"For all things produced in a garden whether of salads or fruits, a poor man will eat better that has one of his own, than a rich man that has none." – John Claudius Lourdes, Scottish Botanist 1783-1843
While early spring is often too cold to start many plants in the ground, it is a perfect time to get outside and enjoy the warming weather by starting a container herb garden. There is nothing quite like working with the sun on your shoulders and your hands in the dirt as you tend plants until they yield a harvest.
The act of working with the earth, under the blue sky and helping something grow is very therapeutic. A study in the Neuroscience Journal from 2007 found that exposure to the bacteria found in dirt boosts Serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that affects sleep cycles, moods and memory. Low levels of serotonin are linked to aggression, anxiety and depression. Many gardeners already know that running their naked finger through the soil not only makes their spirits soar but grounds them in the shifting of the seasons.
If you are starting from seeds, you can get a jump on the season by planting in a sunny window and allowing the seeds to sprout indoors. Seeds need warmth to germinate. You can use a coldframe by setting a piece of glass on top of your pot after you have planted and watered The glass will trap the heat, creating a greenhouse effect, so your seed will be able to sprout in cooler temperatures.
Seedlings can be purchased in packs, ready to plant in sunny spots or containers outdoors.Just prepare your growing area and gently remove the plant, careful not to damage the stem or leaves as you keep the root-ball intact and insert into prepared soil. Do not bury the plant deeper than the top of the root-ball. Burying the stem mayl cause it to rot.
Healthy herbs need good soil, lots of sun, frequent watering and a pot with adequate drainage. Plant your seedlings and let them grow. Do not attempt to use them until they are established. Most herbs are easy to grow and will add a boost of beauty and fragrance of your garden and scent and flavor to your food. And since herbs can be used fresh right out of the garden, all you have to do is clip the ends and leave the plant to keep on growing. When harvesting, simply snip off the healthy ends and wash. Only snip the portion you need at the time of use. Keep your pruning clipper clean. This will deduce risk to the plant. Not only will pruning give you trimmings to use, the act of pruning encourages the plant to spread and grow, allowing the same plant to be harvested, again and again, throughout the growing season. Pruning not only encourages growth, it keeps the plant from flowering which ends the growing cycle.
Note - Routinely remove old leaves. This is a good way to control diseases and keep plants healthy. Simply pick off dead leaves, clip away diseased leaves, or trim damaged areas and bag. Remove all diseased plant material to keep fungus and other infections from spreading.
Tips on Storing Herbs
Drying is the most common way to store your herbs for year round use. For best results choose an herb with a low moisture content such as: Bay leaves, Cilantro, Dill, Marjoram, Oregano, Rosemary, Sage, Summer Savory or Thyme.
Harvest before your plant begins to flower. Trim by cutting healthy branches from your herb plant. Then wash the trimmings by rinsing with cool water and pat them dry. Tie into bundles and hang upside down in a cool, airy apace.
Store your dried herbs whole in airtight containers such as Zip-locked bags or small jars. Your herbs will retain more flavor if you wait to crush them when you are ready to use them. And don't forget to label and date the contents. Store in a cool, dry place away from sunlight. Immediately discard any dried herbs that show the slightest sign of mold. Note-Mold can be deadly!
Freeze it for Later
Some herbs with a higher moisture content such as Basil, Chives, Lemon balm and Mint are prone to mold and are easier to store by freezing. Simply take your rinsed trimmings and pat them dry before you slip them into an air-tight container such as a plastic bag and freeze. If you have space you can make herbal ice-cubes. Just mince your washed herbs. Then pack into an ice cube tray. Fill tray with boiling water, (this will blanch the herbs before freezing and will help them retain their flavor and color). Once the ice cubes have frozen, remove from tray and store in airtight freezer bags.
Make an herbal paste by mixing 1/3 cup of olive oil with 2 cups of fresh herbs and blending until smooth. Store in a sealed jar and keep in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or freeze in ice cube trays and store in an airtight bag to keep for later use. This paste freezes beautifully.
The act of keeping a garden brings great joy, not only to those who work it, but also to those that merely stroll through or lounge in it. Plants not only enhance our food supply, they add color and beauty to a space, calm the psyche, stabilize humidity levels and clean the air. And there is great satisfaction in reaching for your own herbs knowing exactly where it came from because you prepared the soil and cared for the seedling until it matured and produced this bounty! Each day seems to bring more disconcerting news about our food-chain spurring the interest in urban farming as more become aware of the dangers lurking in store-bought produce. You are not helpless. You can take action and embrace alternatives. Families across the country are utilizing yards, patios and balconies for family veggie plots growing their own peppers, squash, herbs and tomatoes as even a few potted plants can create a high yield and what a better way to know what is in your food than growing it yourself? Join the movement 'eat organic, buy local and grow your own!' Start your own garden today.