Recently I started taking a course on herbal medicine and local plants at the Wildflower School, and since that time have upped my commitment to cultivating and understanding our favorite culinary herbs (plus many more that never get the kitchen spotlight).
Having my own little potted herb garden has truly made a huge impact on my life. Growing your own herbs will bring so many benefits into your life—responsibility, sustainability, cost savings—and for me, a lot of happiness.
You will save so very much on store-bought herbs when you can pick from your own stash. These can be ridiculously expensive depending on the store, season and rarity of your herb, and is usually not well-catered to your specific needs. I’ve seen far too many big bunches of parsley or cilantro wither away in my veggie drawer because the recipe I’d needed them for only called for a couple of teaspoons, leaving me with a bunch of herb I didn’t know what to do with.
And if they’re not sold in huge bunches, you’ll find fresh herbs in impossibly small little packets, providing just enough sprigs to lend some light flavor and maybe have a leaf or two left over to garnish. Having your own solves this problem—while a small plant won’t provide enough to make a big batch of pesto or tabbouleh at once, you can always take cuttings or clones of the ones you use most, growing multiple plants if you need to.
Aside from that, keeping and caring for live plants brings a burst of vitality into your everyday life, connecting you with the natural world in ways so subtle you may not even notice them at first. Although inanimate, plants are very much alive, responding to our moods, needs, and love for them (or lack thereof), as several studies have shown. Seeing my happy little pots greet me as I walk up my apartment stairs adds some pep to my step.
A friend once told me that the state of your plants is the closest reflection of the state of your life and overall well-being. This says a lot about my first years out of college, when I tried repeatedly to keep a window box of herbs (among a handful of other plants) and invariably killed them all within a few months. Plants will bring out the imbalances in your life, and also serve as a medium to bring yourself back into balance.
But enough with all the “woo woo” stuff, as my herb school teacher would say. Practically, it just makes sense to have your own herb supply. Unlike other edible crops, herbs are very hearty, typically pretty easy to grow, and small and compact enough that even the most cramped apartment could house a few. They do well in pots and boxes, as well as in raised beds and in-ground gardens.
My sweet little purple basil plant has died (tear) but in its place I am now the proud mommy of thyme, cilantro, oregano, lavender, parsley, and mint. They’re all doing really well–in fact; many are so healthy and growing so quickly that I have to prune them back to keep them comfy in their pots. I looked high and low on the Internet and in the couple of plant books I have to try and find the best way to harvest small sprigs for a meal or garnish. I could never find anything definitive, but after chatting with some friends at school, here’s what I’ve learned:
- Use shears or a sharp knife to slice through the base of your plant’s stem, as far down as possible without damaging the node, or the place where smaller stems branch off of the main stem.
- Cut away stems with large, fully-developed leaves from the outer edges of your plant. These are mature and the most ready for harvest. Leave inner stems and all new growth be—it still has a ways to go to.
- Don’t go buck wild—if your dish calls for a large amount of an herb, supplement with some store-bought (or vice versa) to avoid over-pruning and stunting your plant’s growth. Some sources I found said that you should never harvest more than one-third of the plant at a time; my teacher says it should be much less. Nobody should be able to tell that you picked—not even the plant.
- For most herb growers, this means that your herbs won’t always be able to accommodate large meals or quantities. That’s okay—even mixing a bit of your own crop into a meal is a step closer to sourcing it all yourself. Start small, dream big.