Since prehistoric times, herbs have used for medicine, food, flavoring, and perfumes. Depictions of herbs, dating back to between 13,000 and 25,000 B.C, have been found detailed in cave paintings in France. Hippocrates, the Greek healer and physician often referred to as “the Father of Medicine,” advocated the use of a few simple herbal drugs to help the body’s “life force” eliminate whatever ailment might be plaguing it. In the Middle Ages, herbs were used to preserve meat and mask foul tastes (e.g. rotting meat, a frequent problem due to a lack of refrigeration) and unpleasant smells (think scarcity of water and indoor plumbing → lots of smelly folk). Today, herbs are still used in the diverse array of manners detailed above.
Herbs are relatively easy to grow, and serve as a great introduction to gardening! If you live in a small, or shady place have no fear. You can grow herbs indoors and outdoors, and in full sun or shady conditions! Additionally, growing herbs come with a heap of benefits:
- It is easy to grow your herbs (organically!), which can save you $$$
- You’re eating hyperlocal, so you can feel good about reducing your carbon footprint
- You can live with a deeper sense of appreciation by realizing what goes into cultivating food, and moving it from “farm to fork”
- There is something deeply gratifying and humbling about eating food that you have grown with your own hands
The steps detailed below can help you get started.
(1) Assess your sunlight situation:
- Identify possible places to grow your herbs; consider windowsills, balconies, and porches
- Determine which direction your window/space faces– if you’re a student at UT Austin, campus is north of downtown, West Campus is, obviously, west of campus. If you’re still confused about which way your space faces, whip out your phone and check the compass or get on google earth
- South-facing windows are best! They get the most sun and warmth. West-facing windows are second-best.
(2) Materials you will need:
- Containers with drainage holes
- if growing indoors, you will need waterproof saucers
- it’s best to use individual pots for each herb so you can tend to each plant’s specific needs
- Seeds or starts/transplants
- annual* herbs are very easy to start from seed
- sow seeds according to the directions on the seed packet
- soak seeds in water for a couple hours before planting to encourage germination
- perennial** herbs take longer to germinate; it’s easier to start with transplants
- annual* herbs are very easy to start from seed
- Potting soil
- avoid using garden soil! Potting soil contains perlite, which encourages aeration and drainage– a necessary for growing in containers
* annuals grow for one season only
** perennials grow for multiple seasons
(3) Determine the light availability of your space when selecting your herbs
- For shady spaces:
- Mint— best grown in pots since this herb often runs amok and can spread rapidly. It’s hardy; once it is established, you never have to plant it again. Loves water. Bugs generally hate mint, so placing it at your door or on windowsills can potentially help with pest problems.
- For sunny spaces:
- Rosemary— easy to grow, though it grows slowly. Hardy, minimal water needs. Thrives year round. Mature plants like full sun* and well-drained soil. Rosemary likes cooler temperatures.
- Sage— can be planted at any time of the year in warm zones. Needs full sunlight* and good drainage. Tolerates dry, indoor air. Sage likes cooler temps. If you can, take a tip cutting from an outdoor plant and use it as your start.
- Thyme— hard to kill, grows like a weed. Minimal water needs, likes full sun*.
- Basil— hot-weather plant. Great for beginners; germinates reliably and grows fast. Will look wilted and sad when it is water deprived, but perks back up after a good watering. Trim basil from the top (harvest top of basil plant instead of taking leaves from the bottom or side of the main stem.) Trim before flowers bloom, i.e. don’t let your plants go to seed.
- Parsley— grows best in 60-65 degree weather. In the spring, plant it in well-drained soil and full sun*. When it gets hotter, move it insite and keep the pot next to a sunny window.
* full-sun means 6+ hours of sunlight
- You can save money by making your own containers out of old tea/coffee tins. Poke holes in the bottom for drainage and use the lids as waterproof saucers to catch draining water
- You can use florescent lights to supplement a lack of natural sunlight in the winter
- Avoid allowing leaves to touch cold windows to prevent foliar injury
- Keep the soil moist but not soggy; drain saucers after watering
- Thin/trim branching plants (like basil) to keep them more like shrubs
- Don’t throw away plants that look sad or have started to yellow! Often, a quick google search will serve up a remedy in no time at all
Come learn more and get your hands dirty at the UT Microfarm! We have work days every Wednesday from 5-7:30pm and every Sunday from 9am-noon. Please check our Facebook for scheduling updates during questionable weather.
– Audrey Nguyen, Co-Director, UT Microfarm