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Instant herbs -- the non-gardener's guide
Create a simple potted garden in a single afternoon
ATLANTA (CNN) -- I've never had a green thumb -- in fact, it looks rather black. Why grow your own fruits and veggies? That's what the farmer's market is for.
But the cost of fresh herbs is biting into my budget -- $2 for a bunch of mint when all I'm going to use is a few leaves to decorate a dessert seems excessive. For $2, I can buy the whole living plant -- leaves, stems, roots, dirt and all.
Time for a patio herb garden for my city dwelling. With clay pots and store-bought plants, it took just one spring afternoon to create my own small, no-fuss, steady supply of kitchen-ready herbs.
Those standard clay pots work fine, but you can use any container that has holes in the bottom for drainage. You can put many herb plants in one big container, letting them spill over the sides for a pretty presentation, recommends Jerry Traunfeld, chef and author of "The Herbfarm Cookbook" (Scribner). But mint and oregano each need their own pot or they will overrun the others. Use pots that are a bit bigger than the plastic tubs that hold your newly purchased plants so there is room for summer growth.
Tip: Bypass those little "herb pots in a row" you see in specialty stores. They are usually way too small and cute to be useful.
Most herb gardening books recommend buying a potting mix that drains well. For those who don't know the differences between dirts, and less about drainage, the local nursery can help. Just tell them you are planning a small container garden; most will point you directly to their favorite plastic bag of container mix and you're good to go.
When transferring the plants to pots, you may want to mix in a handful of compost or organic fertilizer, Traunfeld says. "They need a lot more food than in the ground."
Tip: Avoid heavy "potting soil." Herbs don't want to sit out summer in a peat bog.
A nice little spade or a big old kitchen spoon works just fine.
Buy plotted plants and don't mess with seeds; after all, they don't sprout in a single afternoon. "Look for herbs that you use the most for cooking," Traunfeld recommends. No-fail plants for beginners include chives, lavender and mint.
You will only find well known herbs in the nurseries, but that should still give you at least 10 to choose from. Look for plants than have not been sitting around all winter. Their roots should not be overgrown and "matted" on the bottom of the pot.
Most plants do fine transplanted from their plastic pots, but not dill. It has long tap roots and doesn't transplant well. "It just wants to go to seed and die," Traunfeld says. If you are ambitious, grow it from seed; if not, buy it at the store.
Tip: In the spring, herbs are available everywhere so keep your eyes open. I got thyme, rosemary and lemongrass from a nursery. But the most beautiful sage and basil came from the farmers' markets. Oregano looked lovely in the flower section of the supermarket.
You can keep herb pots in a sunny windowsill indoors, but they prefer to sun themselves outside. Most need about six hours a day of full sun, but it doesn't hurt to get more.
Care and Feeding
Make sure the soil has a chance to dry out between waterings, but don't allow the herbs to wilt. Watch tender, leafy herbs such as parsley, cilantro and basil, for they will be the first to shrivel from thirst.
Small plants nestled in a good container mix may not need any food for a single season of growth. If they look starved (yellow leaves are a telltale sign) add a little all-purpose fertilizer from the nursery.
Don't pluck leaves. Instead follow two general rules for harvesting.
For most leafy herbs that have pairs of leaves along the stem (mint, sage, basil), cut a sprig just above a leaf pair. That remaining pair should sprout off into two new stems, giving you a fuller plant.
For parsley and cilantro, cut entire individual stems from near the soil surface, taking outside stems first as new stem growth sprouts from the middle of the plant.
Tip: Cut and wash herbs right before adding to food for the most fragrant flavor.
Annuals (basil, cilantro) will only last one growing season before they bloom, set seeds and die. Biennials (parsley) live for two years, growing the first year, blooming and dying in the second.
Perennials (mint, sage, marjoram, lavender, rosemary, thyme) can live year-to-year in good conditions and mild winters. Check the little plastic marker on each plant when you buy it to learn its life cycle.
Key ingredient: Lemongrass -- Aromatic herb adds delicate lemony perfume to food
University of Illinois Extension: Herbs
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