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Pick the right herbs
Grow only herbs that you’ll actually use, and that taste best fresh. Obsessed with pesto? You should probably go for basil. Love a nightly cup of mint tea? Then mint is a no brainer. Can’t get enough guac? Bring on the cilantro!
If it’s your first herb garden, plant a few of your favorites, then add a few more next year. Start with herbs that are best fresh such as basil or mint, or those that are expensive or hard to find fresh and organic.
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Decide how to start: seeds or plants
Start annual herbs from seed, especially if you want more than one or two plants. For the price of a single plant start, you can get enough seeds to grow herbs for all of your neighbors. While some herbs are notoriously difficult to start from seed, basil, dill, fennel, parsley, chives, and cilantro are some of the easiest, making them perfect for beginner gardeners. If you can’t find organic seeds locally, two all-organic companies worth trying are High Mowing and Sustainable Seed Co. (Here are 7 things you need to know before buying seeds this year.)
On the other hand, it may be less expensive to buy small organic herb plants rather than a packet of seeds if you need only one or two plants, especially for perennials like lemon balm, which are worth the small investment, as they take more time to reach harvestable size and they’ll last for many years once established.
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Coordinate a seed swap
Get in touch with your gardening friends, or anyone you know who’s interested in growing their own delicious fresh herbs, and coordinate a seed swap. Decide who will buy which herb seeds and then split the packets. Most packets contain more seed than the average herb gardener will need in several years, so splitting up multiple packets can end up being a big money saver.
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Share herb divisions or cuttings
Your established gardener pals may also be willing to share divisions (rooted sections of large plants) of perennial herbs from their garden. Thyme, sage, oregano, and mint branches often grow roots where they are in contact with the soil, and need only be cut off the mother plant. Others, such as chives and garlic chives, spread by making more and more bulbs, and a large clump can be lifted and split into smaller sections for transplanting.
Many herbs root easily from cuttings (short sections of growing stems), too. Some of the easiest are basil, thyme, oregano, and mint. You may be able to get cuttings from gardening friends, or you can buy fresh herbs in the produce section of your supermarket, strip off most of the leaves for cooking (leaving just a few at the tip), and stand the stems in a glass of water. (Check out this awesome tutorial for regrowing your veggies from scraps.)
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Say no to fancy containers
Don’t waste money on fancy seed pots or flats for starting your herb seeds. Upcycle food packaging (yogurt tubs, mushroom boxes, large clear plastic boxes) instead. Your local bakery or restaurant may also be willing to give you 5 gallon buckets or other large bulk food containers. As long as you can cut or drill holes in the bottom you can turn just about anything into a great pot. Or skip containers altogether and just plant your herbs right in the plastic bag the potting mix comes in.
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Don’t skimp on the right soil
You may be tempted to cut costs here, but don’t skimp on potting soil for your containers. Garden soil won’t work by itself, as it gets too compacted and your herbs will suffer. Buy an organic potting mix like this one designed for containers, or blend your own.
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Plant in an easy-to-access spot
One of the easiest ways to get the most bang for your buck with your herb garden is by actually eating the herbs! To ensure you don’t forget about them, place your herb garden close to your kitchen door, or near a path you travel daily. Alternatively, you can plant them right in your kitchen in either pots or a hanging pocket garden.
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Snip, snip to keep them productive
Many annual herbs such as basil get leggy and die once they flower and set seed, so snip off the tips of the shoots frequently to keep them attractive and productive for a longer period of time. Cilantro, specifically, is an herb that shifts to flowering mode very easily, so for a continuous supply, start a few seeds every couple of weeks all spring and summer (you can eat the stems, flowers, and seeds too, so don’t waste older plants).
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Save seeds for next season
Save extra seeds from year to year to spread out the cost of a packet—most herb seeds remain viable for at least two years past the date on the packet. For annuals, you can also save your own seeds. Let the herb flower and set seed, then collect the seeds, put them into a small envelope labeled with name and date, and store them in a dark, dry, room-temperature location for next year’s planting. Dill, fennel, and cilantro all set seed readily. (Here are 6 tips for storing your saved seeds.)
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Jump on end-of-season sales
Shop for marked-down perennial herbs at the end of the selling season. Even a scruffy, pot-bound perennial will usually take off and thrive once it has space to grow. Bonus: You can keep these herbs inside and enjoy them all winter long until you’re ready to transplant them into your garden, or larger outdoor pots, come spring. However, you should pass on marked-down annual herbs. Once annuals have been stressed they have just one thing on their minds: setting seed before they die. You can also buy marked down seed packets in the fall for use next spring, as herb seeds generally remain viable up to two years past the date on the seed packet.