~ republished for a little weekend gardening inspiration 2015~
~more recently updated recipes~
Food prices are skyrocketing with no end in sight. This is the second post tackling the idea of saving money on groceries by – stay with me a minute, it's not entirely intuitive – by cooking more. The idea, you see, is to stop paying crazy-high prices for store-bought by making our own or in this case, growing our own.
Now I know that fresh herbs are a luxury in many households, it's dried or nothing or maybe even nothing. But cooking at home is as much about eating better as eating less expensively. Fresh herbs add life to salads, vegetables, salad dressings, meat dishes, even desserts and drinks.
In my grocery, small, plastic packets of fresh herbs are now $3 for a small bunch. Trader Joe's sells fresh herbs for $2 but to my taste, they're not worth a nickel. Either way, buying just one packet a week adds up to $100 - $150 a year. Instead, I spend maybe $20 on plants, then use them all summer long. So here's my challenge, will you join me? Never Buy Fresh Herbs Again!
HOW to GROW HERBS in POTS
HOW to GROW HERBS in the GROUND
HOW to GROW HERBS in APARTMENTS
~ Never Buy Salad Dressing Again ~
~ How to Save Money on Groceries ~
HOW to GROW HERBS in POTS
Timing: When to Plant Herbs Decide when to plant, it's definitely not on those first few warm days of spring! Make sure the frost date has passed. Here's a list that shows frost dates by state, it shows April 30 as the last frost for St. Louis but the common wisdom is that it's really Mother's Day weekend. But here's the thing. One year, life intervened and I planted no herbs at all. By the end of June, my summer cooking felt all out of whack, all out of that bit of live-liness that fresh herbs add. So I visited two or three stores to purchase the last of their herbs, some were pretty sad looking, honestly but since the plants were on sale (a benefit!) I decided to give it a shot. Within two weeks, with sunshine and water and a good dose of fertilizer, those herbs were in great shape and my cooking was too. Plants are amazing!
Pots Choose pots at least twelve inches in diameter but large pots work really well. Pots smaller than twelve inches simply cannot hold enough moisture on hot summer days. Terra cotta pots look great but are heavy, expensive and fragile. I really like the foam pots which look like terra cotta but are light, relatively inexpensive and last at least a decade (maybe longer, I just know that three of mine are that old). A mix of pot styles – color, height, diameter, shape, material – is less "matchy-matchy" and looks quite natural and beautiful.
Location Find a spot that gets direct sun for at least six hours a day and is open to rainfall. Late-day sun is hard on plants so if there's a choice, pick a spot that's bright in the morning but shaded in late afternoon.
Drainage The pot may already have drainage holes in the bottom. If not, it's simple enough to drill a few holes in the bottom. And do make sure to use pots with drainage holes – otherwise the plants may actually "drown" since their roots could be in water. In addition, I like to place an inch or so of small rocks in the bottom of the pots to help drainage. During the spring, it's easy to buy bags of small stones at the garden store. During the year, for houseplants, say, I use aquarium gravel. A reader suggests using coffee filters, brilliant!
Soil For extra-large pots, fill the bottom third or even half of the pot with styrofoam popcorn or even used wine corks. The pot will need less soil and be quite a bit lighter, making it easier to move the pot or at least turn it occasionally. Then fill with soil. If you're doing just a couple of pots, buy a pre-mixed soil called "potting mix" which will be loose and easy to work. (Avoid the bags of "top soil" and "garden soil" – each may sound like a good medium for planting but it isn't. It's too dense and tight and heavy. One year, I accidentally bought top soil instead of potting mix and yikes, my plants were dead within a couple of weeks, their roots had been crushed to nothing. UPDATE Arggghhh! It happened again just today! I asked him to pick up some potting soil but just plain potting soil, not the potting with Miracle Grow timed release fertilizer. What did he come home with? Garden soil. Argghh! I'm off to Google to figure out how to amend the &^%$% garden soil.) For more soil, it's easy to make your own potting mix but I've become addicted to the performance of the Miracle Grow potting mix. It's expensive but I pay for the convenience and performance.
Time-Release Fertilizer Some potting soils already include a time-release fertizer. Otherwise, sprinkle the top layer with a fertilizer such as Osmocote (a real miracle product). Work it into the top couple of inches of soil.
Planting from Seed To plant from seed, you need to start very early in the season. Honestly, I've had zero luck planting from seed though others of course do.
Container Plants Instead, I buy small containers of herbs for $2 - $3 each. Walmart, Home Depot and the large box stores with gardening centers have good selection with the most reasonable prices. Most herbs are "annuals", this means that they'll last just one season. A few are "perennials" and will return year after year.
My Favorite Herbs for Pots My own tact is to grow a few favorite herbs, ones to use all summer in small quantities. So I usually buy one plant each of chive, sweet mint (not peppermint), rosemary, Greek or Italian oregano, dill, marjoram, lavender, tarragon and thyme plus three sweet basil (not globe basil) plants. I also grow parsley and cilantro but just enough for snipping for salads and garnishing since I use them in such quantity and they are inexpensive in large bunches at the grocery store. If you only have room for one or two? Go for chive, oregano and basil.
How Many Plants Per Pot? Plan for one plant in a twelve-inch pot, up to three plants in a larger pot. They'll look puny at first but after a few weeks of sun and water, will fill out lush and beautiful!
Finally, Planting! Decide when to plant, it's definitely not on those first few warm days of spring! Make sure the frost date has passed. Here's a list that shows frost dates by state, it shows April 30 as the last frost for St. Louis but the common wisdom is that it's really Mother's Day weekend. The last few years, I've found herbs packed in biodegradable pots, the pots go right into the soil! I get excellent results with these pots, there's little transplant shock and no plastic pots that require recycling. But if your herbs are in plastic pots, no problem, the first step is to gently remove the plant from its container. Sometimes you can slip the base of the plant between the fingers of one hand to contain the soil, then turn it over. Some times you need to tug gently to remove the plant from the container. Dip the plant into water, using your hand to contain the soil. Crack open the bottom of the dirt, this lets the roots descend into the pot's soil more easily. Place the plant in the potting mix, fill in the sides with soil but don't mound the dirt around the plant's stem. Once all the plants are in the soil, soak the pot with water, give it a good dousing.
Adding Flowers Fresh herbs are beautiful but they are "mostly green" so might not provide summer color. So some times, I'll tuck a pansy or a hanging flowering plant along the side. Impatiens work well, so do bacopa and trailing plants like sweet potato vines.
TLC - Tender Lovin' Care In hot climates, pots will need to be watered every day unless it rains a real soaker, I keep rain gauges in two pots, to measure how much really fell. Lacking rain, I soak my pots every single morning, filling them until the water begins to drain out the holes in the bottom. Every three or four weeks, it also pays to refresh the fertilizer, a few more grains of Osmocote or a splash of liquid Miracle Grow. If you keep compost? Use compost instead of chemical fertilizers!
Buds & Flowers Aha! This is the real trick to growing fresh herbs at home, knowing when to cut them back! The "flowers" on basil, dill and other plants may be beautiful but if we really want fresh herbs, we need to nip these off as soon as they appear. Right away! If the herbs "go to flower" or "go to seed" then the leaves that we cook with, well, they'll soon be goners. (That said, I love the flowers of garlic chive so much that I keep an entire pot of garlic chive, just for the greens and flowers!) In addition, periodically, some herbs need to be clipped back a bit to keep them lush and thick. That's why, if we go away for a few days during the summer, before leaving, I trim back all the herbs. When we're back? The plants are thick and thriving again.
Harvesting It's great fun to step outside with scissors to gather a few herbs. Just cut off what you need. At the end of the season, you may want to harvest all the herbs for preserving for the winter. I love this technique, DIY Dried Herbs (How to Dry Fresh Herbs in the Microwave).
Winter Interest For the winter, woody plants like rosemary and lavendar, for example, die off but their dried versions provide great architectural interest throughout the winter. The soft-leaved plants like basil will just disintegrate after the first frost.
For Next Season Each spring, it's important to amend the soil in pots by at least half, some gardeners even recommend replacing the soil entirely. For large pots, my own practice is to take out the top half of the soil, then "work" the bottom half with a garden fork until it's loose, then fill the top half with new potting mix. For small pots, I dump all of last year's soil into either the raised beds where we grow vegetables or into flower beds to amend the soil. Some times, however, the pots will be so root-bound that I have to dump the entire huge clump. Since chives and thyme winter over (at least here in St. Louis) but get terribly root bound, I dump out the whole pot, start with fresh soil and then use a knife to cut out a small-ish clump of live plant to put back in the pot. Within a couple of weeks, it'll be thriving and happy!
HOW to GROW HERBS in the GROUND
Space This post isn't really intended for "real gardeners", to my mind, that's the people who feed their families by tilling the soil. But the good news for the rest of us is that it doesn't take a "garden" to grow herbs, just a small sunny corner will do. One year, I switched from pots to a side garden, testing how kitchen herbs would grow in dense clay-like soil. They did great! The second year, I amended the soil to really loosen it up and the herbs truly thrived. If you've got a place that will work for herbs, it's cheaper and easier to maintain plants in soil than in pots – no pots to buy, no pots to store during the winter, less watering. Otherwise, the principles are the same.
Battling Invasives The single downside to keeping herbs in the ground is that some will "take over" – you think you'll keep them contained but really, the plants are bigger-stronger-more-tenacious than most gardeners. Here are the herbs that I find to be very invasive: chives, especially garlic chives (which I love-love-love for their looks but really hate for how they'll propagate on their own, even when kept in pots!) and mint. I don't recommend planting these in the ground.
HOW to GROW HERBS in APARTMENTS
aerogarden, something I wrote about on BlogHer and has the added benefit of year-round fresh herbs. My friend Mary has an Aerogarden and loves it completely! Maggie, thank you for your letter and the Aerogarden suggestion. Readers, keep those cards and letters and comments coming!
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