A Beginner’s Herb Garden

Gardening is a hot topic this week on MDA. Two days ago, Mark gave you the whys – gardening can be therapeutic, it can improve health markers, it can be a great way for people to move frequently at a slow pace, and the list goes on. It’s also a great way to save money on organic produce, to maintain a constant (and self-replicating) supply of edible green things, and to get out into the sun. Let’s just say that gardening is good for you on multiple levels, and if you’ve got the space and the time, you should probably give it a shot.

You might recall that in that same post, Mark mentioned his relative lack of horticultural mastery. This is true for me, too, and a lot of you guys out there as well. You might say that this Worker Bee doesn’t fly far from the hive. Still, I didn’t let that discourage me when the queen (er, king? I’m struggling to maintain the bee metaphor here without tripping over gender issues!) bee tasked me with starting a rudimentary herb garden and then writing about it.

I didn’t want to crash and burn, so I kept things simple with a small selection of basic but essential herbs. Sweet basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and spearmint. Sure, they aren’t as fancy or impressive as heirloom tomatoes, Finnish gooseberries, or white asparagus, but they are a nice assortment of herbs that can conceivably be used every day of the week in a multitude of dishes. And besides, what’s worse than buying a two dollar sprig of rosemary every time you want to cook lamb? Also, if you don’t have the space for a full-on vegetable garden, a few essential herbs in pots are a good compromise. The time required is minimal, the effort is almost nonexistent, and if they wither and die, they’re just herbs – not kids, pets, or heirloom tomatoes or anything you’ve put real time and money into.

I also went for young potted plants from Trader Joe’s. Yeah, yeah, it’s not sexy and I may have to turn in my Primal Cred card, but I’m a beginner, a true neophyte, and I wanted to chronicle the simplest course forward for someone like me interested in growing some herbs. Realistically, a beginner with a busy schedule is going to start from pots. If I started from seeds or cuttings and got nowhere, how interesting would that be? In future cycles, I think I’ll start from seeds or cuttings, and hopefully we can get that up on MDA, too, but for now, I’m going potted.

I opted to keep my herbs outdoors for a couple reasons. First, my indoor cats would decimate them. For a couple of obligate carnivores fed a species-appropriate prey model diet, these jerks sure do love chewing on vegetation. Plus, it seems like half the plant world is toxic to felines, so I’m going to play it safe and keep the plants outdoors. Secondly, outside air and natural sunlight – even the spotty coastal variety – are best. Indoor herbs can sometimes get powdery white mildew, due to humid, staid indoor air, and I question the ultimate efficacy of UV-B filtered sunlight (most, if not all, windows block the bulk of UV-B rays) and basic indoor lights (although it is SF and the resources are definitely available, I won’t be rigging up any massive grow lights). Also, I just prefer the romantic notion of growing outdoors. If things get dicey outdoors, I can always move them inside for a spell.

Potted plants, especially the ones you buy from a store or farmers’ market, confer the distinct disadvantage of having to be transferred to a larger pot if you want them to flourish and grow. I suppose I could have left them in the pots in which they came, but I dream bigger. At some point, I want to eat a Big Ass Salad composed entirely of fresh herbs, and so I transferred the herbs to a set of larger “pots.” I use quotation marks because they’re actually plastic tubs I had lying around. I poked a few holes in the bottom for drainage, so they should work just fine.

After filling the tubs about half with the sandy/silty-dominant soil from my backyard and half with a good organic potting soil mix, I dug in with my hands and blended it all together. Sandy soil drains well, which is good for most vegetables, but it often lacks body. My backyard soil doesn’t quite clump, so I had to add the soil mix to improve it. Generally, you want your soil to stick together when squeezed, and a light finger poke should easily break apart the clump, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. Again, this is a work in progress so we’ll see how things grow with my quick-and-dirty method of soil mixing.

To transfer potted plants, you need a destination (plastic tubs), a medium (soil), and a careful hand (my right). I had all three. Complicating things was the mint, which came in the same pot as the thyme and the oregano, and had to have its own pot. Mint, you see, grows like mad. It will cover ground rapidly like a Mongol horde, and tender thyme and gentle oregano are no match. I had to separate the three herbs (whose roots were fairly intertwined), taking care to preserve the distinct root paths for each plant. Some people like using trowels to transfer plants, but I felt awkward using one. Using my bare hands gave me more control over the plant, and it just felt better, especially given the delicate nature of the mint transfer. To loosen a plant before transfer, squeeze the pot to separate the soil/root confederation from the sides. It should slide right out.

I made holes of depth and breadth equal to dimensions of the soil/root mix. Before laying the plants gently in their homes, I lightly separated the bottom of the roots, breaking up the soil/root cake so that the roots kind of “spidered” out from the bottom. An old family friend that happens to be a master gardener gave me that tip. I figured “old master gardener tips” are more reliable than “old wives’ tales.” The backyard soil was already damp from recent rains, so I didn’t bother adding any water right away. I check on the soil every day and add water when it’s dry. Sun isn’t exactly reliable where I live, so there’s no danger of my herbs getting too much light. Besides, herbs like as much sun as they can get. If need be, I can even move them around to chase the sunlight.

So, that’s my quick and dirty tale of herb gardening. I’m sure I messed some things up, but a couple weeks later, my kids (I’ve grown quite attached to my herbs, you see, except for the oregano; he’s incorrigible) are still green and growing. They also taste delicious.

How’d I do? Did I make any dumb mistakes? Let us know in the comment section, and be sure to fill us in on your own herb garden tales!

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