Planting your own herbs

Ideally, everybody (in the world) would have access to fresh, nutritious produce. Unfortunately this is not so. Those of us who are fortunate enough to eat fresh, nutritious foods can become even more involved in the process by producing our own foods, even if in small quantities in our own backyard. However, if you don’t have a backyard or time or interest to grown your own food, there is still easy options such as sprouting and herbs in pots.

There's no better choice for container planting than flavorful herbs such as basil, rosemary, cilantro, thyme and parsley. You can have your herbs close to the kitchen, on the patio, on the back-porch steps or even on the kitchen windowsill. Herbs will add beauty and fragrance to your living space. And it will be so easy to snip a few stalks that you may find yourself cooking with herbs in new and adventurous ways.

Here are a few things to think about as you plan an herb garden:

Most herbs love sunlight. Many of our culinary herbs come from the Mediterranean and other sun-drenched regions, so they will need a place where the sun shines at least eight hours a day.

Choose between seeds or plants. You can buy herb seeds or herb plants. Small herb plants, ready to go outside, are available in health food stores or nurseries. Beginners may find it easiest to start with plants. Seeds are much less expensive and offer a far wider range of varieties and flavors. You can start seeds indoors in small pots in a sunny window or under lights and transplant them to bigger pots as they grow.

Good drainage. Make sure your container has a nice-sized hole so that surplus water can drain away; herbs can't stand to have their roots sitting in too-wet soil.

Good soil. Gardeners talk about "soil," but for containers, it's actually better to use something labeled "potting mix," rather than anything labeled "potting soil”. Potting mix is lighter, made mostly from organic matter such as peat or composted plant matter, and designed to give container plants the texture and drainage they need.

Slow start. Herb seedlings may not look like much in their first weeks, but once they get going in warm weather they will thrive.

Plan to water: Because the potting mix in a pot dries out quickly, you will need to water frequently. (Check by sticking your finger into the soil. If it feels dry an inch beneath the surface, it's time to water.)

Plan to fertilize: That frequent watering tends to wash nutrients from the pots' soil, so you will need to replenish them with fertilizer. Add a slow-release or organic fertilizer when you plant. Some potting mixes come with slow-release fertilizer pellets already mixed in.

Herbs are all about leaves. It's the leaves we eat in most cases, not the flowers. So avoid using a fertilizer made to encourage flowers. And keep up with the harvesting to keep plants bushy and discourage them from blooming; often, blooming will change the flavor of the leaves. Harvest the oldest stems individually with scissors rather than mowing the whole plant to keep a steady stream of leaves coming.

Enjoy the process. There is an enormous satisfaction from gardening, even if it’s on a small scale. It’s also a good opportunity to teach and show kids plants life cycles. And, nutritionally speaking, fresh herbs have a significant amount of phytochemicals that are great for our health and our palates!

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