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A Beginners Guide to the Herb Garden

Clockwise from left: Parsley, Basil, Rosemary, Oregano, and Thyme.

Late March is a great time to start planning an Herb garden.  It’s a time to shake off the winter cold and embrace the first of the sunny spring days.  Though it’s a little early to get elbow deep in the garden soil you can still search out a location, plan what seed or plants you need to include and decide what materials you want to use to frame the herb garden.  As you start to plan you can feel the sun start to shine on your mind, inspiration takes hold, and your spirits start to rise.  So grab those seed catalogues and dream!

As with all great endeavors planning is everything. There are a few questions you can ask yourself when you plan your first Herb garden.  Do you have a location that gets at least 6 hours of sun or is it more of a shaded area?  Is there a water source close by?  Is the location near the kitchen?  Do you use herbs in cooking?  Are you looking for a fragrant garden?  Do you drink herbal teas?  The answers to the first three questions should have you thinking about location and convenience. The answers to the last few questions give some insight into what would be the most useful herbs to grow.  If an Herb garden is convenient and useful you will be more likely to enjoy working in it and enjoy the bounty that it produces.

First let’s look at location, size, and preparation.  Most of the culinary herbs and many of the fragrant herbs require at least 6 hours of sunlight a day.  A few of these herbs are Thyme, Sage, Basil, Parsley, Lavender, Rosemary, Oregano, and so on.  Other herbs can be grown in partial shade, like Mint, Bee Balm, Lemon Balm, Sweet Woodruff and Angelica.  This not an unbendable rule, I’ve seen Sage, Oregano and others grown in dryer partial shade and they still did well.

The size of a first herb garden really depends on the gardener.  I suggest a 4-foot by 4-foot square that can be expanded by adding more 4×4 squares with walkways in between them.  Now the dilemma, do you remove the sod, which is a lot of work, or do you build the garden on top of the existing sod?  To prepare the area for planting measure out the area and put stakes in the corners, then if you choose, remove all the sod.  Use some kind of edging, like rocks, landscaping timbers, cedar planks or something else to your liking to define the area.  Add the Sod to the compost pile.  Turn the soil over with a shovel or rototiller to loosen and increase the drainage in the soil.  Heavy or clay soils must be amended with sand and compost to lighten them up because most herbs like well-drained soils.

If you choose not to remove the sod you will be building the garden on top of the sod.  I’m finding that as I get older, raised beds are much easier to care for and they can be located anywhere that the meets the plants light requirements.  Even on top of poor soil  First, lay a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area.  Next, put in place what ever you will be using for edging, I use rocks because they seem to always be popping up in the fields and gardens.  Timbers or cedar planks can be used to raise the garden higher and make gardening easier on your back and knees.  The edging should be placed so as to hold the paper or cardboard in place.  After the edging is in place start to fill the garden area with a mixture of compost, manure, Grass clippings, bagged garden soil, Peat, etc., to the depth of about 12 inches.   Now using a shovel, thoroughly blend the ingredients taking car not to break through the paper or cardboard at the bottom of the garden.  An alternative to mixing the soil in the garden is to mix it on a tarp then add it to the garden.  Finally, water the garden and let set.  Water the garden every day for the next week before adding any plants.  This will allow the soil time to settle and if the mixture is going to heat up it will have time to cool before you put any plants in that could be damaged by this composting action.  Taking care to choose the right location, a size that won’t overwhelm you and taking time to prepare the garden properly will save a lot of time and work later on.

Now, for the fun part, choosing the plants for you garden.  Your 4-foot x 4-foot garden can comfortably accommodate about 5 plants, one plant for the center, preferably something taller, and one for each corner.  This gives the plants enough room to spread out as they mature.  If you are going to cook with your herbs, plant the herbs you cook with the most.  This could include a mixture of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, Thyme, Basil, Chives or Oregano. If you’re looking for fragrance, how about a fragrant Rose for the center and a selection of Lavender, Rosemary, catmint and maybe one of the scented Basils like Cinnamon.  For a tea Garden you could include Bee Balm, Roman Chamomile, Catnip, Lemon Balm, and Pineapple Sage.  Once you’ve chosen your plants and planted them you need to make sure to keep the area watered for about 2 weeks until the root systems become well establish.  If the garden looks a little empty at first you try adding a few herbs in decorative pots to fill in the gaps.  These can be moved elsewhere later in the summer to make room for all those delicious herbs that are being produced in your new Herb Garden.  In a few weeks you will able to start to enjoy the flavors and scents of your garden.

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Micro-Greens

Winter Gardening: Mighty Micro-Greens

Nutritious Micro-Greens

From tiny seeds emerge tasty micro-greens. These lowly seeds bring forth a burst of flavor and color that can brighten up our day and make us turn our thoughts to Spring. Since winter is on its way, I have turned my attention toward small scale gardening. With a little time, a small amount of space, and some loving care the seeds that you plant can produce the same small greens that are being sold in upscale restaurants and in the bags at the store as Spring Greens for a fraction of the cost.

Micro-Greens are not the same thing as Sprouts. Sprouts are grown in a covered container. They can be grown in low light, because of the short amount of time it takes to produce a small sprout. About 5 to 7 days depending on the type of seed used. Also Sprouts are not grown in soil, the seeds are first soaked then rinsed a couple times a day until they have sprouted and produced the first pale leaves. The difference isn’t just in the way they are produced, but in the final result.

Grown in potting mix, Micro-Greens can take anywhere from 10 to 15 days for the faster growing varieties, to 16 to 25 days for the slower growing varieties. They require good light and ventilation to keep them healthy. They are the same herbs and salad vegetables that are grown in our gardens during the spring and summer only harvested when they are a lot smaller.

Growing Micro-Greens takes very little investment. Some of the things you will need are: Small square containers that have drainage holes, like the plastic ones at the store that are filled with mushrooms or the Earthbound Organic salad mixes, something to put under the container to catch the excess water, a good potting mix, a few different varieties of seed (see varieties below), something to water with, and a window with good bright light or, even better, a simple grow light with a timer. I suggest starting with one or two varieties of seed. Fill your container with potting mix to about ½ inch from the top, then firm and flatten the soil. Next, sprinkle some of the seed on top of the soil. It should look like it would if you were peppering your food, it is ok for the seeds to overlap a little. You want the plants to grow in a dense mass so that they grow straight with tender stems.

Micro greens 2

Seeded container

Cover the seeds with about ¼ inch of soil. To start with I use a mister to water the seeds so that I don’t move them around too much. Later, when the seeds have sprouted, you can use a measuring cup to gently water your micro-greens farm. Water only until the soil is damp wet, not soggy. You can cover the container at first to keep moisture in and create greenhouse like conditions, but remove the cover as soon as you see the first sprouts. Set the containers in a bright window or under a grow light that is no more than 10 inches from the top of the container and nature will do the rest. You should see green sprouts in 3 to 10 days depending on the variety of seed used. Then water enough to keep the soil damp but not soggy, roots need oxygen to stay healthy. If you eat a lot of micro-greens the small containers can be planted 7 to 10 days apart so you will always have a fresh crop.

Though there are many varieties of seeds that can be used for micro-greens here are just a few suggestions and their characteristics. Fast growing varieties: Mildly sweet Chinese Cabbage, peppery flavored Cress, mildly flavored Red Russian Kale, Spicy flavored Ruby Streaks Mustard, Mildly flavored Red Cabbage. The fast growing varieties germinate in 3 to 5 days and are generally ready to harvest in 10 to 15 days.

Mixed lettuce and herb micro greens

Slower growing varieties: Lemony flavored Sorrel, Carrot flavored carrots grown for their tops, Spicy flavored Arugula, Pink stemmed Red Gunner Purslane, Deep red Bulls Blood Beet with its spinach like flavor. The slower growing varieties will germinate in 5 to 7 days and be ready for harvest in 15 to 25 days. Also many herbs can be used for Micro-Greens. All of the Basils, Dill, Cilantro, and Parsley are a few easy suggestions. Finally, any type of vegetable that is grown for Lettuce or Greens can be used for Micro-Greens. You can combine different seeds to get a mixed crop, but always mix slow growing seed with slow growing seed or fast growing seed with fast growing seed. This way the plants in the mixed container will mature at the same rate.

Harvesting what you have sown is a fairly simple affair. You will need a small pair of kitchen shears and a container either to eat out of or to store you harvest in the refrigerator for later. Many of the seeds sold for Micro-Greens have harvesting instructions on them, but as with everything else there is a rule of thumb. Hopefully it’s a green thumb. Most greens are ready to harvest when they are 3 to 4 inches tall. If the plant has a long stem topped with just the baby leaves, these are the first leaves to appear and usually don’t look anything like the true leaves, wait until the first true leaves have unfurled to harvest. Using the small kitchen shears simply trim the tops of the greens off even with the top of the container. They are ready to eat immediately and if they don’t have any of the potting mix on them they don’t even have to be rinsed. If you are storing them for later in the day put them into a sealable container without rinsing them, but do rinse and pat or spin them dry before serving. Since it is so convenient having your own mini garden, you always have fresh greens available, there really is no reason to have to store the greens unless there are too many. As with anything the more you grow the better you will get at judging how much to grow for your family’s use.

Micro Greens 4

Micro-Greens ready to harvest

Micro-Greens can be used a lot like sprouts, on salads, in sandwiches and as a topping on soup. They can also be tossed with warm or cool pasta, some fresh cut tomatoes, olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan cheese for a light meal. Wheat Grass and Barley Grass are mainly used for juicing and are considered one of the super foods. Micro-Greens also work well in sandwich wraps and if a quick snack is what you are looking for, simply snip and eat. What a great way to add some color to the house. It is healthy, edible color to boot and a lot less expensive than the spring greens at the grocery store. Give it a try. You’ll be amazed at how easy this project is.

Micro Greens 5

Time to enjoy!

 
 

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