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Adding fresh flavour with herb gardens

Photo: Unsplash

An easy way for the most urban city slicker to incorporate the farm to table movement into their home cooking is with herb gardens. Starting an indoor garden has the added benefit of providing fresh herbs year-round.

“For most people, it’s so they know what has gone into the herbs that they’re using and so they have a steady supply of fresh herbs for cooking,” said Scott Stoner, a horticulturalist with Blue Grass Ltd. Nursery, Sod & Garden Centre. “That’s one of the main reasons people like to grow them inside. They can keep them for several years if they are successful, putting them outside during the summer and bringing them inside during the fall and winter.”

To begin, you’ll want to determine which herbs you’d like to grow. There are several herbs well-suited to the indoors, including parsley, basil, cilantro, thyme and oregano.

“Some are better for indoor gardening than others and your perennial herbs will work better,” Stoner said. “Some of the annual ones like parsley and basil, because they grow too quick, they require a little bit better growing conditions than we would have inside our house.

“You can grow them, but you’ll have to reseed them regularly.”

Stoner said terracotta pots were a great choice for indoor herbs, as you can keep the plants watered while soaking away any excess water.

“Terracotta is one of the best, but you can grow in just about any pot that you want as long as there is drainage – a hole in the bottom, not a bunch of rocks,” he said. “Because if there isn’t, before you know it, you’ve got a rotten plant.”

With herbs and your containers selected, you’re ready to being preparing the plants and the space for the journey ahead.

“Most of your tropical potting mixes are fine for your herbs. There are some people, like myself, I mix my own soils and I get a little bit plant-specific,” he said. “But most people don’t have to worry about that. Your household potting mixes are a good enough blend.”

Find a room with appropriate sunlight to serve as home base, Stoner said a south-facing window would be the best option, if possible.

“You can use grow lights if you want to go to that extent,” he said. “But the reason you use south-facing windows is you get the longest exposure to natural sunlight as you can. You can grow using east and west, but they would need augmented light because the plants would get long and stringy as time goes by.”

Temperature won’t be much of a concern, as long as your home is regularly heated.

“Whatever we’re comfortable with, the plants will like. As long as it doesn’t get say below [13 C], they’ll be fine,” Stoner said. “It will stunt growth if they get too cold.”

Once planted, herbs require little effort, making them a great starter project for a new gardener.

A herb gardener's main focus, Stoner said, is ensuring the herbs are adequately watered. Thankfully, the best tool to monitor that is literally at your fingertips.

“The best water tester in the world is your little finger. You poke it in just past the fingernail. If you feel moisture, don’t water them,” Stoner said. “If it’s dry that far down, you’ll need to water them"

He added the heating in homes dries out the air, helping to prevent the herbs from maintaining too much water.

“That’s the quickest way for most herbs to die, a little bit too wet and they just rot off.”

You can also give the plants a boost by using fertilizer, which ensures the herbs have nutrients they need.

“You can use anything as long as it’s fairly balanced,” Stoner said. “Going too high in any one of them, you can overdo it.”

Though herbs are a great way to start gardening if you are unacquainted, Stoner said nothing is foolproof, so try not to be discouraged if the garden is not successful on your first try.

“It can happen to just about anything. Just start it up and go at them again,” he said. “Even old pros, if you want to call them that, will have plants die for who knows what reason. It’s a matter of going, ‘OK, it died. I’ll get another one.’”

Once the garden does take off, you'll be cooking with fresh herb even deep into the dark and chilly months.

“It’s a great thing to do with your kids for them to start learning on,” Stoner said. “You never know, they might take over your outdoor garden and do your weeding for you, heaven forbid.”