The Urban Homesteader: Herbalicious!
An environmental consultant by trade, Cara Cooper started her garden with citrus and avocado trees plus a few herbs … all the makings of margaritas and guacamole. Here, she shares the lessons she’s learned as that “party garden” has grown into a full-fledged urban homestead.
A decade or so ago, when my husband and I were first married and I’d finished graduate school, I was inspired to learn to really cook (no more research and homework at night meant time to actually do something fun!). In a desperate attempt to follow a recipe one night, I bought a basil plant since the store was out of leaves.
That humble little plant lived in our living room windowsill for almost a year (with repotting of course) … my first foray into growing food. I began finding ways to use it in other dishes, and eventually wanted to use as many fresh herbs as I could.
Now that we have the space, we’ve branched out to grow as many herbs as we can lay our hands on.
They’re relatively easy to grow outside in Florida in winter, but tend to not survive the deep heat and rains of summer unless carefully tended. Thankfully, you don’t need a garden: Most herbs will also do well in large pots outside on a sunny deck or balcony. That said, if you have a full garden, tuck herbs into the beds along with your veggies – they will use up wasted space (corners, edges), attract beneficial insects and help repeal pests. Due to the aromatic oils in most herbs, they also tend to be hardy plants that have very few pest problems!
I have a hard time picking favorites, but I love fresh thyme for my homemade chimichurri sauce, rosemary for roast chicken, sage for roasted sweet potato bites and mint for the homemade “Arnold Palmers” we make in the fall when our Meyer Lemon tree is loaded with fruit. And every time I brush past the sage or rosemary in our garden the scent takes my thoughts to Thanksgiving.
Once you get the hang of herbs you may find your appetite for fresh food growing and before you know it you’ll have tomatoes trellising up your balcony or kale taking up residence in your flower pots!
- Some herbs are ready re-seeders (I’m looking at you basil and dill), and can be easily started from a pack of seeds; others are prolific spreaders (hello, mint) and can spread from cuttings taken from a friend.
- Herbs benefit from use, so don’t be shy with cutting them back (though be sure to give them a rest if there aren’t many leaves left).
- Some gardening companions to try are basil and garlic chives with tomatoes, dill and thyme with anything from the cabbage family (broccoli, kale).
- Rosemary and basil can be hardy windowsill herb plants for apartment dwellers, just be sure to repot them into something larger than the container they came in.
- Have fun with your herbs – look for unusual varieties to add interest to your cooking and your yard (chocolate mint is a fun one; African blue basil is a more potent variety that withstands our summer heat and has lovely purple flowers that make it a nice small background shrub).
- Mints will take over and spread rapidly so they are best potted into a large pot that can contain them.
- Move your herbs into areas shaded from midday sun in summer and they might actually survive the heat.
- A good source of seeds is southernexposure.com, while vendors at your local Farmer’s Market are a great source for seedlings.
Illustrations designed by Freepik