Victory gardens are all the rage right now, but is there a tasty alternative for those of us with black thumbs? I’m talking about the people who kill every plant that ever comes into their lives. Those of us who apologize to plants at the point of purchase, because they’ve just received a death sentence. And the rare breed who can kill the bamboo plant, which just sits in water.
What can people with nongreen thumbs grow?
Perhaps veggies aren’t on the menu, but there is a tasty alternative: herbs.
“Herbs are a great, easy way to get people growing some of their own edibles in their backyard,” says Wendy Wilber, statewide coordinator for the master gardener volunteer program at the University of Florida. “I usually grow spearmint and peppermint and just go out and grab a couple sprigs for a mojito, put some in lemonade, or make a chutney with them.”
Tasty thoughts. Fresh dill for salmon. Basil for caprese salad. Rosemary for chicken.
These all sound delicious, so where to begin?
Where to grow herbs
Herbs can grow anywhere in the country, and the key to growing them is sunlight. Wilber says herbs need six to eight hours of sun to have a chance at survival.
“If you get three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, that’s good,” she says. A shady porch is not a good space, nor is an indoor windowsill.
“There is no such thing as an herb that will grow without sun,” says Wilber, who recommends planting your herbs close to the kitchen. “You don’t want to go out to the back 40 to pick herbs. I just want to have a thought, ‘Oh, this soup needs thyme,’ so I want to take 10 steps and go and pick my thyme.”
Herbs can thrive in pots or in the ground.
“I don’t have a full-blown herb garden where people put them in a little jail and keep them all in the same area. I have them scattered throughout the landscape,” Wilber says.
You’ll need a few things to get your herb garden going:
- Pots: Clay pots work well for herbs because they drain well. Hanging pots are a solution if critters are a problem.
- Soil: Potting soil works best. Garden soil or black earth can be too heavy and hold too much moisture.
- Fertilizer: Something slow-releasing is good for herbs.
- Seeds or already blossomed transplants
“Transplants are easier because they’re already up and growing. But seeds are more cost-effective,” Wilber says. “Transplants are instant success. You can go spend $15 at the garden center in plants, and you have a full-blown herb garden. You’re not waiting, getting discouraged, and hoping that the seeds come up.”
What herbs should you plant?
What you like to eat can help you choose which herbs to plant.
“Rosemary is just really supereasy to grow, and I just go and snap a couple of sprigs off and then that goes into the pork roast for that evening,” Wilber says. “Basil is definitely very useful. People use that all the time, and rosemary grows fast and, to me, it’s also very useful.”
Consider the flavors you like to help plan your herb garden. Wilber suggests taking a look at your cooking and identifying what you’ll need and which herbs would be valuable to you and your kitchen.
While most herbs are relatively easy to grow, some are easier than others, Wilber says. Here’s the breakdown.
- Easy growers: Rosemary, oregano, mint, thyme, parsley
- More difficult: Sage, dill, cilantro, lavender
- Somewhere in the middle: Basil
But just because they are relatively easy to grow, not all herbs like to be clumped together in close range. Some are loners while others are a bit needy or invasive.
“Basil needs a little more water, as do parsley and dill, so they could grow together,” Wilber says, noting that basil sometimes gets a kind of mildew on it. “Thyme, sage, oregano, and rosemary need to be slightly dry and could also grow together.”
As for the ones that are better left alone, Wilber points to mint. The herb can easily take over a container and is better off in a pot or by itself.
Speaking of water, overwatering is the most common mistake beginning herb growers make.
“One of the things that folks do is that they’ll overwater it and then there’s not good airflow, so it doesn’t dry out and they rot out. I see people overwatering their herbs and letting the soil stay really soggy.” Wilber warns. “Many of these herbs are kind of Mediterranean in nature, and that means a dry climate that has a lot of wind.”
The soil should be just moist to the touch, she says. To test, stick one finger in the soil and if it’s dry to the touch one knuckle down, it needs to be watered. Different soil mixes hold water differently, so Wilber says it is difficult to say how many times per week to water.
Using and pruning
One of the great things about growing fresh herbs is having just the right amount.
“When I buy fresh dill. I use one sprig, and the rest of it rots in the fridge. That is really depressing to me, so I really like the convenience of being able to go out and just pick exactly as much as I need,” Wilber says.
When cutting herbs, make sure to use only about a third of the plant at a time to give the plant an opportunity to recover. Timing also matters.
“Harvest them in the early-morning hours, when the flavors are more intense, before the sun really heats them up,” Wilber says. The sun can burn off the oils that give herbs their flavors and aromas.
Avoid the discouraging feeling of herbal death if you’re unsuccessful in your first attempt.
“Just keep experimenting, because a little pot of basil is less than $2. It’s not a huge investment, so just keep trying and experimenting,” Wilber says. “If they didn’t make it this time, try a sunnier spot and they will ultimately reveal to you where they want to grow in the landscape.
Tasty food will be the ultimate reward.
“To me, the flavors are more intense than dry herbs because that flavor is just so fresh,” she says. “You’re growing something in your backyard that you can take right into the kitchen so it makes you feel more sustainable, which I think is kind of what we’re looking for right now.”
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