One thing no foodie’s home should ever be without in my opinion is a herb garden. Where I’m living now doesn’t really have any plot of land available for that purpose since we’re on the second floor of an apartment building in the city, but I didn’t let that stop me. I originally planned on waiting to move in to my permanent condo, but since I’m incredibly impatient, I’ve started my little herb garden on a prime location: our balcony’s sill.
If you’re thinking that you’d need at least a couple of square meters of soil area specifically for herb gardening, then think again. When you’re living in the metro, it pays to be resourceful. All you’d really need is a place that get a lot of daylight, but not direct sunlight, and plenty of caring.
Things You’ll Need:
- A plastic plant box. Mine is 8 inches x 18 inches x 8 inches and comes with a matched plastic pan to catch any excess water and stray soil. It may seem small but I’ve got 7 plants in mine. You could choose to work with fewer plants (4 or 5 should be fine), but I found that I could take proper care of more. I recommend the plastic ones simply because of portability. If you don’t have easy access to sunlight and need to store your plant indoors most of the day, with only a couple of hours outside, you’d need your planter to be light enough to carry. And they’re really cheap.
- Some soil or organic compost. You can buy this cheap at your local nursery or at a home supply store, which is where I got mine. I got a 5-pound bag at less than $1.50 (P55.00), more than enough for my plants. If you can find it, go for the ready to use organic compost. Those things are great because you can plant directly on the material without needing soil. They are also incredibly rich with the fixed Nitrogen and Phosphorus that plants just love.
- A trowel. You’d make a lot of mess if you handle your soil or compost with you hands or with another tool.
- A pair of gloves. If you’re not partial to getting your hands in muck, invest in a good pair of garden gloves. And I assure you that compost is synonymous to muck. You’d know if you’ve had the chance to make them as a school experiment. You can opt not to use the cut resistant ones since you won’t really be doing heavy gardening.
- A garden spray. Plants need water, and a good sprayer will wet the soil evenly without eroding it unlike if you just pour the water in to the planter. I also found that with the right amount of spray pressure, you can remove the wilted leaves off the herbs without having to jerk the plant around.
- A pair of garden scissors. Nothing fancy required. Something heavy-duty enough to cut through woody stems will do just fine.
- Some slow-release fertilizer. This stuff is optional. If you’re an experienced gardener and know how to handle the stuff, go ahead. If you’re not, you can just as easily poison the plants with too much of it as you can help the plants along.
- The Herbs! Get these at your local nursery, but some supermarkets carry herb plants as well. If you have a favorite community weekend or farmer’s market, try looking for herb plants there. You don’t have to start from seeds. If you don’t have much of a green thumb, so many things could go wrong in the first stages of seedling growth which could ruin your confidence. Buy plants that are matured if you can.
Now that you know the physical stuff you need for your little garden, what next? In all honesty, I am not a gardening expert. I have gone through my share of wilted plants (may they rest in peace). I’ve even managed to kill a fortune plant which are virtually “unkillable”. But I have learned some useful stuff which do work and that you can try for yourselves.
- Find a safe spot with great ventilation and a lot of daylight. As I wrote at the start of this post, you don’t need direct sunlight because that will wilt your more succulent plants. But hours of daylight will do them plenty of good. Ventilation is necessary because plants breath. Don’t put them anywhere with little ventilation or where there is a big chance of exposure to warm gases. And don’t put them anywhere that is high traffic and there is a big chance that they will be disturbed.
- Water your plants regularly. Ask your nursery guy about recommended watering rates for each plant. I have a good mix of plants, some of which need daily watering (like mint and parsley) and some which can go a day without it (like dill and rosemary). I can water my box daily because my water-loving plants can easily soak up the excess water that my hardier plants don’t need.
- Trim your plants. One thing I learned from Biology is that most plants grow their topside (stems and leaves) and bottom side (roots) parts proportionately. If you want to control the spread of the plant roots, especially if you have a small box of soil shared by a number of plants, cut of excess leaves and branches. I do this with my mint and holy basil because they grow new branches and leaves faster than my other plants. Because the plant doesn’t have all those leaves and branches to support with nutrients, the plant doesn’t spread its roots too much. For plants like the sweet basil and dill which love to grow up instead of branching out, trimming also helps manage their heights and coax them into branching out. Branching out is preferred for herb plants because more branches means more leaves, and the leaves are what we need for cooking.
- Try other methods of cultivating your plants. Like I said, starting from seeds could get iffy. So far, I’ve discovered that growing new plants from stem cuttings is simple enough and works well. I did that with my dill and sweet basil. Simply cut a healthy stem at an angle (I prefer those with some leaves), and drive it deep into nutrient rich soil (about 4 inches is fine, with the leaves above soil and with access to daylight). Water it daily so the cut stem doesn’t dry out, and in 3 to 4 days, you should be able to see if the stem is growing new leaves, which means that it has grown new roots as well.
- Aerate the soil periodically. Gently, using a trowel, till the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil to let fresh air in monthly. Another alternative is to introduce a couple of earthworms to your planter. They’ll do the work for you, as well as help in breaking down wilted leaves to enrich your soil. So far, I have yet to find a store which carries earthworms. Or I could try people’s suggestion to dig some up myself.
- Don’t kill ladybugs when you find them in your plants. Ladybugs are actually carnivorous despite their dainty appearance and will prey on many types of pest insects.
- Talk to your plants. A lot of you will say, “What is with this New Age thing?”, but it does seem to work. My plants just seem more fragrant and healthier when I get to talk to them regularly. My grandmother does it too with her plants. You don’t need to do it like us, but there’s no harm in trying. It can be therapeutic for the gardener as well.
And that’s all I have to say on the matter of small-scale city herb gardening. It’s a great thing to try. It may not be for everyone, but if you like fresh herbs, nothing beats the feeling of having healthy herbs at your disposal instead of having to run to the grocery for ones that are probably days old.
I will end this by introducing everyone to some of my plants. 🙂