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April 21, 2011

A Beginner’s Herb Garden

By Worker Bee
61 Comments

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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61 Comments on "A Beginner’s Herb Garden"

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ElizaGrok
ElizaGrok
5 years 5 months ago

Great article… also good tips on container gardening, especially for those of us who do not have a great deal of space. Thanks!

Len
Len
5 years 4 months ago
I have a few things to share from my herb attempts over the years. I have always had trouble with growing them in pots. I think my DC area climate is too hot, with no shade. Now, I grow them outdoors, where they receive partial sun and they grow wonderfully. Other herbs to consider adding are sage and parsley. They both come back each year and are easy to grow. I also use them a lot. Basil needs to be planted every year, but grows great. I have always had trouble with cilantro. I think it might work better with… Read more »
Pokey
Pokey
5 years 5 months ago

I think (not an authority here) the roots would be happier in a darker container. I’d wrap part of a black trash bag around the container and tie it in place.

shannon
shannon
5 years 5 months ago

Agreed. Actually something reflective would be the best, to keep the soil from getting too hot.

Buffalo Chip
5 years 5 months ago
Plants LOVE hot soil. Look at the design of the Earthbox, which I have linked above (earthbox.com). I don’t work for them, but it’s one of the best ways of growing I have seen. Part of the efficiency of their design is that they are all black, which warms the soil. I live in Buffalo, NY with a short growing season and have grown a ton of hot peppers in my Earthboxes. They get so damn big I have actually had to stake the peppers to keep them from falling. They are pricey at about $60 ea. but you can… Read more »
Nicky
Nicky
5 years 5 months ago

Woo! Buffalo! It looks like its going to be a short growing season at the rate our weather is growing.

Barry
Barry
5 years 5 months ago
“Plants LOVE hot soil.” Not quite true. While most plants don’t like damp, cold, sodden, oxygenless soil, soils that get too hot can cause root death. Some plants are actually sensitive to hot soils (though decorative, clematis is a good example). Plants actually prefer even soil temperatures, and keeping pots from getting hot is best. Hot soils also require plants to take up more moisture and this means that your plants are more succeptible to pests and diseases due to constant stress. Garden plants like *warm* soil which is not the same as “hot” soil, but this is generally soils… Read more »
CavemanGreg
5 years 5 months ago

buffalo,great info on the earthbox. I’ve been doing some searching for high yield/low space containers such as that since my yard has very spotty areas of sunlight. I was hoping to find something more than the topsy turvy, will give earthbox a good look.

Eric S
Eric S
5 years 4 months ago

@CavemanGreg I just listened to a podcast on container gardening yesterday and if you don’t mind DIY and the looks of the container being a little less professional than the commercial version this pdf gives lots of info on building your own.

http://www.survivalpodcast.net/stuff/Earthbox.pdf

Personally I looked at that and the 30 dollar price of the commercial earthbox and I’m still debating weather its worth my time to put it together myself or not. 🙂

Brent
Brent
5 years 4 months ago
Saying plants love hot soil is generalizing way too much. In west Texas, we have to protect our plants from our hot ground, especially container plants. When you read the requirements for plants on the seed packages or instructions with a potted plant, throw all that out the window. Where it says, Full Sun, it doesn’t mean Texas. I’ve watched natives plants turn up and die that were 40 years old from an especially hot summer and many plants just can’t tolerate the really hot soil we have. Peppers do much better in dappled sunlight than in the open and… Read more »
Hal
5 years 5 months ago

The holes are definitely a good thing. There are lots of links to DIY “earth boxes” for just this sort of thing – and they have the added bonus of not being overwaterable. Definitely something to look at.

Additionally, Mel Bartholomew (of Square Foot Garden fame) recommends mixing soil using 1/3rd compost, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite. I’ve used this for a couple of years now and have had great success.

Watch the soil in the tubs and make sure the tubs are draining enough.

Nice work, and nice tutorial. Lettuces grow great in this sort of thing!

Kelda
5 years 5 months ago

That sounded spot on to me. I’ve grown vegetables in a plot a number of times over the years and Mr Grok and I just today told ourselves we really must get the plot back into production so your post was very timely!

Crunchy Pickle
5 years 5 months ago

For my shaded backyard and my only semi-green thumb I still have wonderful success with dill and basil each summer. Don’t be scared to give them a try if you have more limited sunshine.

Don
Don
5 years 5 months ago

Check out Seed Savers Exchange for heirloom herb seeds… These seeds are typically grown organically and are not genetically modified or F1 generation seeds (you can collect and replant the seeds without strange genetic expression). This company produces seeds my great-grandparents would have planted. BTW…I purchase from this company, but am not a representative.

Alison Golden
5 years 5 months ago

Well, I have no more idea than you and it all looks fantastic to me. I appreciate that you knew nothing because I don’t either. And now you do and so can I.

I may just take a trip to Trader Joes later…

Eric
5 years 5 months ago

I’m not sure if this is a concern, but along the same lines. Sheldon Brown (RIP) used to tell people that using the clearer zip ties to lash things to bicycles was a bad idea since the UV light from the sun broke down those zip ties much quicker than the black ones. Those containers look like the same kind of plastic those zip ties were made of. I’d probably use a darker container.

The Primalist
5 years 5 months ago

Great post – shows how uncomplicated “gardening” can be.. I live in an apartment, and am also not too keen on growing stuff indoors (although it can certainly be done).. But this seems like a cool project for anyone with some outdoor space..

Holls
Holls
5 years 5 months ago
I live in rather small apartment in a big complex. Last year i bought a planter box designed to straddle a windowsill, however it managed to work its way out side on our 2nd story walkway. It fits perfect, no complaints from the neighbors and it’s pretty when I remember to water it. All in all it managed to do ok (even survived the winter). This year I plan on starting a compost project too. Just a couple 5 gallon buckets to go under my sink, dirt, food scraps, junk mail, and some worms if I feel fancy. Just pointing… Read more »
PrettyPauline
5 years 5 months ago

This is exactly how I garden! It’s so easy to move things around to cut the grass, too. 🙂

PrettyPauline
5 years 5 months ago

BTW~I did drill holes in the bottom and used “Mel’s Mix” from the New Square Foot Gardening method…

PrettyPauline
5 years 5 months ago

I promise I’ll be quiet after this~LOL! Last year was my first go with it all, and arugula was the best, easiest, yummiest crop I had! 🙂

Primal Toad
5 years 5 months ago

This is quite an inspirational post! I am a newbie just like you but can’t wait to get my hands dirty as soon as it warms up. The weather has been rediculous here in Michigan but the forecast looks bright and warm.

It has snowed and hailed since I have been back from Primal Con. But, the sun is out today!

It looks like you did a fantastic job. Before I plan some herbs in pots I will have to come back to this post. Thanks worker bee!

shannon
shannon
5 years 5 months ago
Container gardens have to watered a lot more than gardens in the soil. You could also just dig some holes in the backyard, and fill the holes with your purchased soil. You wouldn’t have to water as much, but you’d have to weed more. Some herbs like hot, dry conditions, such as rosemary. Some herbs like cooler temperatures but very well-drained soils, such as thyme. With containers you can make the soil just like the plant wants, with excellent drainage if you wish: put some round pebbles or sand in with the soil, for herbs that like good drainage like… Read more »
Grace
Grace
5 years 5 months ago
Yes, put the Spearmint in a pot or you will regret it. I have it everywhere–it takes over the garden. I’ve even got patches of it growing in grass, between paving stones, up against the crack between patio and back of the house. Of course that makes it very convenient when making mojitos (I know, not very primal) 🙂 I also recommend Italian oregano, garlic chives and a bay laurel tree in the garden. I have found all of these (in addition to rosemary) to be hardy through 100+ degree summer days (even during drought) and down to 20 degree… Read more »
peggy
peggy
5 years 5 months ago

I will have to do the windowsill version of an herb “garden”. I can get snow on the ground any month of the year. that has thwarted many a porch gardening attempt. After last year’s fiasco, I give up…
I do have a healthy patch of garlic chives however, that expand a little more every year 🙂

andy
andy
5 years 5 months ago

420

Sharon
Sharon
5 years 5 months ago

One of the pluses of growing herbs is that the critters won’t eat it, including deer. My herbs are growing throughout my flower garden.

Jenifer (aka Zoebird)
5 years 5 months ago

nice, if those were reused. 🙂

i like using strawberry pots. less space, really lovely way to have an herb garden.

Kris
Kris
5 years 5 months ago

Anyone have any tips on maintenance once things start going? For me, if I don’t use things fast enough the plants get tall and woody and start to flower. Especially with cilantro, it just doesn’t grow right after the initial stems.

If I cut it all back to try to start over, the plant doesn’t grow anymore. How do you keep the herbs going?

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[…] the whys – gardening can be therapeutic, it can improve health markers, it can be a great. herb gardening – Google Blog Search This entry was posted in Herb Gardening and tagged Apple, Beginner&#39s, Daily, Garden, Herb, […]

Rose
Rose
5 years 5 months ago

I hope I can make it back here. I would be really interested in the cilantro ideas, too. I nipped the flowers in the bud today. Don’t know if that will help or not.

Janina
Janina
5 years 5 months ago
Cilantro grows best and goes to seed slower in the shade or half shade. Fresh cilantro seed (coriander) is delicious and worth growing for the fresh seed alone. Keep cilantro going by letting a plant go to seed and spread its offspring in situ. Maintenance once things keep going. Long lived plants like oregano and rosemary just prune them. Feed every plant (and your earthworms) with manure thrown on top of the soil along side the plant – garden jargon is “side dress”. (not on top of the plant itself.) People who keep animals almost always have an excess of… Read more »
Janina
Janina
5 years 5 months ago
I also prefer to get my herbs from good seed purveyors like Horizon Herbs (my #1), Botanical Interests, Renee’s Garden, (all dot coms). Or I get them from nurserymen like Horizon Herbs, Mountain Valley Growers, Annies Annuals, and Bonnie. It’s worth buying from a place that really pays attention to the varieties they’re offering. Even if you have to mail order plants. Too often the supermarket herbs, while a good start, are F1 hybrids, or otherwise sub-optimal in terms of genetic vigor, flavor, texture, medicinal characteristics, etc. Older varieties or ones bred by and for the individual farmer or homesteader,… Read more »
Donnersberg
Donnersberg
5 years 5 months ago

I recommend Azomite red clay minerals to add to the soil.

I stuck a dead garlic clove (that I bought dried up last year to put into my stew) in a small pot loaded with Azomite and started watering it just for kicks.
That thing is alive and grew 45cm in 2 weeks.
Just nuts!

For more info and distributor in your area http://www.azomite.com

Our grassfed/finished farmers here in Idaho use it on land where animals need to be rotated. This stuff keeps constant fresh young growing grass coming in.

Erin
5 years 5 months ago

I had to laugh about the cat comments, I have considered growing herbs in my guest bedroom because of those uhhh…carnivores. I don’t know what it is, but anything green shows up in the house and they all turn into moo cows. Usually .01% is actually consumed, but they manage major destruction (or post destruction in the form of carpet coloring).

Jeff
Jeff
5 years 5 months ago

Well timed article, I’m just about to start an herb Garden myself, maybe with some easy to grow greens as well and super excited about it! Nice job there, your plants look very nice.

Karin
Karin
5 years 5 months ago
Do the clear pots have holes in the bottom for drainage? Herbs do not like wet roots. Good drainage in any pot is essential. The clear pots, if allowed to accumulate water, could encourage algae growth which will eventually kill your herbs. Don’t let the mint get out of its container. It tends to grow roots on any branch where it touches the ground and cause runners to form. Mint, once established in the garden, is nearly impossible to remove. It spreads by way of runners that sit on top of the soil and also run shallow just under the… Read more »
Shelli
Shelli
5 years 5 months ago

Well, in our patch we don’t have to worry about the cat. She loves nothing more than a delicate nibble on some fresh leafy herb – she’s not a digger. But then along comes the weird-ass dog who immediately had to pee on what the cat has just nibbled…so husband pulled the garden out.

Amanda
Amanda
5 years 5 months ago

Since they’re in containers, this is a bit of a moot point, but the spearmint would not have been my first choice for a beginner’s garden. Mint is very invasive, and when planted near anything it must be given a very tight leash via pruning. For people who haven’t gardened before, or who don’t want to work at it 24/7, that can spell disaster.

Rose
Rose
5 years 5 months ago

I have Georgia dirt if anyone want’s it. It’s really red…son says high in iron. The weeds grow REALLY well in it…:)

Joel
5 years 5 months ago

Cool! I’d like to see more gardening posts! I’m picking up about 12 to 15 straw bales to start a veg garden with this weekend… Seems like a pretty inexpensive way to get started at about $3 a bale (for around Seattle anyway) and a moderate amount of fertilizer and soil to to ‘top things off’…

Here’s a link to the concept:
http://www.strawbalegardens.com/

Malin
5 years 5 months ago

Don’t forget that the nutrients in the pot will run out eventually. Occasionally water with uh, manure-water (I have no idea what it’s called in English, I’m sure you’ll find it you google or putter about some garden sites) or something else to get nutriens in the soil for the plants. Keep up the awesome work!

I’d also recommend against using chemicals in gardening, it will drain the soil of nutrients in the long run and is bad for you and for the environment.

Evan
Evan
5 years 5 months ago
Clear containers might present a problem in the future if the root structure gets really big- roots don’t like light and will die once they reach the side of the container. Adding vermiculite like one person commented would be a good idea especially if you are not planting in the ground (will help the soil from compacting too much, and it seems to make the soil dry ‘better’? whatever that means I guess) The one fertilizer that I would suggest is ZeoPro- it pretty cheap, a 1 time add fertilizer when building the soil, it makes the soil more re-usable,… Read more »
Barry
Barry
5 years 5 months ago
I’m not a fan of growing plants in containers if not required. I’m even less a fan of plastic ones as they tend to keep soils way too damp, and they get VERY hot too easily (which can cause another set of problems — dessication). If you have ground to grow plants in, I reccomend using it. Also, a method to grow plants in limited space is called “Square Foot Gardening”. The technique is similar to “French Intensive Gardening”, as plants are packed into a small space (row agriculture is VERY wasteful of space). Square foot gardens can be as… Read more »
Luke
5 years 5 months ago

Great blog Worker Bee
The point you make about planting herbs in different pots is important. I’ve made the mistake of planting mint with oregano in the same pot before and the organo did not have a chance

Tatianna
5 years 5 months ago

Thank you for sharing this, I have been thinking about gardening for a while now, and I keep stumbling upon posts about gardening. I am going to give it a try.

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[…] A Beginner’s Herb Garden (marksdailyapple.com) Share this:ShareEmailPrintDiggFacebookStumbleUponReddit […]

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[…] leaves, meaning most of the bunch you bought for $2 at the market goes to waste. One solution is to grow your own. Another is to freeze or dry the leftovers. Either way, it’s worth using on poultry and fatty […]

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[…] A Beginner’s Herb Garden | Mark’s Daily Apple. This entry was posted in Organic and Natural Solutions. Bookmark the permalink. ← Wayne Madsen In-Studio: The Obama Files LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

Turtle
Turtle
5 years 4 months ago

Some advice from a long time gardener. Save money by starting your basil from seed next time. It’s easy and you have more choices. Also rosemary, given the shape of your pot, plant in one of the corners, then as the rosemary grows,pin one or more branches to the soil and cover. Daughter plants will take root and grow new rosemary plants. Fertilize for the first four weeks, then stop, just water. The oils in the herbs will be stronger if not over fertilized. Enjoy digging in the dirt.

Peggy
5 years 4 months ago

I totally don’t like gardening. I just thought I’d throw that out there for anyone else who finds themselves bored with this healthy, meditative activity.

I had a garden for years and put my soul into it. I had my daughter out there with me digging and planting and, while it was interesting at first, eventually I just wanted to grab a book on edible plants and go hiking.

Do you think primal people gardened? I’ve always wondered about this, actually. They definitely utilized plants but did they cultivate them? Maybe so. Maybe it is primal. I don’t know.

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[…] 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. Read more […]

Thuan Do
Thuan Do
5 years 4 months ago

I have a question: Some insects ate my fine herb leaves. What can I do?

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[…] Y&#959&#965 m&#1110ght recall th&#1072t &#1110n th&#1072t same post, M&#1072rk mentioned h&#1110&#1109 relative lack &#959f horticultural mastery. Th&#1110&#1109 &#1110&#1109 tr&#965&#1077 f&#959r m&#1077, t&#959&#959, &#1072nd a lot &#959f &#1091&#959&#965 guys out th&#1077r&#1077 &#1072&#1109 well. Y&#959&#965 m&#1110ght &#1109&#1072&#1091 th&#1072t th&#1110&#1109 Worker Bee doesn’t fl&#1091 far fr&#959m th&#1077 hive. Still, I didn’t l&#1077t th&#1072t discourage m&#1077 wh&#1077n th&#1077 queen (er, king? I’m struggling t&#959 maintain th&#1077 bee metaphor here without tripping over gender issues!) bee tasked m&#1077 w&#1110th starting a rudimentary herb garden &#1072nd th&#1077n writing &#1072b&#959&#965t &#1110t. Read more […]

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[…] Y&#959&#965 m&#1110ght recall th&#1072t &#1110n th&#1072t same post, M&#1072rk mentioned h&#1110&#1109 relative lack &#959f horticultural mastery. Th&#1110&#1109 &#1110&#1109 tr&#965&#1077 f&#959r m&#1077, t&#959&#959, &#1072nd a lot &#959f &#1091&#959&#965 guys out th&#1077r&#1077 &#1072&#1109 well. Y&#959&#965 m&#1110ght &#1109&#1072&#1091 th&#1072t th&#1110&#1109 Worker Bee doesn’t fl&#1091 far fr&#959m th&#1077 hive. Still, I didn’t l&#1077t th&#1072t discourage m&#1077 wh&#1077n th&#1077 queen (er, king? I’m struggling t&#959 maintain th&#1077 bee metaphor here without tripping over gender issues!) bee tasked m&#1077 w&#1110th starting a rudimentary herb garden &#1072nd th&#1077n writing &#1072b&#959&#965t &#1110t. Read more […]

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[…] 4. Start a windowsill indoor herb garden. […]

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[…] fool ourselves with approximations or phantoms of the real thing. Do some gardening out back or on your windowsill. Buy some houseplants. Go for a walk in the park. Take a nap in the grass. Listen to some […]

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[…] dirty, too, to introduce potentially helpful bacteria. Go out and garden. Go barefoot at the park and practice tumbling, or roughhouse with your kids (or friends). […]

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[…] 4. Start a windowsill indoor herb garden. […]

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