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 commercial products, 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. 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
HERB-HAPPY RECIPES from MY FELLOW FOOD BLOGGERS
~ Never Buy Salad Dressing Again ~
~ How to Save Money on Groceries ~
HOW to GROW HERBS in POTS
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.
Soil For extra-large pots, fill the bottom third or 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. 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 and the large hardware 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, rosemary, Greek oregano, dill, lavender, tarragon and thyme plus three 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.
Plants Per Pot? Plan for one plant in a twelve-inch pot, up to three plants in a larger pot.
Finally, Planting! As soon as 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), 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, soak the pot with water.
Adding Flowers Fresh herbs are beautiful but they are "mostly green" so might not provide color. So some times, I'll tuck a pansy or a hanging flowering plant along the side.
TLC - Tender Lovin' Care In hot climates, pots will need to be watered every day unless it rains. 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.
Buds & Flowers Aha! This is a trick! 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. 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!
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 year, it's important to amend the soil in pots by at least half, some gardeners even recommend replacing the soil entirely. While amending the soil with new potting mix, also work out roots and bulbs that will be in last year's soil.
HOW to GROW HERBS in the GROUND
Space This post isn't really intended for 'real gardeners', 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. I switched from pots to a side garden two years ago, testing herbs in dense clay-like soil just to see what would happen. They did great! This year I've built up the soil so that it's workable and I'm betting that this year, the herbs will truly thrive. 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, less watering. Otherwise, the principles are the same.
HOW to GROW HERBS in APARTMENTS
UPDATE Many thanks to Maggie, a reader who makes her home in New York City on the top floor apartment of a building originally constructed in 1839 as a one-family house. Maggie's apartment runs due north to due south so the northern windows get no direct sun and southern windows and skylights get so much sun that anything short of a cactus would be fried. After reading this post, Maggie wrote -- ever so poignantly -- to remind me that not all homes have the space, light and open air to grow fresh herbs, even ones with wonderful front stoops perfect for watching the world pass by. She's thinking about investing in an aerogarden, something I wrote about on BlogHer and has the added benefit of year-round fresh herbs. Maggie, thank you for your letter and the Aerogarden suggestion. Readers, keep those cards and letters and comments coming!
HERB-HAPPY RECIPES: RECIPES using FRESH HERBSNote to RSS and e-mail readers: the Del.icio.us technology used to collect these herb recipes only displays the recipe lists online. Want to see the herb recipes? Click through to Never Buy Fresh Herbs Again.
A plant or two will be plenty for salad for the summer. But to make pesto, you'll need to buy big bunches of basil - or grow a lot!
Worried about your 'green thumb'? Then start with chives which are completely forgiving and so useful.
Fresh Mint Recipes
There are many varieties of mint. In 2008, I'm adding spearmint to the collection.
Preserving Fresh Herbs
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