I LOVE fresh herbs. I love the smell, the look, the taste, and the abundant health-promoting qualities! I use fresh herbs in my cooking all year long, but when I can pick them and immediately add them to my dishes while they still have the warmth from the sun on them…the BEST! That’s why one of my very favorite things about summer is growing pots of herbs on my patio. My core group of herbs I can’t do without includes basil, rosemary, thyme, parsley, oregano, cilantro, and dill--fortunately, these are all easy and delicious to grow in my backyard!
How to Get Your Garden Growing
Your first choice is whether to start with seeds inside or to start with plants that you purchase. I like to purchase plants at the nursery after the risk of frost is over. So here are the steps to get your patio herbs going:
- Decide which herbs you want to grow. What herbs do you use the most or wish you used more of?
- Check how much space you have and plan the size and number of pots. Herbs generally need lots of sun so take that into consideration.
- Buy a good potting soil, not garden soil. I generally use an organic potting soil that is indicated for edible plants. Potting soil is designed to absorb just the right amount of water for potted plants without drowning or rotting the roots. You also want the soil to have a nice mix of organic materials and an even texture.
- Wait until after risk of frost in the spring. I planted my basil too early this year and it was killed by a late frost. I had to start over! I’ve also started herb plants as late as the end of June and had good luck. Your climate will decide these dates.
- Buy healthy young herb plants of the desired varieties.
- Transplant the plants into your pots--pay attention to the instructions for the particular plants as far as how much space each one needs, how much sun/water, etc.
Managing Your Herb Pots
You can start enjoying your herbs shortly after they start growing, but you need to keep them healthy through regular watering and (optional) fertilization. I try to water mine every day that there is no rain, since the soil in the pots doesn’t hold onto much moisture. Because I choose a high-quality potting soil with ample organic material Ifind it’s not necessary to fertilize during our short summers. If I did fertilize I would add a rich organic compost to my pots if I occasionally needed to boost growth. Once you have them growing beautifully, the other side of plant health is pruning and trimming.
Pruning herb plants is fun because the pruned parts are for dinner (or lunch or breakfast). It’s a harvest! If you properly prune the plants and keep them from going to seed, they will continue generating new delicious growth for you all summer. Some herbs are more of an issue with pruning than others. Woodier herbs like rosemary and thyme should be trimmed so they don’t become too woody, but may only need one trimming per season. Leafier plants like basil need more frequent attention.
I typically start trimming basil once the plant is 6 inches tall. Cutting it back results in a bushier, leafier plant. I also make sure to pinch off flowers as they form so that the plants don’t spend energy on flowering instead of on creating new leaves. To trim a plant, cut back to about ¼ inch above a node, about 3 inches from the base of the plant. You should leave at least a few inches of leaves. Basil grows quickly, so it usually requires trimming several times per month. I recommend researching the best care practices for each type of herb that you grow so you can maximize their health and production.
What You Can Do with Your Herbs
The best part is making use of the beautiful, delicious, healthful herbs after you harvest. Here are some ideas:
- Eat them - This one is obvious! Add them to your favorite dishes and recipes. Just snip off the amount you need.
- Dry them - Hang small bunches of herbs (tied by the stems with rubber band or twine) in a cool, dark area. Once dried put them into air-tight sterilized jars to store and use the dried herbs all winter. The dry bundles of herbs can be a beautiful addition to your decor, and are a good option when your herbs are growing too quickly to eat.
- Herb salt - Combine 2 cups packed fresh herbs (mixed or all one kind) with ½ cup of kosher salt in a food processor with a few cloves of garlic (optional). Pulse mixture until it resembles coarse salt and dry it out on a sheet pan for 1-2 days and store in an air-tight container. Delicious!
- Freeze them - Clean and chop your fresh herbs, add them to ice cube trays, fill with water or olive oil, and freeze. Add the cubes to sauces, soups and more for instant flavor!
- Herb butter - Finely chop fresh herbs and garlic (if desired) and mix with soft butter into the shape of a log. Wrap in parchment, plastic wrap and foil and store in the freezer for up to 6 months.
- Infuse oil - This is a great way to use fresh herbs, but it’s important to be careful about bacterial growth. Before infusing your oil, first soak the herbs and garlic (if desired) at room temperature in a 3% citric acid solution for 24 hours to kill all bacteria that are present. Next take your herbs and garlic and put them into a bottle of oil of your choosing for 1-10 days--the longer you wait, the stronger the flavor. Get more details about the infusing process here.
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