January 20, 2021


Home Improvement

How to grow your own Bay Area herb garden

Many of us have spent the long months of quarantine learning to bake bread, cook comforting stews and grow Victory Gardens. And there’s one thing that can enhance all three of those pursuits: fresh herbs.

No matter what the size — a few pots in a sunny kitchen window, a corner of your vegetable plot or a grand, stand-alone swath — creating an herb garden can be incredibly satisfying. All you need is a little guidance and a smidge of imagination.

A recent [email protected] gardening webinar — the first of five we have planned — featured Rose Loveall, co-owner and founder of Vallejo’s Morningsun Herb Farm, and Florence Nishida, a Los Angeles County Master Gardener and the founder of LA Green Grounds, sharing their best tips for growing herbs garden. But if you missed it, don’t worry. Here’s the lowdown.

So many herbs, so little time

There is some work to be done before planting, of course, but let’s start with the fun stuff — thinking about all the beautiful herbs that will soon be growing in our gardens, patios and kitchen windows.

There are thousands of herbs to choose from, and the variety can be overwhelming. Obviously, you’ll want to grow things you know you like and will use, but Loveall and Nishida suggest you experiment, too.

Basil, thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary are herb garden staples, but there are varietals of each with different flavors and uses. Thai basil, Genovese basil and purple basil are just the tip of the herbaceous iceberg. You can plant several varieties or sample them first to see if you like the way they taste.

Planting hard-to-find herbs means you won’t have to resort to frantic supermarket searches ever again. Buy that herb once at the market, Nishida says, place some stems in water so they grow roots, then  transplant them into your garden.

Think about how you use herbs — for culinary, therapeutic or decorative use, for example — matters, too. If you’re into mixology, Loveall says, you’re going to need some mint for your mojitos. Just don’t grow mint in the ground or even near it. It spreads rapidly and can quickly take over your garden or yard. Mint should be grown in a container and placed on a deck, patio or similar spot where it can’t send out raiding parties.

Most herbs are planted in the spring, but there are many that can be grown in the fall and winter, i.e., right now. Loveall recommends sage, rosemary, oregano, lavender, lemongrass and cilantro. Nishida adds scallions and onions to that list.

The cilantro conundrum

If your cilantro dreams perished this summer, there’s a reason for that. Cilantro doesn’t grow in the hotter months, so planting in the fall, winter or early spring is a necessity.

The herb, so popular in Mexican and Thai cuisine, is easy to grow in full sun, but seed germination can be a bit tricky. Loveall recommends soaking the seed before sowing them; Nishida says you can carefully crush the outer covering of the seed to improve the odds of germination.

Cilantro should be planted in the fall, winter or early spring. The plant does not do well in the heat of summer. (Getty Images) 

Once established, cilantro will happily reseed itself, just don’t expect to have any fresh cilantro in July and August. The plant will not cooperate, Loveall says. Instead, consider adding Vietnamese coriander to your garden. It grows well in the summer, and its taste is similar to cilantro, which is a type of coriander.

Indoor herb gardens

You can certainly grow herbs indoors, as long as you’re aware of a few potential pitfalls.

You’ll need a sunny window or a grow light, and you’ll need to be careful with watering. In the winter, when indoor herb gardens are the most appealing, the heat in the house can dry out the herbs, which often leads us to overcompensate by giving them too much water.

You can have a lovely window herb garden, however, if you pay close attention to it and its needs.

Getting started

While some herbs can grow in shade, the majority require at least six hours a day of full sun. Loveall and Nishida recommend scoping out the sunniest spots available for either an in-ground or container garden.

Next, prepare your beds and containers. Most Bay Area soils are heavy clay. Work compost into the soil to help lighten the clay, Loveall says, and improve the drainage. Herbs don’t like sitting in water. Don’t skimp on the compost — use 4 to 6 inches.

When planting herbs, choose a spot that gets six hours of full sunlight each day — or opt for a grow light if your herb garden is indoors. (Getty Images) 

If you’re planting in the ground, do so in mounds that will help water run off and away from the plant to prevent soggy conditions. In containers, choose a well-draining potting soil. Next, cover the beds with mulch to help moderate soil temperatures.

You’ll need to pay careful attention to your watering. Most perennial herbs — think oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavender — are Mediterranean and can tolerate dryer conditions. Annuals, like chervil, may need more water, Nishida and Loveall say. When herb gardens fail, it’s because you overwatered. (Or planted cilantro in July.)

Regardless of their water requirements, all herbs benefit from being watered deeply and infrequently. By watering deeply, you force the roots to go deep, which makes for a healthier, more drought-resistant plant.

Most herbs require very little fertilizer. For perennials, fertilizing once a year with a slow-release, organic fertilizer is sufficient. For annuals, fertilizing every two weeks during the season will keep them healthy. Don’t over-fertilize. It makes the plant grow quickly, Nishida says, resulting in leggy plants that are difficult to manage and require frequent pruning.

Harvesting those herbs

Harvest your herbs regularly. Snip off basil for that Margherita pizza or mint for a mojito — dry your herbs for later use.

Nothing makes you feel better than a hot cup of lemon verbena tea in the winter, Loveall says, but by then, the herb isn’t growing. By drying and storing the verbena, you can still indulge.

Most herbs are easy to dry. Nishida just lays her harvest on a tray in her dining room, but you also can bundle the herbs and hang them in an airy spot. There are some expensive devices out there that let the air circulate under the herbs but, Loveall notes, a window screen, laid out in the shade, will do the same thing.

Harvest fresh oregano to add flavor to marinara sauce and other Italian favorites. Or dry the leaves to use later, crumbled over a Greek salad.  (Getty Images) 

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