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Start With an Herb Garden

September 15, 2010

I got to spend some quality time in my garden recently—yanking out weeds and veggies that are finished for the season, due mostly to lack of attention from me, unfortunately. But this post is all about how that’s okay! I own a house in West Philadlephia that has about 100 square feet of yard in the front. Last fall we ripped up all the grass (in strips to transplant to our barren back yard) to put in a vegetable garden. We’ve had a great year of herbs and veggies despite some shortfalls. It is worth it!

Dried peppermint from this year, stored in a Ball jar!

Having a garden is an interesting commitment because the level of which is determined not only by your garden’s size, but also by how much time you have. So you can start a bigger garden than you end up having the time or motivation for and it’ll die. But it’s not like a cat or dog, you can get over it really quick and just start over again smaller next season! And even when you start smaller, maybe you end up losing a plant… or several! I do every year. It’s inevitable!

My advice is to start small, with an herb garden. Herb gardens are extremely rewarding because: a) there are a lot of easy to grow herbs to choose from; b) cooking with fresh herbs will fool your taste buds and your guests’ into thinking just about every part of dinner is that fresh!; and c) you can plant herbs anywhere that has about five or more hours of direct sun a day—in a pot, in a jar, in a patch of lawn, on a balcony, out your 12th story bedroom window, etc. And you can start very small, making your garden bigger little-by-little each year if you find that you can manage more.

How to Start an Easy Herb Garden:

(1) Pick up a pack of basil seeds, and two small plants each of oregano, rosemary, thyme, sage and peppermint.

I’ve toiled with many seeds over the years, and for herbs I prefer to buy small plants to put into my garden over starting them from seed, it’s just easier (with the exception of basil, which is super easy to germinate and grow).

Buying your herbs as small plants means that they are further along when you are ready to put them in the ground without the hassle of starting seedlings yourself in March and moving them around your house to stay properly warm and lighted.

(2) Any combination of pots or piece of land you dig out will be fine. Just make sure that the plants get about five hours or more of direct sun each day. If you are digging in an urban area or near a very old building, use pots or create a container that has at least six inches of dirt on top of the ground soil, as there could be old paint and other runoff in the ground soil.

Buy regular potting soil for your pots or on-ground containers, and use compost in both places if you can get it. Look up your local leaf collection-recycling center, where you can usually get a few buckets of free compost soil! Philadelphia’s Recycling Center is located in West Fairmount Park, and charges by the truck-load. But if you bring a moderate-sized container or two to fill, they give it to you!

(3) Put outdoor herbs in the ground after the last potential frost of spring. For the Delaware Valley the rule of thumb for last frost is Mother’s Day weekend! (Perfect timing for making your mom a small herb garden for Mother’s Day!)

Dig a hole slightly larger than the pot your seedling is in. Bury the roots of your little plants with the dirt they came in, covering the whole bundle (dirt and roots) with ground soil/potting soil/compost. Then water them in. Your herbs will need to be watered every couple of days for the first few weeks if the temperature is above about 85 degrees. You’ll know that your herbs have fully adjusted to their new spot once you start to see them grow in size.

Our little yard is all veggy business, but really only the space marked in the photo is taken up by herbs!

(4) Rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano and mint are perennial, which means they will live over the winter in the ground, and grow bigger and stronger each year if they are healthy. Put these into the ground with permanence in mind and make sure you leave a foot or so of space in each direction for their growth.

If you are working with an extremely small space, don’t worry about le

aving so much space around each plant. If you cut them back generously they will stay relatively small.

(5) Don’t let your herbs flower! When your herbs start to form taller stems from the center and produce flowers, this is called “bolting.” You want to prevent your herbs from bolting by constantly trimming back the tops of them. You can rinse the clippings and dry them for use in the winter, but it’s also okay if you’re not going to use these clippings! Letting your herbs bolt generally makes the plant taste more bitter.

Clipping for size is a good idea if you don’t want some plants to grow too big and take over other parts of your yard or garden. Sage gets especially big very fast, and peppermint is very invasive. Cutting back or keeping some herbs in containers to contain their range may be the right option for you.

(6) Finally, don’t worry about varieties. You’ll learn more about these in the coming years. For right now, buy whatever is at your local home depot or grocery store. If you want to be super sustainable, in many places you can find local and organic seeds for sale online.

Dried rosemary from this year, stored in a jar my mom gave me preserves in!

Herb Tips:

Rosemary: Likes well-drained soil. It’s a perennial, so it lives many years and doesn’t have to be replanted each year. Cut it back once a season to keep it small. Rosemary is sensitive to extreme cold, so depending on where you live you may need to bring it inside in the winter.

Thyme: Perennial. This herb is great used as a ground cover. It spreads out low and smells delicious when you step on it a bit as you traverse stepping stones in a garden, for example!

Basil: Basil is easy to grow from seed and likes a lot of water.  If your basil starts to taste bitter, it’s because you’re not watering it enough—or the summer is simply so hot you can’t keep up with watering. This is where the packet of seeds comes in! If you live in a super hot-summer climate like me, you’ll find that by late-July a lot of your basil has become bitter. So,  in the spring after last frost, plant basil seeds in your garden three times, three weeks apart. That way you’ll have fresh batch  by late-July and then by late-August to hold you over.

You can pick about 30 percent of your plant’s leaves every three or four days in the summer if it’s getting enough water. Picking more encourages more growth. Basil is an annual, so you must plant it each year.

Peppermint: Perennial. Peppermint grows extremely well in even not so perfect conditions like poor soil or shade. That’s great, for where you want it! But it also spreads like a weed. You may want to confine your mint to a few pots, or maybe you’d love to smell that fresh mint while you’re mowing your lawn in a few years!

Oregano: Oregano is a perennial as well. Clip your oregano often to encourage more growth. Some varieties of oregano grow low and wide, while some grow up.

Other Easy Herbs You May Want To Try:

dill, cilantro, chives, parsley, sage, anise, fennel, garlic and lavender

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dana permalink
    December 17, 2012 6:43 am

    I really enjoyed your article and appreciate your having written it. Since I’m in Philadelphia too I was wondering if you (or someone) could recommend a place to buy some of these edible plants so I don’t have to start them all by seed. I’ve looked all over and am becoming desperate.


  1. Tips for using up your CSA goodies. Sign up for a CSA today! | South Philly Food Co-op

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