17 Tips For Starting Your Own Herb Garden

Whether it’s on your balcony or in your tiny concrete backyard, it’s easier than you think to develop a green thumb in a big city.

City living doesn’t leave a lot of room for gardening.

But it also doesn’t leave none. Your apartment probably (hopefully) has a fire escape, a balcony, or a patio. And that means you’ve got a little chunk of outdoor space that you can use to set up a kitchen garden of your very own.

Growing your own herbs is especially great because they don’t take much space and a little will go a long way in food. Also great: You don’t have to buy a huge bunch of parsley for a single recipe and then let the rest rot in the fridge. Instead, you can snip off just as much as you need at a time.

Here’s what you need to know to get started:

1. First things first: Make sure it’s safe.

Kristine Paulus / Flickr: kpaulus / Creative Commons

To be clear, storing items on a fire escape IS against fire code (at least in New York City), and for a reason — if you can’t actually walk on it or access the stairs/ladder, it’s not a very effective “escape.”

That said, if you’re careful to leave a clear, walkable path that will let someone access both the window and the ladder, you should still have space for a few pots that can really brighten up your life every day there isn’t a fire (which will hopefully be all of them).

2. And be discreet.

Even if you’re careful about making your fire escape garden safe, you may still get in hot water with your landlord or the relevant authorities if it’s easily visible to people on the street. And your little herb friends deserve a safe space! So, basically, don’t be stupid. If the fire escape isn’t behind your building or is too small to safely fill with pots, think about some other apartment-friendly gardening options instead.

3. Before you decide what to grow, assess your sunlight situation.

Flickr: 42919152@N04 / Creative Commons

You need to know how much sun your plants will get, and how much they need. Most vegetables will do best in full sun (six-plus hours), but some greens and herbs are happy with less. On a fire escape, surrounding buildings or trees could block sun for part of the day, so check to make sure you hit the minimum for the type of plants you want (you can get that info from the little markers in their pots or from Google) before you buy seedlings.

To figure out how many hours you get, just keep an eye on the spot where your containers will be and make a note of when direct sunlight begins in the morning and ends in the evening. Or you can buy a little sun calculator to work it out for you.

Also keep in mind that the amount and direction of sun will change throughout the summer, so be prepared to move plants around for maximum ray catching if needed.

4. Gear up.

Photos via homedepot.com

The timing of when you plant will vary depending on where you live. Basically, you can get started as soon as you’re sure temperatures won’t dip below freezing again. But don’t worry about missing some magical deadline; you can also continue planting things throughout the spring and summer. When you’re ready, here are the basic essentials you’ll need:

1. POTS: The size can vary depending on what you’re growing, but you want to make sure there’s enough depth for the plants’ roots to fully develop. You’ll probably want something at least 8” in diameter; it’s better to overestimate how much space you’ll need than underestimate. Here are some general guidelines for picking the right pot size and material.

2. POTTING SOIL: You want a potting mix that’s formulated for containers, not anything that says “garden soil.” Use this calculator to figure out how many bags of soil you’ll need based on the dimensions of your containers.

3. PLANTS: Farmers’ markets are a great local source for herb and vegetable seedlings in the spring. Hardware and garden stores should have a decent selection as well.

A few other things that are nice to have, but not necessary: A trowel (for moving dirt around), a watering can (though you can also just use a large pitcher), and fertilizer to use once your plants are established (see item #14 in this post for more info).

5. Let a professional start your seedlings.

Leonora Enking / Flickr: 33037982@N04 / Creative Commons

No matter what you’re growing, you should probably buy them as seedlings, not seeds. Yes, sprouting tiny baby plants from seeds can be magical and miraculous and all that jazz. But honestly, it’s not worth your time when you’ve got a small space and a relatively short growing season. Instead, buy established toddler herbs and vegetables at a farmer’s market or a nursery. You’ll get edible results much sooner and they’ll be less likely to die in infancy.

6. If you’re a beginner, start with basil.

Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr: quinnanya / Creative Commons

Basil is the herb that everyone loves and that loves everyone. It’s a very enthusiastic grower that smells and tastes great. It’s also helpful for gardeners without a lot of experience because basil will let you know right away if you’re not watering enough — by looking sad and wilty — but perks back up again after a good shower.

Just remember to trim basil from the top.

Dominic Alves / Flickr: dominicspics / Creative Commons

Always cut off the top of a basil plant instead of snipping leaves from the bottom or side of the main steam. If you take those lower leaves, you’ll just damage the plant’s solar power source, and make it grow tall and spindly instead of branching.

Don’t take off much more than a third of the plant’s height, and cut right above a spot where you see new little leaves sprouting from the stem. Those will go on to grow two new branches where you just had one stem before, which means a bushier, more compact plant.

You should also aim to trim before any flowers bloom. They may be pretty, but they’re essentially the plant’s way of saying, “I’m quitting my job in order to have babies.” You want the plant to keep doing its job, i.e., producing nice, big leaves that you can turn into pesto, so snip the tops off as soon as you see buds.

Side note: You can actually root and then plant basil straight from a cutting.

Give it a try it next time you have a few leftover sprigs. Once it has roots an inch or two long, you can just tuck it into a pot and let it rip.

7. If you want to go beyond herbs, leafy greens are a great starter vegetable.

Debra Daniels-Zeller / foodconnections.blogspot.com

Greens like spinach, lettuce, and arugula work basically the same way as herbs: You can buy them as seedlings, plant them, and they’ll keep throwing up new leaves that you can harvest repeatedly. These grow quickly and get started right away, so you can have salad in the spring and early summer while you wait for other veggies like tomatoes to get rolling.

In the mid or late summer (or whenever your first round of greens stop producing new leaves), you can replace them with cold-weather-friendly greens like chard and kale, which will keep on going well into the fall.

8. Chives and scallions are easy to grow and fun to eat.

Alice Henneman / Flickr: alicehenneman / Creative Commons

Fresh chives (above) are the kind of thing you might not buy, but will sprinkle on basically everything you cook if they happen to be growing right outside the window. They also bloom with pretty purple flowers!

Scallions are easy to grow in small containers, and you can get them started just by going to the grocery store and picking a bunch that have healthy-looking white roots on the end of the bulb (instructions here). Then you can harvest the green tops throughout the summer and leave the bulbs to keep producing.

Even after you close up shop on the fire escape for winter, you can keep scallions going with just a cup of water.

9. If you want more substantial veggies, try small tomatoes, hot peppers, or green beans.

Chances are you’re not going to have enough space to grow something like zucchini, so stick with veggies that aren’t heavy and can do well in relatively small containers. Just keep an eye on tomato and bean plants — which can get very tall very quickly — and tie them to a stake or railing if they’re getting out of hand.

10. Mint grows like crazy (and requires some firm discipline).

Mary Hartley / askmaryrd.com

Mint — particularly peppermint — is INSANE. It’s actually an unstoppable alien plant that will spread its runners and roots like nobody’s business; I once discovered my mint plant literally trying to sneak off the back of a second-story fire escape.

So mint should probably have a pot all to itself, or else it’ll just strangle anything else in there. It’ll also be less leggy and more bushy if you’re not shy about trimming and using it. This yummy maple-mint iced tea is a great way to go through bunches of it.

11. Plant things that go together well.

Oakley Originals / Flickr: oakleyoriginals / Creative Commons

Exotic stuff like “pineapple” mint and lemon verbena might seem appealing when you’re at the garden store, but you should pay attention to what you actually eat and cook with, and grow accordingly. Love salsa? Plant tomatoes, hot peppers, and cilantro.

You can also get fancy with “companion planting” certain things close to each other, which may help control pests.

12. Give each plant enough space.

Flickr: amerk / Creative Commons

Happy roots with room to grow mean happy plants with plenty of leaves down the line. You might be tempted to cram as many seedlings as you can into pots to get the most out of your real estate, but if they’re crowded they won’t produce as much, and then you’ll both be sad. Leave several inches between plants (here’s a helpful, more detailed discussion) and don’t put more than a few into one pot.

Also make sure that, if you’re combining multiple types of herbs in one pot, they all have about the same sun and water requirements.

13. Water often, but not too much.

Rebecca Wilson / Flickr: saucysalad / Creative Commons

Herbs are delicate critters and need a little more babysitting than most houseplants. Remember that a fire escape made out of black metal is going to get really hot, and your pots probably aren’t that big; both contribute to the soil drying out faster. You can slow down the drying process a little bit by covering the soil with a layer of mulch, but you’ll still want to check it about every other day (or every day during hot weather).

To check, poke your finger into the pot, and if the dirt is dry an inch below the surface, it’s time to water. That said, you don’t want to drown the plants, so just water until the soil is damp all the way through, not soaking wet. And if your pots don’t have much in the way of drainage holes, err on the side of watering less, more often.

14. Make sure your pots and containers have enough drainage.

Mike Lieberman / Flickr: canarsiebk / Creative Commons

You want to be sure that the pots don’t just hold onto water and turn into root-rotting swamps. The easiest, most important thing to do is buy pots that have at least a few good-sized drainage holes in the bottom (though you may want to set them over a tray so you don’t end up dripping mud onto your downstairs neighbor’s head).

Keep in mind that putting chunky material like rocks or pot shards in the bottom of a container is kind of a myth and won’t actually increase drainage. The most important thing is using potting soil (not just dirt from the ground) that has little granules of perlite and other minerals that keep it from getting water-logged.

If you want to try a level 2.0 project, it’s actually pretty simple to build cool self-watering bucket containers with cheap recycled materials.

15. Keep your dirt healthy.

Bob / Flickr: 28538827@N05 / Creative Commons

You might think that dirt is just dirt, and any dirt will do. Wrong!

Start your plants in new potting soil (the kind that comes in a bag at the garden store) or, if you’re reusing old soil, remove any dead roots and mix in some compost or fertilizer. Then give things a little boost as needed throughout the season. You can use water-soluble chemical fertilizers about every two weeks, or try organic alternatives like coffee grounds, seaweed, or “liquid fish.”

Why? If you want your plants to keep producing throughout the summer, it’s important that the soil they’re growing in is aerated enough to let oxygen through and provides enough nutrients. When you’re watering small containers frequently (which you should), you end up flushing out the nutrients in potting soil to begin with.

16. Be prepared for pests.

Flickr: peapod51 / Creative Commons

Squirrels suck. They just do. They will dig up an entire three-foot-long container, CONVINCED that it’s full of buried acorn treasure (it isn’t! I checked!) and not give a shit that they just destroyed your lovingly tended micro-farm in the process.

If you’re having problems, you can try your luck with any number of possible solutions: bloodmeal fertilizer, plastic mesh or chicken wire, cayenne pepper, or even good old-fashioned rocks. I confess that my weird DIY method of weaving a deterrent latticework out of bamboo kabob skewers only…kinda sorta works. But I’m not giving up yet.

17. Give sick plants a chance to get better.

Chris Tse / Flickr: asiaticleague / Creative Commons

You can troubleshoot a lot of common problems, like yellow leaves (which might mean too much water or not enough nitrogen). If you really think a plant is beyond repair, do a thorough inspection and give it a little time before you hold a funeral.

So, those are the basics. Now all you have to do is plant…

My setup last summer (IDK what’s happening with that tragic dill, sorry).

…and don’t forget to eat what you grow.

It sounds stupid, but it’s weirdly easy to get obsessed with watching your plants get BIGGER AND BETTER and completely forget that the reason you’re growing them in the first place is so that you can eat them.

If you start to get overwhelmed with the volume of herbs your plants are producing, remember that you can use them a lot more aggressively than you might think.

Try making a summery, herb-heavy tabbouleh, this steak salad with herbs, or consider that you can turn basically anything into pesto.

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