When you grow your own herbs and veg, it isn’t just about saving money, it’s about treating yourself to a taste sensation
There is nothing more satisfying than nibbling on a crisp, sweet carrot or biting into a luscious, juicy tomato … unless you grow your own herb and veg in your own backyard. Home-grown veggies and herbs — planted, nurtured and plucked by your own hand — taste better and are better for you, especially if you adopt an organic approach to your productive gardening.
There are many good reasons for creating your own sustainable, productive garden. Besides the joy of eating your own freshly picked produce, you can save money by buying less, while at the same time doing something positive to lessen your ecological footprint and your impact on the planet. It can also make you more creative in your cooking — you think firstly about what is in the garden and look for recipes to match your produce or simply make up your own recipe idea.
If you’re new to productive gardening, starting with herbs can be a good idea — especially if you enjoy cooking. Many herbs are quite easy to grow, don’t take up a lot of space, and provide you with flavoursome ingredients you can use every day.
Starting with herbs
Herbs lend themselves to informal planting, mixed garden beds, pots and vertical gardens. They can be dotted around paved areas or scattered irregularly between paving stones, used as borders to paths (parsley, chives, small-growing thymes) and grown in many different types of pots, window boxes and containers.
Use a good-quality potting mix rather than garden soil when growing in planters. Thyme, parsley, bay, chives, basil and tarragon all do well in pots, but they need good-quality soil. As these are all herbs you will want to pick frequently, it is worth growing them near the kitchen. You could try a few hanging baskets near the back door, a vertical garden or some pots on a deck or patio that catches the sun.
Although herbs can be brought into the kitchen in pots and grown on a sunny window sill, this should happen during the winter season only rather than permanently as herbs do best outdoors. Herbs in pots need regular applications of liquid fertiliser in the growing season. Potted perennial herbs should have a spring top dressing of a slow-release fertiliser.
The formal approach
Many European gardens had separate formal herb gardens, some using elaborate designs such as Elizabethan knot gardens. Formal gardens would often have a large urn, a sundial or a fountain in the centre and this idea still works today if you have space for a separate herb garden, even one rather smaller and less formal than in days of old.
Some of the lovely traditional patterns can be adapted to today’s gardens. The cartwheel shape is still a stunning way to plant herbs. Old wooden cartwheels are at a premium; even modern imitations are pretty pricey. Paint it white and plant different herbs between the spokes, perhaps a large bay tree, or a standard bay or a pot of lavender at the hub. In the absence of the real thing, use bricks or pavers to create the cartwheel shape of pie-slice segments.
Snail gardens are another. Spiralling bricks or pavers make the snail shell, with the herbs planted between them. This pattern works best with low-growing herbs.
Most herbs are quite trouble-free to grow. Many (catmint, chamomile, rosemary, sage, thyme, tarragon) are of Mediterranean origin and like well-drained, relatively dry soil. Good drainage is even more essential in tropical climates, where roots tend to rot easily. In such locations, raised beds or pots are recommended. In hot areas do not place a saucer underneath pots.
Most herbs do best in full sun, or at least morning sun. A few (bergamot, chervil, mint, parsley) will tolerate some shade. These also like moist, not wet, soil. Most of the Mediterranean-climate herbs like some lime in the soil. Basil, caraway, dill, garlic, parsley, lovage and borage will require it if they’re to flourish.
Many annual and perennial herbs are easily grown from seed and can be sown directly into the garden. Alternatively, they can be raised on pots or punnets and transplanted to the garden. Good-quality plants, sold in small pots, are produced by specialist growers and these are worth considering, as some fast growers (salad, rocket, chervil) only need a short time to establish themselves before you can start picking them.
Harvesting and drying
Only pick a small amount of a plant at any time and give the plant time to re-grow before cutting it again. Cut sprigs carefully with secateurs or scissors rather than trying to break them, as tugging may uproot them. Don’t ask children to pick herbs for you for this reason! Harvest parsley by picking the outside leaves; this encourages new growth in the centre.
Harvest herbs for drying just before they are coming into flower, as this is when they have the strongest flavour. Pick them when they are dry, tie the stems together and hang them upside down in a dry, airy, shady place until they are quite dry. Some people recommended dehydrating them in a slow oven or microwave. When dry, store them crushed or uncrushed in air-tight jars.
Herbs can also be preserved in the freezer, either by wrapping whole sprigs or chopping soft-leafed types (parsley, mint) and freezing them in ice cubes. With either method they will only be useful for adding (frozen, not defrosted) to the cooking pot, rather than in salads or as a garnish.
Fresh produce shortages and rising prices, plus increased demand for organic food, have fuelled an increased interest in growing our own vegetables. Recent research by The Diggers Club shows more than 52 per cent of Australian households are growing at least some of their own food. Among the most popular edibles to grow are leafy greens, beans, peas, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Among the main considerations when growing any plants are the amount of available water, space and light. Sunlight is an important ingredient for growing food crops. The veggie garden needs to be in full sun, or as near as possible.
Vegetable gardens need to be tended to, but frequency depends on the type of vegetable. Beans and peas must be picked often whereas pumpkins, once started, need little maintenance and only occasional harvesting. If you put your veggie patch in the back corner of the garden, it becomes a special trip, an extra chore. Instead, why not plant some veggies along the path to the washing line so you can check them every time you hang out the washing?
What to grow?
The local climate will have a bearing on what you choose to grow, not just what you like to eat. To make the most of limited space, prioritise veggies that grow quickly (beans, salad veg), are especially good when eaten fresh (tomatoes, spinach, Chinese greens), produce a high yield but take up little room (carrots, shallots, leaf crops, salad veg), or can be harvested continuously (loose-hearted lettuces, broccoli, celery).
Another important part of the success equation is to grow your veggies at the right time of the year. There are plenty of good books and online guides to help, but take cucumbers and cabbage as an example. In hot climates they should be grown during the cooler months, but in more temperate climates they do better in the warmer months.
Of course, some vegetables simply will not grow in certain climates. Broad beans and Brussels sprouts, for example, prefer a cool or temperate climate. Some veggies (eggplant, okra, snake beans) do best in hot climates. On the other hand, in tropical and subtropical areas, some veggies (dwarf French beans, carrots, soft-leafed lettuces) can be grown all year round.
Veggies in pots
Growing vegetables in pots and other containers can be more practical than having a large veggie garden in the ground. The main benefits are portability, ease of replenishment, variety in a limited space, ease of maintenance, the ability to keep track of what you’ve planted where, and growing close to the house.
Vegetables that are well suited to container living include tomatoes, chillies, miniature pumpkins, potatoes, round carrots, lettuce, celery, beetroot and rhubarb. Many miniature varieties have been developed specifically for container growing, including melons, cucumbers and capsicums.
Avoid plants that grow too tall, have high nutrient requirements, or need to spread out wider than a regular-sized pot. Plants like corn are very nutrient-hungry and grow tall — they also don’t produce much for the amount of space they occupy. Traditional varieties of vines like cucumber and pumpkin like to spread across open ground, so pots are not ideal for them, but there are miniature varieties. Root space is restricted in containers, which means many regular root vegetables won’t get to full size.
If you’re concerned about aesthetics, introduce a splash of dramatic red with rhubarb, strawberries, tomatoes or chillies. Throw in some theatrical purple with purple varieties of lettuce, capsicum, cauliflower, cabbage and even carrot. Add sunny yellow or orange with capsicum, chilli or tomato varieties.
Mix in some flowers with your veggies and herbs for extra colour. Not only are flowers attractive, you’ll find there are a number of flowers whose petals are edible, including nasturtium, pansy and petunia. Some flowering plants also have the added benefit of deterring unwanted insect pests (for example, French marigold is said to repel white fly when planted next to tomatoes). Some herbs planted next to certain veggies can have similar results. This is called companion planting.
Use herbs with coloured foliage (thymes, purple-leafed sage, golden marjoram) to enhance a garden bed, and those with aromatic flowers or foliage (lavender, scented-leafed geraniums) near the house, steps or an entranceway. The feathery foliage of fennel or the blue-green leaves of rue make them both suitable for mixing with ornamentals. As with any planting plan, it’s about getting the balance right.