For several years now, I’ve been trying to coax my thumb to turn a lovely shade of green. I’ve grown flowers, cacti, succulents, and house plants with fair results, but never any edible plants. I resisted as long as I could (hey, growing food for your dinner table is an intimidating prospect), but the urge to branch out and begin growing something I can eat gradually took root.
I started quite by accident a few months ago when someone gave me a basil seedling. I transplanted it to a plastic tofu container on my windowsill and, with regular watering, it’s been thriving ever since (that's me with my basil at right). I’ve loved this aromatic, versatile herb ever since I took a Thai cooking class years ago. And in my opinion, it’s a great way to start your “garden to kitchen” collection.
So far, I’ve used my fresh basil in a few dishes. The leaves added a great, subtle flavor to my omelet and stir-fries. Best of all I felt proud knowing that I was eating something I grew with my own hands.
With only one herb growing in my garden, I’m in the bush league compared to other, more accomplished gardeners. For instance, my co-worker, Ai Tanaka, grows several different herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, peppermint, oregano, lavender, and lemon balm. Hoping some of her expertise would rub off on me, I asked her about her experience with herb gardening.
“I love herbs because they’re inexpensive, easy to grow, versatile to use, and produce a lot of harvest if maintained properly. I love going out to my lanai and snipping off something fresh to better flavor or accessorize my dishes and drinks,” Tanaka (that's her at left; photo courtesy of Ai Tanaka) says. (Check out her recipe for Herbed Olive Oil Bread Dip at the end of this article.)
She’s been growing herbs for about five years. While growing her own food is fulfilling, the primary benefit she gets out of it is peaceful relaxation. “When I tend to my garden, I instantly feel serene. We live in a fast-paced world of information and technology overload. With gardening, it’s the total opposite. I purposely don’t look at my phone. I slow down and get back to the basics.”
Growing herbs (and gardening in general, really) is such a healthy and rewarding activity. You’ll find that gardeners will encourage others to take it up. Tanaka and I are no different, so we offer the beginning herb gardener some tips to get started:
Keep your plants in pots. We both grow our plants almost exclusively in pots. I do it because I have limited space and the soil around my place is not good. “Container gardening is great because they require less space and weeding, and usually have less pests,” Tanaka says. “Pots are mobile too; you can easily move them around if they’re getting too much sun, rain, or wind.”
Start with a few seedlings. Seedlings (plants that have recently sprouted) are an easier way to start your herb garden, rather than growing a plant from seed. Buy just a few seedlings at first from a garden store so you don’t get overwhelmed.
Be open to learning, do your research, and have fun. One of the things I love about gardening is that I keep learning and testing my skills by growing more challenging plants. And each accomplishment makes for some very happy moments. “Be open to some trial-and-error cycles,” Tanaka says. “I didn’t know until recently that lavender and thyme want their soil to be dry between watering to mimic their Mediterranean origin. I was overwatering, which made them turn yellow or rot by the root.” We’ve both killed a few plants. If it happens to you, remember that it’s normal and it happens to all gardeners.
Start with a low-maintenance plant. If you’re new to gardening and feel that growing edibles is too much responsibility, start with a non-edible plant that’s easy to grow, like an aloe or other succulents or a house plant. Once you’re confident enough with your gardening skills, you can move on to edibles.
If you have an interest in gardening, whether it’s herbs, flowers, or other plants, just dive in. “You won’t completely understand the joy of growing your own stuff until you actually experience it. Once you do, you’ll be hooked,” Tanaka says.
Now that my basil is thriving, I’m definitely hooked on growing herbs and am excited to move on to other edibles. My next goal is to grow shiso, which is a popular herb in Asian cooking. Come on, thumb, you can do it!