With more people spending more time at home over the past couple of years, enjoying garden space and growing our own food has become increasingly popular. It can save money in a time of rising food prices due to inflation and lets us be more in control of the quality and freshness of the food we eat, as well as lowering our carbon footprint by growing food that doesn’t have to be shipped or trucked long distances.
“Right now, Canadians are about to see rising food costs like never before and the opportunity to grow food has been a hot topic,” says Carson Arthur, a landscape designer, gardening expert, author and television personality.
Herbs for your health
Herbs are some of the easiest and most useful edible plants to grow. Herbs such as basil, mint, parsley, rosemary, oregano, lavender, thyme and dill are flavourful plants used to enhance the food we eat. Some also have tremendous health benefits, such as that can improve blood circulation, offer anti-inflammatory benefits, enhance memory and concentration, help with digestive health and improve sleep.
A few specific benefits include:
- Parsley contains chlorophyll that can help our body produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen in the body, and is high in Vitamin C, which is a heart-protecting antioxidant.
- Rosemary is rich in antioxidants that can help with mental focus and alertness, and helps improve circulation and ward off blood clots.
- Oregano is a great source of calcium and fibre, aids digestion and has a compound called terpene that is both antiviral and antibacterial.
Big rewards in small spaces
“Herbs are wonderful because the plants are forgiving, and you’re able to harvest from the plant over the whole season,” says Mark Cullen, an expert gardener, broadcaster and author. “So, from June through October, maybe later, you can harvest from most herbs, which is amazing productivity per square foot.”
All herbs, except for giant dill, are also perfect for container growing, says Cullen in an article on growing herbs in containers on his website. If you live in a condo, and have smaller balcony or terrace space, that makes a lot of sense, since you want to squeeze in all the outdoor space you can for gardening purposes.
Arthur agrees and says light and heat are more important to herbs than growing space.
“Herbs are by nature a Mediterranean plant, and most of the culinary herbs we grow and use are not indigenous to our climate,” says Arthur, who is host of HGTV’s Green Force and Critical Listing, a regular on Cityline and a presenter at the National Home Show in Toronto. His latest book, Vegetables, Chickens & Bees: An Honest Guide to Growing Your Own Food Anywhere, breaks down how to build your own garden and grow your own food in any space. “Like rosemary, thyme and oregano, these plants are used to growing in hot, arid conditions where they don’t really get a lot of rain. What they do need though is a lot of sunlight.
“So for condo balconies facing north obviously that may be more of a challenge, but if you’ve got east, west or south facing, it’s a great opportunity to grow fresh herbs to incorporate those into your cuisine. Obviously, the flavour’s going to be that much better.”
Cullen points out that, while most herbs need a lot of light, some can bake during hot summer months. So you should research the specific requirements of the herbs you plan to grow.
How to set up an herb garden
- Choose a good location. You’ll want at least six hours of sunlight. If your area has limited sunlight, consider planting herbs in containers, so you can move them to where the sunlight is throughout the day. Clay, metal, plastic and wood pots all work well, but make sure excess water can escape so the roots don’t rot. If you’re planting in your yard, it’s best if your herb garden is close to the kitchen so you can easily access fresh herbs whenever you need them. Look at the different areas of your garden during the day to ascertain which spots consistently get the most sunlight and plan accordingly. Consider the size of the grown plant, too.
- Decide what herbs you want to plant. There are so many varieties to choose from so it’s important to ask yourself what herbs you use most often. It can also be fun to experiment with herbs you might be less familiar with, such as borage, marjoram or savory.
- Give them a good start. Add a layer of compost first and till the soil if the area for planting is hard and doesn’t drain well. If you are planting herbs from bedding plants as opposed to seeds (which is recommended because it saves time to when the plant is ready for harvesting), dig a hole larger than the width of the root ball on the plant, and pack in the soil lightly. Use potting soil if you’re container growing, which drains water more easily, and garden soil for the yard. Read the instructions on the packaging. Basil, for example, needs more water, while rosemary does not. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart from the next herb and make sure herbs that grow closer to the ground don’t have sunlight blocked by bushier, taller ones.
- Make sure you label them. If you’re new to herb gardening, labelling will ensure that you keep track of which plants are which.
- Harvest them at the right time. Most herbs can be harvested continually as you need them. Pinch or cut off a few leaves and stems that you might need for your next meal, leaving the main plant to continue growing. Harvesting in the morning just as the dew is drying generally gives the best flavour. Most herbs are grown for their leaves, so you’ll want to harvest before they flower and pinching off flowers will put more plant energy into growing the leaves.
- Store them for later use. Herbs can be air dried, dried in the oven or microwaved for long-term storage after the growing season is over. You can also store fresh herbs in the fridge for up to five days – it’s best to not wash them first and to seal them in a plastic storage bag. They can also be frozen.
Herbs can be used in many different ways – as garnishes, in salads and marinades, to develop flavours in cooked meals, as well as in medicines and teas. They can be easy to grow, fun to experiment with and perfect for small garden spaces.
This information and the opinions expressed in this blog are based on research and interviews with the authorities identified, conducted on behalf of Allstate Canada. They have been provided for your convenience only and should not be construed as providing legal or insurance advice.