Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to: begin growing your own herbs

As many a chef knows, a quick and easy way to liven up your cooking is to use fresh herbs.  However, in an economy like ours, it is expensive to buy fresh herbs in the super market when three ounces of thyme is seven dollars, for example.  What’s a solution? Here are fun solutions that keep the greens around—both in your garden and your wallets. 

The pasta is al dente, the sauce is piping hot and the plating process is almost complete.  As you have the fork in hand, you proudly look at your creation and scoff.  Something is missing.  You decide to shrug it off and take your first bite.  As you are chewing, you then realize there really is something missing.  But what did you forget?  You hastily check your recipe and you included everything, even salt and pepper.  However, you didn’t use a small but powerful ingredient—herbs. 

Many people don’t bother with buying fresh herbs each month for cooking at home, but it’s a common agreement among cooks that using fresh herbs can make the dullest of recipes pop with excitement.  Unfortunately, fresh herbs are more expensive in the super markets and dry herbs don't generally have the same purity of flavor as fresh herbs and they go stale quickly, according to  What’s a solution?  Growing your own herbs.  While this may be an intimidating project to begin, these simple tips will help even the greenest of thumbs successfully grow herbs.  

Placing your herbs 

A good place to begin is to decide where you want to plant your herbs. Take note of how much space you have to work with—if you are planting them in the ground of your yard or if you are going to plant them in a pot—these are major details that will determine which herbs you select and where you plant them in relation to each other. To make sure herb don’t grow into each other, allot at least 12-18 inches for each plot to give adequate spacing, according to an agricultural article published by West Virginia University. It is also necessary to plant annual and perennial herbs separately to keep your herb garden organized.   

Keep in mind you are not restricted to a pot or garden—you could have herbs growing in timpani drums in your back yard like Rob Clark, a high school administrator for Blount County Schools in Maryville, Tennessee who has grown herbs for several years.  “I have the biggest basil bushes I’ve ever had this year, solely because I took better care them.  You have to remember to snip the flowers off when they bloom in basil plants so all the nutrients can stay in the leaves rather the unnecessary flower,” Clark says. 

However, he learned most of his tips from a local greenhouse.  Stanley’s Greenhouse and Plant Farm is a family-owned business in the heart of Knoxville.  The employees there can tell you exactly which month to plant what herb, what side of your house to plant herbs on and even which will grow best in your region—literally anything you would need to know, according to Clark.  We were so curious, we went to Stanley’s ourselves to see what tips they had.  

“When placing your herbs, keep in mind that all herbs need at least 6 hours of sun a day.  Some are slightly different, but that’s a general rule for growing in this area,” Stanley’s employee of three years Beth Rue says.

Site and soil conditions

The next thing to consider when beginning an herb garden is the site and soil conditions.  If you decide to plant directly into the ground, consider drainage of the soil when it rains because no herb will grow in wet soils.   “Lavender trozence does well in this area, but it needs really good drainage.  It’s best to mend with sand,” Rue says.  

Also, decide early if you want your herbs to be more organic—this will determine if you buy a starter plant or the
box seeds and also what type of soil and fertilizer you use according to Clark. "I used Miracle Grow potting soil but have never sprayed any insecticides or fertilizer on them. It's just better for me to eat that way. The leaves aren't always the prettiest, but that's okay with me," Clark says.
Decide which herbs to plant

Next, decide what specific herbs meet your needs, such as culinary, aromatic, ornamental and medicinal—you can use herbs for more than cooking if you want.  However, most common herbs are culinary herbs:  thyme, parsley, cilantro, rosemary, basil, tarragon, sage, dill, mint and chives. Rosemary is a low-maintenance herb that does not require re-planting each year like the other herbs, which is a good herb to plant for beginning gardens.   

Keep in mind that mint will take over your pot or garden, so plant those separately from your other herbs, according to Rue. “You have to watch ground covers—they overtake everything. Herbs like thyme, oregano and winter savory, (which is a spicier thyme) are bad for taking over gardens,” Rue says.  

“I tried growing cilantro last year but it died quickly. The soil here in Tennessee doesn’t work very well,” says Clark.  Clark suggests researching the herbs you choose before planting them because some have more specific care instructions than others.  

“Perennials are easier and cheaper long term because you don’t have to worry about care during the winter,” Rue says. “I really think it is worth the extra money to get herbs like tarragon, basil and dill because they are great for cooking—and they’re perennials.”

 Indoor herb growing

If you don’t have a yard for an herb garden, a window works well too. Even if you live in a small rented space, some apartments have window seals that can make a home for a nice herb garden.  But if you prefer, you can grow herbs indoors for year around enjoyment.  Indoor herbs will need natural sunlight and well-drained soil—just as outdoor herbs—but you will want to choose a south or west window to get adequate sunlight for most herbs.  Keep in mind that perennial herbs grow better outdoors.  

“Keep in mind that with indoor growing, you need a lot of southern or western sun exposure. Grow lights or herb boxes are another easy option you can research,” Rue says. Grow lights are artificial lights designed for growing gardens inside that are widely available in retail stores, Rue explains. These grow lights are an appropriate alternative to natural light if you do not have a lot of space near a window. Even if you don’t have a window at all and plan to grow herbs in a basement room, for example, it would be possible with a grow light. Rue also says herb boxes are a similar concept, just specifically designed for herbs and is enclosed rather than open.  

Get growing

Herbs do not need a lot of water to prosper, so don’t drown them.  So essentially, they’re easier to take care of than a goldfish. “I love keeping up with my herbs and other plants around the house.  I don’t have a pet, so it keeps me busy.  I figured if I can consistently keep a plant alive I can work up to a dog,” Clark jokes.  After all, water and light are much easier to remember than water, food and vet visits.

If you're looking for a hobby, herb growing is a good one and it will keep extra cash in your wallet. Starter plants average five dollars a plant and if you take care of it, you could have a bush that would be the equivalent of forty dollars of herbs just with that one plant. Imagine how much money you could save if you grew several herbs. 

Final encouraging words to rejuvenate an old garden or if you are beginning a new one:  keep the basic rules of growing in mind for the most success with your project.  For you new gardeners, Rue leaves you with some advice as well: “I think that sage is your best bet for an herb if you have never grown before.  It’s an annual herb, it roots really well and it spreads further than most herbs.” Rue says. 

So here's your challenge: I want to encourage you to pick a culinary herb to be a nice addition to your garden, if you haven’t already planned to choose one.  Now you can cut down the grocery list of produce down a bit and have ingredients on hand for our recipe section.  If you are having trouble picking know which herb to grow first, choose rosemary (which is quite easy to grow in East Tennessee).  This savory herb has the perfect flavors for year around recipes, so pick up your starter plant now and get growing.

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