Growing Herbs in the City

My brand spankin' new herb garden, situated on a teeny tiny little cabinet on my teeny tiny little balcony. "Though she be but little, she is fierce (Helena, A Midsummer Night's Dream)."

My brand spankin’ new herb garden, situated on a teeny tiny little cabinet on my teeny tiny little balcony. “Though she be but little, she is fierce (Helena, A Midsummer Night’s Dream).”

Urban gardening is a growing phenomenon. I’m not jumping on a bandwagon or anything, I just love to cook. And anyone who loves to cook knows that the best tasting food is homegrown and scratch made. Hence this little project.

Now, I have no idea what color my thumb is, but I did do a little research, and apparently, the herbs that I’ve chosen suite my particular plant hardiness zone pretty well. So, at the very least, I am giving myself a fighting chance at keeping these babies alive, and I like those odds.

I’m a novice gardener but with the help of my trusty sidekicks (my sister, daughter, and nieces), I’ve potted my new plants fairly attractively and that makes me feel very much like the Rocky Balboa of the herb gardening world. Gosh, with all this hype, I sure hope my herbs survive!

So, anyway, here’s the skinny on my initial foray into herb gardening:

1. Choosing the Herbs:

I chose German thyme, flat-leaf italian parsley, sweet basil, lavender, and rosemary plants (also called starts), and chives from seed.

I chose German thyme, flat-leaf italian parsley, sweet basil, lavender, and rosemary plants (also called starts), and chives from seed.

Again, using the USDA plant hardiness zone guide (link above), which basically measures how well certain plants will thrive in certain geographic regions based on average, annual minimum winter temperatures, I chose herbs that are projected to thrive well in my area, which happens to be in a 9b zone (25-30 degrees, F).

I’m sure as time progresses I will learn how to pick the best starts, but this time around, I looked at all of my available options in my local Home Depot Gardening Center and picked the healthiest looking German thyme, rosemary, lavender, sweet basil, and Italian flat-leaf parsley plants. I really wanted to buy a chive plant too, but, alas, there was none to be found. So, I am braving the seedling process and hoping I won’t muck it up too badly. Only time will tell.

2. Choosing the Pots:

I chose medium-sized, well-holed, clay pots and appropriately sized saucers - one for each of the herbs I purchased.

I chose medium-sized, well-holed, clay pots and appropriately sized saucers – one for each of the herbs I purchased.

There’s really no big secret to this. Herbs need to be potted in pots with excellent draining systems. Since I chose medium-sized pots, I figured four holes was sufficient. Then, I just chose saucers that corresponded with the diameter of the bottom of my pot, and ta-da! I just didn’t want the water to drip directly onto the cabinet or floor. Otherwise, I’m sure I could have done without the saucers.

3. Potting, Step One: Laying the Foundation

Step one: Fill the pots without about and inch of potting mix and water it until the potting mix is generously hydrated.

Step one: Fill the pots without about and inch of potting mix and water it until the potting mix is generously hydrated.

These are the instructions right off the root bulb packaging. Super concise and super helpful!

The first step is to lay the foundation for your plants. Fill the bottom of the pots with about an inch of potting mix and add water until the potting mix is generously hydrated. Go ahead and plan on getting your hands dirty at this point. You want to make sure that all the planting mix is hydrated, so you’re just going to have to let your fingers get down and dirty.

4. Potting, Step Two: Potting the Root Bulbs

I didn’t get a picture of the root bulbs in their containers, but the gist is: remove the root bulbs from their containers gently, making sure to rip as few roots as possible in the process.

Then, gently situate the root bulbs in the center of the pot, above the potting mix foundation that you have already laid. Add as much potting mix as is necessary to fill in the remaining gaps, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant. Water generously, making sure all of the potting mix is hydrated sufficiently. The pictures below show what my first two pottings looked like, and what all of my potted herbs looked like once I was completely done potting them. 

Potting parsley: center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

Potting Italian flat-leaf parsley: center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

Potting German thyme: Same instructions as the parsley. Center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

Potting German thyme: Same instructions as the Italian flat-leaf parsley. Center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

Potting sweet basil: Same instructions as the Italian flat-leaf parsley and German thyme. Center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

Potting sweet basil: Same instructions as the Italian flat-leaf parsley and German thyme. Center the root bulb atop the potting mix foundation and fill in all the empty space with more potting mix, including the top of the root bulb, just under the sprouted leaves of the plant.

All of my herbs potted and lookin' pretty!

All of my herbs potted and lookin’ pretty – pretty messy!

A quick note: If you plan to pot your herbs instead of plant them in a bed, you should use potting mix. I chose a small-ish bag because I knew I wasn’t going to be potting a large number of pots and that my pots were going to be medium-sized, not large or extra large. I can’t give you any advice on which potting mix to choose – I just went with an organic, herb-specific mix that looked like it would do the job. So far, no complaints!

Organic potting mix for fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

Organic potting mix for fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs.

5. Potting, Step Three: Clean Up (For the Messy Impaired, Otherwise Known as The Nearly Obsessive Compulsive)

Yeah, you can totally skip this step if you want to, but I couldn’t. I’m a neat-ish type person, so I needed to make sure my balcony garden looked tidy. By the time I was done potting, there was potting mix, water, and discarded potting containers everywhere. No bueno. A quick bit of clean up and, poof! My urban garden went from this:

Cleaning up!

Cleaning up!

To this:

So fresh and so clean!

So fresh and so clean!

6. Proper Care for Herbs:

One article I read said that potted plants should be watered daily, as opposed to other household plants which only need to be watered weekly. The trick is to find a good balance between over and under watering. If the potting mix in each pot is dry, you need to water generously. If the potting mix in each pot is damp, water just a tad. If the potting mix in each pot is soaking wet, don’t water. A little bit of water each day seems to do the trick. Make allowances in either direction (more or less water) based on how hot/wet/cold it is in your area.

As far as sunlight goes, hearty herbs (rosemary, thyme, chives, lavender) need lots of full sunlight each day, so make sure they are in a place where the sun shines on them directly much of the time. Softer herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro) still need a lot of sun, but could fry to death in the full heat of a summer’s day in a desert area like the one I live in. To keep them alive, I put them on the lower levels of my herb rack to make sure they still get sun, but that it is mostly indirect sunlight, as opposed to direct.

7. Harvesting the Herbs (Yum!):

Each herb wants to be harvested in its own special way. I’m no expert, but the research I’ve done breaks it down like this:

Basil:

To harvest basil, cut the leaves just above (not below) two sprouted leaves on a stem. This cut will then sprout off into a v-shape, producing two new leaves. This cutting system will ensure your plant just keeps on growin’. Be sure to leave the large leaves at the bottom alone, as they collect and transform sunlight into all the photosynthesy goodness that keeps the plant alive and thriving.

Our sweet basil harvest.

Our sweet basil harvest. And, yes, those tiny, helping hands are my favorite part of the entire shot!

Parsley:

The key to harvesting parsley is to harvest from the outside in. The leaves will continue to shoot up in the center and grow long, outward stems. Since the leaves are what are used in cooking, you want to cut the stems relatively close to the base of the plant to allow new stems to grow from the center outward.

One of my littles helping with the harvest.

Prettiest little parsley picker ever!

Thyme:

No special harvesting instructions here. We generally use the thyme leaves in cooking, so cutting your stems then removing the leaves is the most common way to use this herb. But thyme is also used in bouquet form in stews and soups, so feel free to tie them up, add them to your bouquet, and toss them when you’re done!

Rosemary:

Rosemary is a hearty herb that grows straight up. To harvest, cut a full stem close-ish to the base (leave about an inch or two still sticking out of the potting mix), and it will keep on a growin’ right where it left off. I gotta tell ya, this is one of my favorite herbs ever! Rosemary butter and rosemary baguettes are some of my favorite things on the planet!

7. Storing the Herbs:

Preparing my herbs for refrigeration.

Preparing my herbs for refrigeration.

Herbs can be refrigerated, frozen, and dried. It’s up to you how you’d like to use them. The picture above is what my herbs look like when I am going to be using them within a few days to a week from the time I cut them. I put them in labeled zip-lock bags and store them in a lower shelf in my refrigerator so they don’t freeze.

You can also wrap them tightly in saran wrap, making sure to gently squeeze out all the oxygen, and freeze them for 3-6 months (depending on the herb).

Finally, for long-term use, you can sun dry your herbs, or bake them in a medium-temperatured oven so that you can use them some time down the road.

I like to use them fresh, but, hey, it’s your plant, get the most out of it in ways that are best suited to your needs.

So that’s it! Combined, my start-up garden cost me less than $70, and I didn’t even go about it the most cost effective way. I’m sure you can find all of these supplies at thrift stores for significantly less than I did, and then you’d really be upping your savings game.

The point is: have fun, don’t give up, and enjoy the fruits (or herbs) of your labor!

A good lookin' bunch, if I do say so myself!

A good lookin’ bunch, if I do say so myself!

Until next time, my friends!

S. Taylor, The Taylor of all Trades

2 thoughts on “Growing Herbs in the City

  1. Claudia says:

    I love your selections. I just got a whole bunch of plants this past weekend, but I’m waiting for B to be done with classes so we can plant with our little aquaponics system. I’m bound and determined to enjoy our homegrown fish seasoned with our homegrown herbs!

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