One of my favorite things about summer is the sudden abundance of good, fresh produce. The sun always brings the best out of the ground – and any chef or home cook can tell you, the closer to your back yard it’s grown, the better your food is going to taste. And there’s nothing that brings out the flavor of summer like fresh herbs. That’s why, this year, I’m thinking of starting an herb garden.
Now, I don’t have the greenest thumb, but herbs are hardy plants that require minimal space and maintenance. Even if you’re a major pesto junkie, you can grow enough basil in a window box to crush your cravings all year round. What kind of herbs you’re going to use, and how much of each you think you’ll need, is a good place to start planning a garden. If you really hate thyme, for example, you probably don’t want eight plants worth, but if you look at the herbs you use in recipes regularly, or think about what you find yourself wishing they had more of at the market, you’re well on your way to planning an herb garden that will be both delicious and beautiful.
There are also lots of herbs that, in addition to tasting and smelling great, make a lovely floral addition to a larger garden landscape – and can even attract birds or butterflies – so don’t worry about pinning yourself into a lot of tasty but plain-looking, low-lying leafy greens. Lavender, chives, and decorative breeds of basil all add great color and texture to an existing flower bed, or make an elegant complement to a decorative planter. Regardless of where you plant them, your herbs can be gathered and used as you need them throughout the season, or dried or frozen (I recommend chopping them fine and putting them in ice cube trays filled with water or oil to preserve freshness and color) for use in the winter months.
Like I said, herbs tend to stand up to pretty rough treatment, but that isn’t to say there aren’t some things you can do and tools you can use to improve their chances (and their flavor!). Fresh, nutrient rich or fertilized soil is always a good place to start, and a secondary mid-season fertilization can really boost production. If you’re really into gardening, this Digital Soil pH Meter can help you fine-tune your soil to your plant’s specific needs without having to send soil samples off to a lab – the hardcore gardener’s way of maximizing growing potential.
Whether you start an herb garden from seed packets or pre-potted cuttings, whatever growing materials you start with should come with information about the plant’s individual needs – how much sun and water they need, and how far apart they should be planted. Though most common kitchen herbs respond well to lots of sunshine and drier soil, if you pick a variety that doesn’t, like parsley or peppermint, make sure to keep that in mind when planning out your garden bed. Taller, sun-thirsty plants can be used to shade low-light herbs if you arrange them right. If you’re worried about Peter Rabbit finding his way into your garden, this Small Animal Barrier is a great way to portion off your edibles and protect them against munchy bunnies.
Once the late frost date has passed in your region, your biggest responsibility to your herb garden? Water! Whether you use a fancy Copper Watering Can or a coffee cup, especially when your plants first go in the ground, they’re going to need a lot of water to promote growth. And this is where starting with good soil helps – if your soil drains well, you don’t have to worry about over- or under-watering your plants, because the dirt hangs on to exactly what your plant needs. If you start from seeds, it’s not a bad idea to plant them in small cups or biodegradable soil pots and keep them indoors until they’ve sprouted. Once you’ve got some leaves, you want to tote the shoots outside and back in for a couple days, usually in the late afternoon or on a cloudy day, if you can, to acclimate them to the outside weather before transplanting.
Or, if you aim for lower maintenance, start with cuttings from your local nursery, plant them in your good loamy soil outside, fill an Aqua Globe with water and stick it into the dirt – gravity will do the rest (unless you forget to refill it once in a while!).
Since, if you’re growing herbs, you probably intend to eat them, pesticides are basically out. If you’re worried about creepy crawlies, though, a quick spray with some slightly soapy water on the tops and bottoms of the leaves of your herbs should discourage insects, and leave only a residue that rinses off with a little water. As for bigger pests, like slugs, a good way to keep them from getting to your herbs is to keep your garden out of reach, with a window box like this Copper Milan Ogee Planter.
In fact, unless you’re a real culinary wiz, a nice 36-Inch Window Box full of herbs might be enough to meet your cooking needs. And, unlike a regular or full sized garden plot, a window box is less likely to get bogged down with weeds – the main natural competitor of your herbs. Maybe more than that, a nice box outside your kitchen can be extremely convenient – just open the window, lean out, and snip off what you need, whenever you need it.
If you’ve gotten this far, and are in love with the idea of an herb garden, but feel really helpless in the dirt – or if you dread having to dig up and re-pot or re-grow and re-plant at the beginning and end of every season just to make some decent pasta sauce, never fear! The AeroGarden is here to rescue you. It takes care of the nutrients, light, and water – reducing the need for a green thumb to a button press. Then again, as fun as this NASA-inspired indoor science project can be, from where I stand, there’s no substitute for getting a little dirt under your nails. What do you think? Are herbs worth more for their decorative value, or do you want them straight from pot to plate? Can you tell the difference between a home-grown edible and store bought? Any proud gardening moments (or disasters!) you want to share? Let me know in the comments! In the meantime, I’ll be digging in the dirt.