So you’re thinking of herb gardening, or maybe you tried it last year and it was an utter disaster? Have no fear. There are a few simple mistakes that many herb newbies make (and I know because I made most of ’em myself). Master these simple and practical tips for herb gardening and you’ll be using your own fresh herbs like Mario Batali in no time.
Mistake 1: Growing from seed. When you first start out trying to grow fresh herbs, I recommend you begin by trying to grow from seedlings rather than planting your own seeds. Lots can go wrong in the seed to seedling transition (including not thinning out plants properly), so its probably best to begin by skipping that complicated task or you are in danger of washing out before you really begin.
Mistake 2: Starting with the wrong varieties. I recommend you start by trying to grow fresh basil. It is the perfect trainer herb. First, basil grows quickly, allowing you to observe the effects of your care more easily. Second, basil leaves wilt visibly when not watered enough, but recovers well if you water the wilted plant. This makes basil a great ‘canary in the mineshaft’ to help you figure out how much water is enough.
Mistake 3: Watering herbs like houseplants. Instead, water herbs a moderate amount every day.
Mistake 4: Not cutting early and often. Again, basil is a great herb to practice pruning. As with all herbs, you want to cut the herb just above a set of growing leaves. With basil, when you cut the plant that way, the originally trimmed stem will no longer grow. However, two new stems will grow around the original cutting, creating a “V” shape. If you don’t trim basil aggressively, it will continue to grow straight up, and become too tall and top-heavy. Making your first trim approximately 3-4” above the soil produces a nice sturdy plant.
Mistake 5: Taking the leaves from the wrong place. When you are just starting out it seems to make so much sense to pick off a few big leaves around the bottom of the plant and let those tender little guys at the top keep growing. Wrong. Leave those large tough old guys at the bottom alone. They are the solar panels that power your herb’s growth. Once your plant is big enough to sustain a decent harvest, keep on taking from the top, as you have been when you were pruning.
Mistake 6: Letting your plants get too randy. If you are pruning regularly, this may never become an issue, but unless you are growing something for its edible flowers, be sure to cut back herbs before they start growing flowers. If you want leaves, keep cutting off the little flower buds whenever you find them (see photo above), and it will encourage your plant to focus on growing more leaves.
Mistake 7: Using tired soil with no nutrients. Give your plants a dose of the good stuff and they’ll thank you for it. I grow my herbs in a combination of potting soil, used coffee grounds (with a near-neutral PH, available for free at Starbucks), and organic compost. If I have some on hand, I also throw in crushed egg shells. Those without access to compost (and no deep commitment to organic growing) may find Miracle grow useful.
Mistake 8: Getting in a rut. Once you have become comfortable with basil, I recommend moving on to try growing oregano, mint, rosemary, and thyme. All are regularly useful herbs in the kitchen, and all are relatively easy to grow. You will notice that rosemary cleaves after cutting in a somewhat similar way to basil, but grows much more slowly, so the effect is difficult to notice. Some plants also respond to clipping by throwing out more full leaves at their base.
Mistake 9: You mean there’s more than one kind of mint? When choosing herbs, read the label carefully. For example, there are two main varieties of oregano: Mediterranean and Mexican. Mediterranean oregano is the more common variety, and what you likely own if you have conventionally dried oregano in your cupboard. I have Mexican oregano growing on my back fire escape. I love Mexican oregano in spicy dishes, for making beans from scratch, and often use it in tomato dishes where I don’t want the flavor to seem too much like marinara. Similarly, there are many different kinds of mint. You don’t want to be thinking of the pungent spearmint plant and accidentally take home the much more subtle (and not mojito savvy) applemint by mistake.
Mistake 10: Feed me, Seymour! If you are planting in soil instead of pots, take care that your cute little herb seedling doesn’t become a giant plant that takes over your garden. A word of warning for oregano and mint: both can be voracious growers. If you are planting outside in a garden, rather than in pots, you may want to consider potting these herbs and then burying the pots in the ground. This will add a measure of control to the root systems of these herbs, which can otherwise take over a garden and strangle nearby neighbors.