Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 5: Garlic, ginger, and other easy-to-grow herbs

Missed the rest of the series? Read them here: Starting your own Herb Garden: Part 1: The Benefits of Fresh Herbs, here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 2: Planning and Layout, here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 3: Seed Starting and Growing from Cuttings, and here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 4: The Indoor/Potted Herb Garden.

Did you know that some of the most widely used and most delicious herbs are the easiest to grow? In this last of installment of the Starting Your Own Herb Garden series, we'll show you how to grow your own garlic, ginger, and cilantro.

Ginger has loads of health benefits (just do a Google search and you'll come up with tons), so much so that many people take daily ginger in capsule form. I prefer it fresh or pickled, sushi style. Fresh grated ginger is fantastically useful for cooking, especially in Asian dishes, and it makes a lovely tea. It's also ridiculously easy to grow your own.

Note: This is ornamental ginger (comes it pink or red flowers). It's pretty but not edible. The edible kind is not pretty, doesn't flower at all, and is much smaller.

To grow your own, visit your local farmers' market after the last frost. I got mine from the local grocery and it grew fine, but I was lucky--much of the commercially grown ginger is treated so that it won't reproduce. Select a rhizome (this is what most people refer to as the ginger "root," but that's actually incorrect) at least 3 inches long and with at least two well-developed growth buds--little protrusions at the tip of a "finger" of the rhizome, kind of like eyes on a potato. The more growth buds your rhizome has, the better. If the tips of the "fingers" are greenish, even better.

A ginger rhizome with 7 fingers and many growth buds. This could produce up to 10 ginger plants.

Planting Ginger
If you're unsure whether your ginger rhizome has been treated with an growth retardant, soak it in a glass of water overnight before you plant it. What's cool about ginger is that if your rhizome has more than one "finger," you can cut them apart and plant each one separately to produce several ginger plants. The only rule is that each section you plant should be at least 2 inches long and have at least one growth bud.

Growing Ginger
You can grow your ginger in a pot with potting soil, like mine, or if you live in an area that never frosts, you can plant it directly in the ground, as long as the soil is well-drained and not too clayey. Ginger takes 8 to 10 months to mature and hates the cold, which is why you should opt for potting unless you live in an almost year-round warm climate. Plant your rhizome sections 6 to 8 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep, growth buds facing up. Water regularly, but don't soak them. Ginger hates having wet feet. After a few weeks (sometimes several), you'll see the first growth. It'll look like a thin green spike.

Ginger plant spike with first leaf

6 months later

Harvesting Ginger
Ginger is ready to harvest when the leaves turn yellow and begin to wilt, 8 to 10 months after planting. I recommend harvesting in the morning so the rhizomes have ample time to dry in the sun. To harvest, loosen the soil with a garden fork and lift the whole thing gently out of the ground. Brush as much of the dirt off the remaining rhizomes as you can and lay them in the sun for the rest of the day. At this point you can cut off a few sections of the rhizome with good growth nubs to replant for next year. Break up the rest and cut off any remaining stems.

Storing Ginger
There are three options I know of for quality long-term storage of ginger:
1. Keep unpeeled in a ziplock bag in your refrigerator's crisper (up to 2 months).
2. Scrape off the skin with the edge of a spoon, cut into 1-inch chunks, and store covered in vodka or rice wine (up to 1 year). The ginger won't lose its flavor, and you can use the leftover liquid in stir-fry dishes, salad dressings, or sauces. I've yet to make a ginger vodka martini, but I'd love to try it.
3. Pickle it by peeling as above, cutting into 1-inch chunks, and storing covered in rice vinegar for 3 weeks. Remove from liquid. Use the remaining liquid as above, and store the pickled ginger in the refrigerator up to 1 year.

Ordinary cilantro is also easy to grow and not too picky about its soil, as long as it's fairly loose and not too wet. It prefers shade or filtered sun, will grow in pots or right in the ground, and grows quickly. Five cilantro seeds will yield you quite a bit of cilantro in a month or two. Plant the seeds 4 to 6 inches apart and 1/2 inch deep. If planting outdoors, wait until it's relatively warm out to plant your seeds. They don't like the cold.

Cilantro, one week after planting seeds. If you want instant herb gratification, this is your plant.

Garlic is another quick sprouter, though it takes longer to mature than cilantro.

Planting Garlic
Unless you're in a year-round warm climate, the best time to plant garlic is in mid-autumn. Buy a head from your local grocery or farmers' market and keep it in the fridge until you start to see little roots sticking out the bottom. Then separate the cloves and plant them in a sunny spot, root side down, 6 inches apart, and 2 inches deep. No need to peel off the skin. The soil should be loose and well-drained.

Growing Garlic
After a few days you'll see the shoot coming up. These will die down once it gets cold. When that happens, mulch well over the whole bed. Your job is done until spring. In the spring, remove the mulch. More shoots will appear and these will continue growing into leaves that look like onion leaves but flimsier. About a month before the garlic is ready to be harvested, they'll send up something called a scape. The scape looks like a thick, hard green onion, and it's edible. It tastes just like garlic but milder and you can cut it off to eat once it's about 4 inches long. If you let them keep growing, they'll get very tall and start curling like something out of a Tim Burton movie. Once they start to curl, they'll get tough and begin losing their flavor.

Garlic, two days after planting

Garlic, 1 week after planting

Harvesting Garlic
You'll know when your garlic is ready to harvest because its leaves will start to turn brown and wilt. As with the ginger, loosen the soil and carefully pull the whole thing up. Brush off the dirt and hang the whole thing in a cool, dry place for 2 to 3 weeks. They should be dry and not smell very strongly at this point. Cut off the foliage and peel off the outer layers of skin until it looks like something you'd see at the grocery store.

Storing Garlic
Do not seal your garlic bulbs in bags or airtight containers; this promotes molding and rotting. Garlic will keep in the fridge for 2 to 4 weeks, but the moisture level there is too high for it to keep long term. Garlic keeps longest in a cool, dry place, like in a terracotta jar or in the basement.

Growth update!
The habaneros still haven't germinated. I planted five seeds, 3 three weeks ago and 2 two weeks ago. Nada. I've heard they take as long as 2 months to germinate, so I'm not giving up yet. I'm keeping them in direct sun as much as possible to maximize warmth. Somebody I know said his didn't germinate until he started setting them on top of the clothes dryer every time he ran it.

The watermelon seedlings are growing, but not rapidly. We now have nine of them. No sign of the forget-me-nots germinating yet, but it's only been one week.

The basil and mint that I transplanted last week from the cuttings are flourishing, so I'm excited about that. I'm already dreaming of caprese salads.

Mint cutting transplant

Basil cutting transplants

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 5: Garlic, ginger, and other easy-to-grow herbsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 4: The Indoor/Potted Herb Garden

Missed the beginning of the series? Read them here: Starting your own Herb Garden: Part 1: The Benefits of Fresh Herbs, here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 2: Planning and Layout, and here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 3: Seed Starting and Growing from Cuttings

This week TAiMH will show you how to make a variety of beautiful recycled herb planters and get some ideas for creating your own unique indoor herb garden. It's time to get creative.

But first, an update on the seeds we planted last week in our totally recycled starter pots:

Yes, I confess these are watermelon seeds, not herbs. My herbs are already potted or planted. But you get the idea. It works.

8 out of 14 watermelon seeds (from farmer's market watermelon) germinated!

Also, I happened to buy a little ceramic elephant oil burner that came in this little clear plastic box. So instead of throwing away the packaging, I've recycled it into the perfect mini-greenhouse.

I planted habanero pepper seeds in these. They're notoriously hard to germinate. Cross your fingers for me.

Inside are more recycled starter pots, these ones made from styrofoam coffee cups. Starbucks espresso cups work well too, by the way. However, I certainly don't recommend buying disposable cups if you can bring your own travel mug for them to fill. MDT just happened to buy us surprise snacks at the fair last week, which came in these.

Recycled mini-greenhouse

Now that your little seeds have germinated, the next step is to pot them. Here are some ideas for creative recycled planters

Hack #1: Turn vegetable cans/tins into a matching set of planters for your indoor herb garden.

  • vegetable cans/tins (remember to poke holes in the bottom for drainage)
  • ribbon, buttons, bottle caps, bows, or any other little decorative, waterproof things you've got lying around
  • a hot glue gun (or at least some super glue)
  • Scotch tape
  • Sharpies


I've been dying to do one covered in multicolored buttons, but I haven't collected enough yet.

Need more inspiration? How about these great recycled planters:

culantro (related to cilantro) in a broken concrete block

2 liter bottle herb garden from GreenScaper

Coffee can hanging planter, tutorial on Beach Petals

recycled windowsill herb garden, from Apartment Therapy

If you haven't got any suitable materials to recycle into planters, why not buy some cheap ceramic pots and paint/decorate them yourself? Fresh paint is also a great way to recycle an ugly old pot into a pretty one that matches your kitchen. ;)

Plain ceramic pot $1, painted with acrylics

Ready to transplant?

Transplanting Seedlings
When your herb seedlings are about 3-4 inches tall, they're ready to transplant into your new lovely planters. Fill your new planter to about an inch from the top with potting soil and make an indent in the center in which to place your seedling. Peel off the masking tape from around the starter pot, carefully remove the paper bottom, and place your seedling, paper towel roll and all into your new planter. Water lightly.

Transplanting cuttings
When your cutting has roots at least 4 inches long, you're ready to transplant it. Again, fill your new planter to about an inch from the top with potting soil and make an indent in the center in which to place your cutting. To ease the roots' transition from water to soil, make sure the soil in the pot is very wet. I do this by simply pouring a bunch of water right into the indent I've made for the cutting, and immediately inserting the cutting. Then add soil to fill the hole, and water again lightly.

Basil (transplanted from cutting) and Cat Grass (from seed)

More basil cut from the same parent plant and transplanted

Next week, join us for our final Starting Your Own Herb Garden installment where we'll show you how to grow garlic, ginger, and other herbs you can plant straight in the ground.

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 4: The Indoor/Potted Herb GardenSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, October 11, 2010

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 3: Seed Starting and Growing from Cuttings

Missed Parts 1 & 2? Read them here: Starting your own Herb Garden: Part 1 and here: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 2: Planning and Layout

This week we'll learn how to start your seeds indoors for later planting outside, and how to start a new plant from a cutting.

Indoor Seed Starting
Hack #1: Make your own "peat" pots for free
The point of starting your seeds in peat pots rather than in plastic containers is that you can put them straight in the ground, pot and all, and not have to worry about ripping roots. But you don't have to go out and buy these guys, you can make them yourself with household items.

For the pots:
  • a newspaper (B&W pages only)
  • several toilet paper/paper towel rolls
  • scrap paper
  • masking tape or string

For the tray
  • a plastic grocery bag
  • duct or masking tape
  • a cardboard box

If you're using paper towel or toilet paper rolls:
  1. For toilet paper rolls, cut in half. For paper towel rolls, cut in four.
  2. Wrap a piece of masking tape around the middle of each roll. This is so that after a few days of watering, the rolls don't start to come apart and unravel (like they are in my picture).
  3. Cut your scrap paper into roughly 4" x 4" squares.
  4. Stuff a square of paper into each roll and shape it to form the bottom of the pot.

If you're using newspaper:
  1. Find a cup, jar, or can with roughly the circumference you want for your pots (about as big around as a toilet paper roll).
  2. Take a sheet of newspaper and wrap in around the jar several times. Then fold the remaining length on the bottom to cover the bottom of the cup/jar/can.
  3. To make the bottom stay put, wet it just a little. I use my ironing spray bottle. Then smash it down hard.
  4. Slide your new pot off the jar/can/cup and fold the remaining length on the top down inside the pot to strengthen the walls. Spray with a bit of water if necessary.
  5. Let dry.
  6. Repeat process for each pot.
toilet paper starter pots with paper bottoms and potting soil

For a tray to put them in:
  1. Cut down the sides of your cardboard box to about the height of the pots.
  2. Cut your plastic grocery bag down the sides, and cut off the handles. Use it to line the inside of the box. Tape in place.
  3. If you're going to plant more than one type of seed in the tray or you're making more than one tray, you might want to label the outside of the tray/box with a marker, so you don't forget what you've planted where.

Planting Your Seeds
Hack #2: Instant Greenhouse

  • Starter pots and trays
  • potting soil OR regular soil plus liquid fertilizer (e.g., Miracle Gro)
  • plastic wrap or other clear plastic

Now that you've got your starter pots ready, it's time to plant.
  1. First, fill your pots with soil. If you're using regular soil, spray each filled pots generously with the liquid fertilizer and then wait until tomorrow to plant your seeds.
  2. Check your seeds packs for any special instructions, such as soaking the seeds in water. Then, using a chopstick or a pencil (eraser end), poke a hole about an inch deep in each pot (or less, depending on the type of seed) and drop in a seed.
  3. Spray the seed with water and gently push the soil back over it. Do not press down. The soil should be loose, not packed.
  4. Cut the clear plastic to fit and lay it over the pots.
  5. Set the tray in a sunny window, under a lamp with an incandescent light bulb, or in some other warm location.
Messily taped but fully functional seed tray with starter pots and "greenhouse" (AKA clear plastic)

Keep your seeds warm and moist and they'll germinate in no time. Once germinated, they'll need sun as well as warmth, so clear some windowsill room. Leave the plastic on top only until the seedling get about an inch high.

Starting a New Plant from a Cutting
  • old soda or water bottle with a narrow mouth, clear plastic is best so you can see the roots growing
  • a plant that propagates from cuttings
  • liquid plant food (e.g., Miracle Gro) optional

  1. Choose a stem with at least four leaves and cut it off on the diagonal, preferably just above a lower set of leaves. The cutting should be at least four inches long.
  2. Fill your old bottle with water and gently set the cutting in it. Pour out excess water until only the bottom 2-3 inches of the stem is immersed.
  3. Change the water every few days, adding a tiny bit of liquid plant food if desired.

Several mint cuttings, after about 2 weeks in water

Next week, Planting in Pots and Outdoors: Learn how to make a variety of beautiful recycled herb pots and planters and get some ideas for creating your own unique herb garden. It's time to get creative.

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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Starting your own Herb Garden Part 2: Planning and Layout

Missed Part 1? Read it here: Starting your own Herb Garden: Part 1

Planning Your Herb Garden

Maybe you're thinking you can skip this step. Who needs to plan? Let's just throw some seeds in the ground! But some herbs are picky. Several are very difficult to germinate and are best started by cuttings from an existing plant. Some difficult to germinate plants don't propagate well from cuttings; these you'll be best off buying as seedlings. Planning is especially important with regards to timing and placement. Some plants prefer a shady spot, while others grow best in full or partial sun. Some need well-drained soil, while others can be put in a spot that gets a lot of rain.

Did you know that fall is the best time to plan your spring gardens? That's because it gives you plenty of time before spring to plan your garden layout and get your seeds on sale. It's also a nice opportunity to freshen up your living space for the long winter. A few fragrant potted herbs on the windowsills goes a long way to brightening up your home when outside things are chilly and dreary.

Herb gardens come in many different shapes and sizes. If your space outside is limited or you want to keep your garden growing year-round without fear of frost, you can plant your herbs in pots and keep them by a sunny window. Potting your herbs can also be a good idea if you have poor soil or if you live in the city and only have a balcony or rooftop for your yard. Some herbs like mint (see photos below), which will spread like crazy if you plant it in the ground, are simply better suited to pots. Plan well or all your efforts may go to waste. Not to worry, though. We'll show you how to make garden planning quick and easy.

Mint growth and spreading in 1 month

Step 1: Choose which herbs you'd like to grow and get the seeds.
You may want to grow a certain herb based on taste, smell, or just because it's pretty to look at. See the list of commonly used herbs in Part 1, but keep in mind that this is just a short list; there are many more choices available. If your local gardening store doesn't carry the seeds, you can order them from a seed company online. Since this is a blog about saving money, here are some tips for getting cheap seeds.
  • Ask your friends, relatives, coworkers, and neighbors if they have seeds or cuttings they could share with you.
  • Check your local dollar store. They'll often have seed packs of common herbs for less than a dollar a piece.
  • Late spring to midsummer is the best time to find seed packs on sale. Garden and home improvement stores will often put all their seeds on clearance around this time. Though it might be too late to plant them outside, you can always plant them inside in pots and move them outdoors in the spring or just hold onto them for next year. I've found that most seeds last at least one year after the expiration date stamped on the packet, with no ill effects.

Step 2: Determine when and where to plant your chosen herbs.
Read the seed packets or, if you're not planting from seed, just do a Google search for information. For partial-sun- or shade-loving plants, consider potting them and keeping them inside near a window or putting them in a hanging basket under an overhang. You can also plant them outside in the ground if you have a suitable shady area, perhaps along a wall or solid fence (to block harder rains) or under a deck overhang or awning. If your garden will be totally indoors, put the plants that need the most sun in a window that faces south or southeast (assuming you live in the Northern Hemisphere.) Most herbs will do fine with about 5 hours hours of indirect sun a day.

Also pay attention to the level of moisture preferred by each plant and check the soil in the various locations you've chosen to plant. You don't want to put a plant that prefers drier soil in a low spot where water tends to gather, for instance.

Step 3: Plan your herb garden layout.
Draw a simple map of your yard/balcony/apartment and label where you will place each plant according to your findings in Step 2. Don't forget to allot windowsill and porch space.

Example garden layout plan

Step 4: Schedule the planting.
When to plant your herbs depends partially on your location. Consult the seed packet/internet instructions for best results. Most of them will have a map showing the best time to plant those seeds in your area. Some plants have a better chance of surviving if they're started in peat pots indoors a little before outdoor planting time and then transplanted as seedlings into their outside beds. Consult those seed packets again. Now, on the garden plan you made in Step 3, note the outdoor planting time for each herb and whether you're going to start them indoors beforehand.

Example garden layout plan with timeline

Step 5: Make a planting timeline.
If you're only planting a few herbs you won't need this step, but it's helpful if you're planning a larger herb garden with many varieties. On the back of your garden layout plan or in the margin, make a list, in chronological order, of when you will plant and transplant each herb. This will help you stay organized so you don't forget and miss your planting times.

Basil in a sunny, well-drained spot

Next Up: Starting your own Herb Garden Part 3: Planting
Learn how to create recycled "peat" pots in which to start your seeds indoors, how to grow your garden organically on the cheap, and how to make a variety of beautiful recycled planters. Also: ideas for unique gardens. It's time to get creative.

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