Monday, June 9, 2014

Growing an Herb(an) Garden

Balcony container herb garden

I don't have much of a green thumb. Some friends gave me a rosemary plant for Christmas one year; it was dead a week later.

But this year I decided to give growing herbs a try. Friends have been encouraging me to do it for years, and it's always seemed like a great idea. After all, buying herbs at the grocery store is a pain. Inevitably, recipes calling for 1 or 2 tablespoons of fresh chopped this-or-that mean that most of the fresh herbs in that store-purchased plastic clamshell are going to be wasted. They turn brown before you get a chance to use them. They smell...gross. They get tossed.

Growing your own herbs is the perfect solution. Not only can you harvest small handfuls to meet your recipe needs, they continue to grow, offering you more next you time you need some. Plus, you can grow varieties that grocery stores don't have. Giant sells "thyme," a rather nondescript moniker covering a whole class of herbs that includes lemon, lime, orange, caraway, doone, silver lemon, stepping stone, minus, wedgewood, white creeping, summer, winter, French, garden and on and on. Not to mention things like savory and chervil that you may find at a farmers market if you're lucky.

As I've mentioned before, we live in the city. Specifically, a high-rise apartment, so what I'm talking about is a container herb garden: small pots that sit on the balcony. It's an urban herb garden--an "herban" garden, if you will.

There are certain limitations to consider. I only have so much space to dedicate to the herbs, so I had to be a bit choosey about which ones I'm growing. Also, I don't have much control over how much sunlight the herbs get. We live on the East side of our building and pretty high up, so the plants get a good dose of sunlight from sunup until about 12:45 when the shadow of the balcony above covers them. In some ways, I think this is actually ideal. D.C. can be brutally hot during the summer, and my herbs are getting the cooler morning sunlight while being shaded during the hotter afternoon.

I started this project in April. My first step was research. I consulted numerous websites to learn about how to plant and care for the herbs. The information I'm sharing reflects this research, what I learned from the nursery, Johnson's Florist and Garden Center, and my own experience thus far.

You can grow herbs from seed, but starting with small plants is easier. This is the selection of plants I brought home from the nursery.

The first consideration is what to grow. I decided to grow 11 herbs. I wanted a mix of familiar herbs I use frequently that I could avoid buying at the store and a few more unusual varieties. I settled on mint, both spearmint and peppermint, sweet basil, tarragon, chervil, chives, parsley, rosemary, sage and two types of thyme.

Second comes the containers. I selected two larger rectangular pots for planting several herbs and two smaller round pots. I've heard mint and basil can spread easily and take over in a garden, so I decided to isolate these plants in their own pots, fearing they could crowd out other herbs if planted in the big pots. An important thing to consider is drainage. Pots should have one or more holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drip out (thus, you should also have a drip plate underneath--most pots have corresponding drip plates in the same color and size). These rectangular pots, for example, had removable plugs in the drainage holes that I had to first remove before starting.

When planting herbs, use a container with one or more holes in the bottom for drainage, lay down a layer of pebbles first, and then the first layer of potting soil.

Next comes the soil. I knew I needed potting soil, but also learned that under the soil you should first lay down a layer of looser material for drainage. Some sites said you can use old packing peanuts, but given that I'm growing these plants for consumption I wasn't comfortable with that, so I went with a layer of small pebbles. I filled the bottom fourth of the pot with an even layer of pebbles, then I put down a layer of potting soil to about the halfway point of the pot.

Now for the planting. I'd already decided to isolate the mint and basil, but how should I group the other herbs? Since they're sharing a pot, I figured it would be logical to group them according to their water needs, since they're all going to get watered at once. Being new at this though, I don't know what the watering needs are, and I couldn't find a good source to explain it (lots of mentions of watering needs--no actual discussion of herb A needs this, herb B needs that, etc.). Thyme, rosemary and sage strike me as tougher herbs from dryer climates, so I grouped them in one pot figuring they may need less water. Then I put the leafier herbs--tarragon, chervil and parsley, plus the chives--in the other, thinking they might want more water.

Using a small shovel (those cute little gardening ones), I made a shallow trench in the soil. Then I carefully removed the plants from their original containers and placed them evenly spaced in the larger pot. As I did this, I carefully loosened the soil and root structure (gently as to not damage the roots). Then, using the small shovel, I filled in with additional potting soil around the plants.

Watering has proven to be the trickiest part. On day one, I gave them a good long drink, as well as some fertilizer (I'm using an organic seafood-based fertilizer, just a teaspoon per quart of water). Then I was watering everyday, but cut back to every other day, as I was advised that might be too much. I always check the soil first with my finger by sticking it in about an inch. If it feels wet, I don't water; if it's dry, I do.

Most of the plants are doing well. The chervil in particular got off to an early great start, although has started flowering a lot lately. I read you don't want your herbs to flower, as then the strength of the plant goes into reproduction, focusing more on blossoms than the leaves. So I've been plucking off the blossoms (none have appeared on the other plants). The thyme is doing rather well now too.

My first basil plant withered away and didn't grow much.

My second basil plant started out strong, but lately, some of the leaves are looking kind of yellow-brown.

The basil, however, has proven to be the most difficult. The first basil withered away and died. I'm blaming the unseasonably cold late April spring, which included a night of freezing temperatures (I brought the plants inside that evening). I gave up on that plant and bought a new one the first weekend of May. This one has done a lot better, doubling its height, although lately the leaves are looking a bit yellow. Too much water? Not enough? It's hard to say. I'm still feeling this out. If anyone would like to share tips (particularly if you have ideas about what to do with the basil), please share them in the comments. I'm really appreciate it.

Despite a few setbacks, I've already gotten to enjoy the fruits of this herb garden, and this week I'll be sharing recipes that include home-grown herbs. As the summer progresses, I intend to share updates and, of course, more recipes. I've already used my chives to make Roasted Tomato and Ricotta Bruschetta, the chives and chervil went in Linguine with Fresh Herbs and I harvested some thyme for the Smoky Tuna Noodle Casserole.  

Here are some other recipes using fresh herbs:

Basil: Pesto, Roasted Pattypan Squash with Basil, Early Summer Fruit Salad, Roasted Tomato Panzanella, Italian B.L.T. and Basic Ratatouille.

Mint: Fava Beans with Shallots, Mint and Pecorino, Pasta with Mint Pesto,  Celery and Peanut Salad, Wilted Spinach and Bacon SaladOrange-Ginger Salmon and Peas with Onion, Mint and Fennel Pollen and several cocktails (Mint Julep, Mojito, Django Unchained and The Backyard).

Sage: Rotini with Blue Cheese, Squash and SageWheat Berry Salad with Butternut Squash, Hazelnuts and Sage, Beet Gnocchi with Walnut-Sage Butter, Penne with Garlic, Chicken and Sage, Spaghetti Squash with Sage and Brown Butter.

Parsley: Parsley Pesto Spaghetti, Mediterranean Chicken Salad, Pasta with Beet Pesto, Mushroom-Bacon Risotto and Chicken with Mushroom-Wine Sauce and Roasted Radishes and Carrots.

Thyme: Roasted Chicken with Greens and Bread Salad, French Onion Soup and Pan-Seared Pork Chops with Thyme and Bacon Crumbs.

Rosemary: Crostini with Smoked Blue Cheese, Caramelized Onion and Rosemary, Smoky Pinto Bean, Red Wine and Bacon Soup and cocktails (Ruby Rosemary, Gin Sprig, Rye Smile, Woodsman and A Walk in the Woods). 

Chives: Roasted Beet and Cottage Cheese Salad, Sweet Potato Soup with Bacon and Chives, Dashi-Poached Salmon and Pea, Spinach, Mint and Garlic Scape Soup.

1 comment:

  1. Your thumb seems to grow greener each week. Congrats on your gardening success!