The Ultimate Spring Project:
An Easy Herb Garden
Growing your own herbs is a no-brainer on so many fronts—for starters, there’s the obvious benefit of having hyper-fresh, organic flavors and aromatics available at your fingertips for any cooking endeavor (and avoiding the waste of an entire bunch of grocery store parsley for a simple garnish). And while herbs are a staple of any serious kitchen garden, you don’t have to have raised beds—or even a yard—to get started, as most varieties can grow quite happily in a few small pots in a sunny window. In celebration of spring, we’ve stocked the goop garden shop with everything you’ll need, and tapped our gardening experts (Max Kanter and Jeff Hutchinson of the incredible Saturate), for tips on keeping them alive. Below, you’ll find their idiot-proof guide to herb gardens, plus Chef Thea’s tips for putting your bounty to work.
GETTING YOUR HANDS DIRTY
You can always buy seedlings from your local nursery if you’re impatient, but it’s worth it to try growing them from seed yourself—the plants will be better rooted, and you’ll be so much more invested in them.
The key to healthy plants is quality soil; go for organic potting soil and, if possible, mix it with compost from your own garden. It’s important to check the ingredient list on potting soils—many of them are made with peat moss, which is not sustainably sourced. We recommend looking for something based in coconut core. If you want organic herbs, you’ll need organic soil, so step away from the Miracle-Gro!
Seed packets come with instructions for how many seeds to plant and how deep to plant them—a little 4-inch pot is a great starting point for indoor seedlings, and you can work your way up as the plants grow. Be sure to wait until the roots are well established before switching pots, to avoid transplant shock.
During the germination period, be sure to keep the soil moist at all times (if they’re in a very sunny spot, you may need to water multiple times per day). It takes a few weeks before you’ll see seedlings popping out of the soil.
DAILY CARE FOR DUMMIES
Herbs like full sun, so plant them in a sunny part of the garden, or a window that gets a lot of light.
Water the soil, not the leaves of the plant. Think of the soil as a vase; you want it to have enough moisture for the plant to take up until the next watering. (Also, if water is left on the leaves in strong sun, it can lead to sunburn.)
Water in the mornings and in the evenings so the water doesn’t evaporate immediately.
For whatever reason, everyone’s tendency is to over-water. Use your finger to check the soil. It should be moist, but there shouldn’t be sitting water. Be sure that your pots have a drainage hole at the bottom, too, as water buildup leads to rot that will kill your herbs.
Be patient! Sometimes plants just need time to grow.
Pruning tip: When you harvest your herbs, put any you don’t use in a vase to keep them fresh.
THE GOOP GARDEN
Care for it: Sage is a shrub, so you’re going to see herbaceous growth (soft, tender greens in areas of growth and a woody texture at the base). When harvesting, pinch from the herbaceous growth. Pinch 2- to 3-inch sprigs above leaf pairs; trimming sage actually encourages more growth, which will split into two at the base of the cut.
Cook with it: To us, sage is synonymous with Thanksgiving and holiday cooking. It’s a hardier herb, so it stands up to heat, but is not recommended raw. It’s good with meats, mushrooms, and onions. You can make a delicious simple sauce for pasta by frying whole sage leaves in brown butter.
Pro tip: In California, our local variety of black sage is a powerful painkiller. You can find them growing in the wild, or you can buy the varietals at a nursery (they make ideal drought-resistant landscaping plants, since they flower and smell amazing). To help with mild pain, brew fresh leaves in hot water for a fragrant, medicinal tea.
Care for it: Lavender is a bushy plant, so when you’re harvesting, aim to thin it and try not to take out big chunks all at once. The flowers open sequentially from the bottom to the top, and it’s best to harvest them when the entire flower is fully open, and they’re at their most fragrant.
Use it: Lavender can be a bit love-it-or-hate it in the kitchen, but it’s almost universally adored as an aromatic. Rub fresh lavender into a mixture of vitamin E oil and kosher salt to make a shower scrub (you can also use sugar, which works as a lip scrub). We like to sub fresh lavender for oil in the winter bath recipe below.
Recipes: Winter Bath
PRO TIP:If you have extra, make a few dried bouquets. Harvest in batches, secure them with rubber bands or a piece of twine, and hang upside down in a dry, dark room like a garage or garden shed for 2 to 4 weeks. We like to keep a few on hand for décor, fragrant sachets, or even as hostess gifts.
Care for them: Like sage, basil needs to be pruned to promote growth. Pinch it back above the bottom-most leaf, and the growth will split, making the plant bushier. If your basil starts sprouting flowers, trim them immediately—if it’s allowed to go to seed, the plant will get woody and bitter. (And the flowers make a worthy garnish, anyway.)
Italian Sweet Basil
Cook with it: This is a versatile summer herb that’s best used raw, as it doesn’t stand up well to heat. It’s perfect for pestos, garnishing salads and soups, and in sandwiches. Basil bruises and turns brown easily, so cut or tear it right before you use it.
PARSLEY, CILANTRO & CHERVIL
Care for them: These plants are all incredibly delicate, so you want to make sure you overseed them; that way, more plant comes in each time you harvest. These herbs also tend to bolt quickly, so you’ll want to walk the line between growing them big enough to harvest, but not so big that they go to seed. It can take a bit of practice. (If the cilantro goes to seed, you can cook with the seeds themselves—coriander.)
Cook with it: Parsley is a workhorse of an herb—it’s used in Middle Eastern, Italian, French, and Latin American foods alike. It’s a common ingredient in fresh sauces and dressings such as salsa verde and chimichurri. You can also roll a bunch into a bouquet for stocks and soups.
Cook with it: A major goop-favorite, this chelating herb can add delicious flavor to everything from guacamole to Southeast Asian cuisine, to dressings, drinks, and smoothies. It works well with both sweet and savory flavors. Many people recommend using only the leaves, but we like chopping up the stems, too—they’re full of nice flavor, too.
Cook with it: This tender herb (pronounced chur-vil) has a subtle anise-y flavor that pairs well with eggs, chicken, mustard, salmon, as well as other fresh herbs. It’s very soft and doesn’t stand up well to cooking, so it’s best used raw.
Care for it: In many places it’s more of a perennial than an annual, and in warm climates (like LA), people often use it as groundcover. It’s a really hardy plant, so cut what you need a don’t worry too much—you’re not going to kill it.
Cook with it: Thyme can stand up to cooking, making it an easy addition to everything from stocks and soups, to roasted veggies, to breads and doughs. You can even cook it into simple syrup for cocktails.
GROW YOUR GARDEN
- goop Label gardening Apron goop, $125
- DeWit 3-Piece Garden Tool Set goop, $120
– Plant Pruner goop, $58
Seattle Seed Co.
The goop Garden goop, $40
- Modern Sprout Growhouse goop, $140
Copper Watering Can goop, $110
Skultuna Herb Pot,
Brushed Brass goop, $75
Work Gloves goop, $48
Hobble Creek Press
Herbs for Flavor, Health, and Natural Beauty goop, $25
FOR THE TECH-SAVVY GARDENER
If you’re ready to expand beyond herbs (or significantly increase production) without going the raised-beds route, LA Urban Farms installs incredible hydroponic growing towers in residential homes. The towers, which grow produce with 90 percent less water than conventional methods, grow plants hydroponically, using recycled water and a specially formulated nutrient blend that provides plants the minerals they’d otherwise get from soil. Use them to grow herbs, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, and even melons in 30 square inches of space.
Common table herbs are from all over the world, but as Saturate emphasizes, each region has its own native herbs that are equally great for cooking and experimenting. Take mint, for example—we commonly eat spearmint, peppermint, and other commonly grown varietals, but native mints such as mountain mint (Pycanthemum virginianum) grow throughout most of the country naturally. Even more localized is coyote mint (Monardella villosa), which grows in a small range in California. Planting local herbs in your garden helps maintain diversity, making gardens (and the ecosystem in general) more resilient. Local-first nurseries (we love Gowanus Nursery in Brooklyn, the Theodore Payne Foundation in LA, and Yerba Buena Nursery in SF) are excellent resources for buying local plants and learning more.