Gardening is intimidating. Most folks enjoy the bounty of fresh produce a garden yields, but shy away from the labor, the unknowns, the time or the space that a garden requires.
Cayden Cash, the operations manager at Harmony Organics in Blacksburg offers: “Going through the trials of gardening can be tough sometimes, but it provides appreciation and insight into what it takes to make the stuff that always seems to magically appear on the shelves at the grocery store.”
If a full-blown garden is out of the question perhaps a good place to start is with nature’s mini edibles: herbs. In phraseology alone, “herb garden” denotes small, manageable, useful and maybe even … charming? Starting your own herb garden is a great way to amp your produce prowess without a hefty amount of agrarian angst.
Where Should I Grow Herbs?
Herbs are versatile in that they can be planted in pots or in the ground. Any plants prefer to stretch out, so opt for outside if ample in-ground space is available. It’s best to plant starter plants (vs. seeds). Make sure they get at least four to six hours of sun a day, and if summer temperatures regularly reach above 90 degrees, plant them where they can get a little shade as well. Loosen up the soil before planting to allow for proper water drainage and mix in about an inch of compost. Give them one to four feet of diameter and water immediately.
If you have a sunny kitchen, patio, deck or porch you’d like to adorn with potted plants, take comfort that herbs are way easier to manage than regular houseplants. Use containers that are at least eight inches in diameter (replanting in larger pots is always an option if needed), use good potting soil and a little organic fertilizer. As with ground plants, water immediately upon planting and follow-up with a soak when the soil becomes dry to the touch.
When the herb plants reach around six inches tall, start by cutting off 1/3 of the branches close to the leaf intersections. This will ensure rapid, healthy regrowth. Harvest in the morning hours and before any blooms appear. Six herbs sure to flourish in a novice garden include sage, chives, basil, mint, parsley and cilantro.
To go even more foolproof, shamelessly consider purchasing an herb garden kit. There are several on the market and they contain everything you need in one, charming, box.
What Can I Do with Fresh Herbs?
Perhaps the most obvious use is for creations of the culinary kind. Fresh herbs help make regular dishes feel decadent. Top a summer caprese salad with fresh basil. Use scissors to dice chives on top of soups, omelets or sautéed vegetables. Fresh cilantro is great in homemade guacamole. Use dill when preparing baked salmon. Add whole stems of rosemary before roasting chicken or pork or lamb and then remove before serving. Wow guests with happy hour mojitos dotted with mint from your very own stash. Experiment with herbal tea by steeping three teaspoons of fresh leaves per one cup of water.
Wrap any leaves that go unused in damp paper towels, place them in Ziploc bags and store them in the fridge. If you have an abundance of herbs that can’t possibly be consumed before wilting sets in, consider drying or freezing them for later use.
To dry herbs, gather approximately five branches together and secure the stems with a rubber band. Place them in a paper bag punched with several holes. Gather the open end of the bag around the bundle stems and tie it closed. Hang the bag upside down in a warm, well-ventilated room. Once dry, after seven to 10 days, store the herbs in airtight containers. To freeze fresh herbs, leave them on the stem and place them on a baking sheet or plate. Once frozen, transfer them to an airtight container for longer freezer storage.
If your bucolic confidence is on the rise, try infusing oils with fresh herbs. Simply combine both the herbs and the oil (coconut and olive oil work well because they have a long shelf life) in a sealable jar and place in a warm, sunny windowsill. Strain the herbs out after two to three weeks and use the oil in salad dressings or look up how to create homemade body care products like lip balm, sugar scrubs or body creams. Infused oils make great gifts, especially if placed in a decorative bottle.
“Our family grows a few herbs and vegetables as we prefer to have fresh, untreated food whenever possible,” Cash concludes.
Reaping the benefits of something you put time, effort and a little heart into is joyously satisfying. Not unlike raising children and seeing them succeed. Okay… maybe not quite that similar. And herbs sure pair better with vegetables.
Text by Nancy S. Moseley
Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer from Blacksburg who regularly makes her own pesto from homegrown basil. Her children even like it!