THE latest trend in the hundred mile diet has chefs at upscale restaurants growing herbs on rooftop gardens to feed customers fresh produce.
So why shouldn't everyone grow herbs at home? To some people this may seem like a daunting task. Where should I grow herbs? What do I need to get started? Which herbs will grow in my garden? What about insect pests?
Wait, stay calm. Let's go slow and not talk ourselves out of anything before we even get started.
Herbs are among the easiest plants in the world to grow primarily due to their geographic origin from regions of the world that have dry climates and lean soils, making most herbs tough, drought tolerant with low nutrient requirements.
Herbs such as rosemary, various thymes, lemon balm, pineapple sage, several mint species and many others can be easily grown in average garden soil at home with little care. Most herbs will also grow well in containers much easier than most veggies, which require deeper soil and high levels of soil fertility. Herbs also live for several years compared to veggies, which generally live one year.
There are real benefits in growing your own herbs at home.
Freshness is No. 1. If store-bought freshness is good enough for you, there's always the realization of "you are what you eat" that comes home profoundly when we consider the problems with modern industrial farming methods.
Do you like pesticides with your herbs? Me neither and when I grow herbs at home I have no worries about what's in or on my herbs.
If that's not enough to change your mind how about cost? It is so cheap to grow herbs at home, it costs pennies to produce rosemary, thyme, sage and many other herbs at home with the added benefit of not having to run down to the store to pick up some herbs you may be missing for a recipe or a special dinner with friends.
For the beginner, I always suggest starting small to build confidence.
Try growing just one of your favourite herbs in the garden. Take rosemary, for example, which is easy to grow, forgiving in its requirements while constantly providing fresh clips to serve with dinner.
Rosemary needs drainage that can be provided by digging deep into the soil to prepare the soil with some reasonable but not necessarily rich soil that drains easily.
Don't go crazy adding amendments. In fact, avoid them. If you think you need to improve your drainage, then add some angular sand (concrete sand) or crushed gravel and mix it with the topsoil. Rosemary likes heat so plant it near or against the house on the south or west side. Do not fertilize rosemary ever. Just water it during the summer drought and don't water it at any other time of year.
For those people who live in apartments or condos, container gardening is the ideal way to grow herbs and even a few veggies. Start simply with one or two herbs in pots on the deck or patio.
Herbs are generally easier to grow in containers than veggies because herbs prefer drought, tolerate being root bound like life in a pot provides and they require no chemical fertilizer to grow healthy.
Choose a larger container rather than a small container to avoid outgrowing the container too quickly and to lessen watering demands in summer. Do not add any chards, foam chips, rocks or any other garbage to the bottom of the pot; it is simply unnecessary. Just fill the container with soil to the bottom of the pot and plant your herb of choice. Most herbs prefer bright sunshine and some warmth to grow well but several species are tolerant of the partial shade founds on north facing balconies.
Specialty herbs like dill, fennel and lovage grow as large as two metres tall and therefore require sufficient space in the garden to develop properly, making them less likely to be grown easily on a balcony in a pot or in a small garden.
Larger herbs like bay laurel (Laurus nobilis) and California bay (Umbellularia californica), collectively and commonly known in cooking circles as bay leaves, can grow as large as 15 metres tall. But both of those bay trees can be grown in pots for several years before they become too big to handle. And both bay trees can be grown in open ground in the garden as long as they have good drainage, protection from winter winds, no chemical fertilizer and lots of direct sunshine. Both bay trees would probably survive longer without suffering frost damage in areas below Highway 1.
Give herb growing at home a try and enjoy some fresh clips for dinner.
Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist and chief horticulture instructor at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. For advice, contact him at stmajor@shaw. ca.
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