Spring is here and the weather is starting to warm up. Now is the perfect time to learn how to grow your own herbs at home!
An herb garden can be as small as a pot of soil or as big as your backyard, but whatever size garden is right for you, it is sure to be a rewarding pastime. There’s a wonder in harvesting your own herbs, even if it’s just a handful of Peppermint or Chamomile to turn a cup of tea into something special. The wild freshness of home-grown herbs brings a living magic into the present moment that can turn any experience into an appreciation of things both simple and immediate.
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First, you need to figure out where you’re going to grow your garden.
Keep in mind that a “garden” does not need to be in the ground. A pot of herbs growing on a patio or balcony works fine, or maybe a box in your kitchen window would better suit your needs. If you would like to grow herbs but don’t think you have the space, be creative. Here’s what you need in an ideal location:
- Sunlight – Look for an area that gets sun for most of the day. If you must choose a partially shaded spot, although more sunlight is better, it is preferable to choose one that gets its sun in the morning. The morning dew can provide the moisture that causes diseases in plants, such as downy mildew, so it’s best to have some sunlight in the morning to get rid of this excess dampness.
- Water – How are you going to water your herb garden? Will you use a garden hose or a watering can? Think about what it will be like to move your water from its source, like a sink or a spigot, to the location of your garden. Making several trips for water, or wrestling a lengthy hose, can become a chore, and your garden is more likely to succeed if you actually enjoy maintaining it.
- Safety – Pick a place that is relatively safe. If you have pets or children, consider how you will ensure that your herbs are not vulnerable to tiny hands or used as Fido’s territorial marker.
- Size – Once you’ve found an area that meets the above requirements you can start thinking about scale. How big is your garden going to be? There are plenty of beautiful options out there for growing in containers like pots or boxes, and if you’re new to gardening then a small “container garden” may be just what you need to get started.
Now that you’ve got your location in mind, it’s time to think about what kind of herb garden you want to grow.
Most herbs have some medicinal value, like Echinacea and St. John’s Wort, and some also happen to be great seasonings, like Sage and Rosemary, while others go well in a tea like Chamomile or Peppermint. Maybe you want to dedicate your kitchen window to growing culinary herbs, and a pot on your patio for tea or medicinal herbs.
You can mix and match, and feel free to experiment! Choosing which herbs you’re going to grow can be a very personal decision, as you’re going to nurture these herbs, and one day they are going to nurture you, so take the time to research your herb selection and make your garden an expression of who you are and what you and your family need.
After doing some research and making a list of the herbs you want to grow you can start shopping on-line or at your local nursery for seeds. It’s important to look for seeds that are organic and non-GMO. Be careful when shopping for seeds online; it can be tricky. Some companies have one or two organic seed varieties to choose from, and they’ll use those to get you to click on their website and browse their catalog. Unfortunately, just because a company offers some organic seeds does not mean that all of their seeds are organic, and you have to look for the word “organic” on the page that you’re buying the seeds from, otherwise you might be setting yourself up for this subtle switcheroo.
Another word to look for is “heirloom,” which means that the seeds of the parent plant will be the same as the offspring seeds… this is just a technical point that lets you know what your getting is not some sterile laboratory hybrid. Heirloom is not the same thing as organic. Growers can organically raise a sterile hybrid and still sell it as organic, or dowse an heirloom plant in chemicals and still sell it as an heirloom. If you buy seed that is organic and heirloom, you’re going to get the safest product on the market.
Finding healthy seeds nowadays is probably the hardest part of gardening, period, so if you’ve made it this far then welcome to the club! You’ve already shown all the dedication you’ll need. At this point you’ve picked out a location, a growing container, and your seeds. The next thing you’ll have to pick out is soil. Technically this is what Horticulturalists call “growing medium” because so many of them are growing plants in a chemical soaked “soil-less growing medium” that has nothing to do with soil at all.
If you’ve been careful in selecting your seeds then you should be just as careful in selecting your soil, because whatever is absorbed by the herbs in that soil will eventually be absorbed by whoever consumes the herb. Keep that in mind. Organic potting mix or organic topsoil is what you need.
Finally, we get to the fun part, germination!
Be sure to read the instructions on the seed packet, as some seeds require several nights of pre-soaking or scarification before being planted and failing to follow these instructions could mean that it takes your herbs much longer to sprout, if they sprout at all. Once your seeds are prepared you can either plant them directly into your pot of soil, or you can use a germination tray, which I recommend. Germination, the period of time between the seed “waking up” and when it forms its first “true leaves,” is the most difficult time in a plant’s life. If you can provide a good environment for germination, then your herbs will have a much higher success rate. A germination tray with 72 cells and a clear lid, provided plenty of water and sunlight, will hold in warmth and humidity to create a tropical micro-nursery for your seedlings, the perfect little incubator.
Here’s a look at the incubation setup that I’m using for Spring 2018.
I’m using a Jiffy brand, 72 hexagonal cell germination tray. It’s sitting on a lawn chair (up and away from the reach of our canine roommate, Winslow) in a full-sun location, just a few feet away from my garden hose. I’m using an organic topsoil that is similar to the soil that the herbs will spend the rest of their lives in. On one side of the tray I drilled two tiny holes, just big enough to put zip-ties through. The zip-ties act as hinges for the plastic lid. I also drilled a couple holes in the opposite side so that the lid could be gently tied down with a piece of twine. With the hinge and twine in place, I know my lid will not blow away in the wind, allowing me to leave the whole kit outdoors day and night.
Even though this was taken on a beautifully sunny day with temperatures in the 60’s, you can tell by the condensation collecting inside the lid that my incubator is several degrees warmer (and much more humid) than the air outside. I’m also using a technique known as “bottom watering” where I try to keep about half an inch of water in the bottom of the tray beneath the cells at all times. As the water in the soil evaporates it is replaced by water drawn up from the bottom tray in a process called “capillary action,” ensuring that the soil is always at the perfect moisture level for germination.
Here comes the most delicate step in the process: transplanting.
The first two leaves that you’ll see are called seed-leaves, and they look just about the same on every plant, regardless of whether it’s a dandelion or an oak tree. The third and fourth leaves are the ones you want to wait for, as those are the true-leaves. The appearance of true-leaves means that it is safe to transplant your seedling from its incubator to the pot, box, or plot that you will be gardening in.
To transplant, I recommend sliding a butter knife down one side of the cell containing your plant, and gently wiggling the knife to lift the roots out of the cell. It is important to lift the roots from the bottom, because if you pull from the top you increase the risk of breaking the roots, and the more you damage the roots the harder it will be for your seedling to survive in its new home. Finish transplanting by placing your seedling in its new location and burying the stem up to the bottom of the true-leaves, so that the true-leaves are just above the soil surface. Give it a generous amount of water so that some of the soil you had hilled up around the stem will be carried down to the roots. Do not pat the dirt around the plant as you may damage the roots or compact the soil so densely that the baby roots can’t grow through it.
And congratulations! All the hard parts are done. Just water your herbs regularly and you’ll start reaping the benefits immediately. Remember that while it may take a few weeks for your herbs to mature, having fresh herbs to soothe your aches, flavor your meals, or enrich your tea is only part of the reward of gardening. The work that you put into nursing those little seedlings is repaid everyday that you get to enjoy watching them grow, and the love that you put into caring for them is returned in physical and energetic bounty upon harvesting. The feeling gained from cultivating carefully selected herbs from seed is something unique, somewhere between pride, humility, and satisfaction, that has to be experienced.
I hope you have found this helpful and that you will join me in co-creating with the Earth naturally and organically.
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