be prepared to buy ginger for a year or two until this one gets big enough to harvest from. Ginger is grown from a ginger root, but the grocery store ones are soaked in anti-growth chemicals, so you will need to get a root from a nursery or possibly an organic produce store.
Well once you have all of these things sorted out then actually assembling your herb garden is pretty simple.
Find pots which will suit your various plants. Find dirt, gravel, sand, and so forth to fill your pots. Find your plants, cuttings or seeds. Find drainage trays or saucers for your plants to sit in so they don’t dribble dirt and water all over the place.
Drainage items go in the bottom, dirt goes in the pot, pot goes into a drainage tray or saucer. Worried about Fluffy? fill your drainage tray with decorative rocks to keep Fluffy out of the plant water. Soak the dirt with water for a bit, since most bagged potting soils are pretty dry. I like to put the dirt in the pot and water it every day for up to a week before sticking my plant in there. That gets the dirt nice and evenly hydrated before your plant gets moved in. They don’t like being transplanted (who does?) , so water heavily the first day and keep an eye on it. It may wilt at first, but should perk back up after a day or so.
Set up your lights and plant your plants, or cuttings. Give them a few days to get settled before you cut anything. Most herb plants love being pruned and will grow more and more leave when you do. When you cut herbs make sure to snip the stem right above a pair of leaves. The plant will fork here and grow two stalks up from that spot.
Starting from seed? Read the directions on your seed packet! Read up on your plant online if you haven’t already. Most herb seeds take anything from 5 days to a month to germinate. Fresh seed from a reputable nursery should have a 90-100% chance of germinating in the right conditions. You can sow your seeds directly in your growing pot, or start them in a smaller pot. If you transfer them, let them grow at least 3 sets of leaves before you try transplanting them.
Have fun and good luck!
– Lyrra Madril