26 November 2014

Save money - grow your own herbs

Good morning everyone. I haven't quite returned to my previous posting time and I'm not sure I will. At the moment, late morning posting seems to be working for me.  Today I'm writing this on Hanno's computer because mine is being repaired. It will take at least two to three days so we'll have to see how it goes. I hope I'm back tomorrow but if I'm not, I'll be here soon after.

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If you're like me you've discovered the pleasure of eating food flavoured with herbs. Even when our garden isn't fully productive I generally have parsley, oregano, mint, thyme and lemon thyme and a small bay tree in pots to keep me supplied with fresh herbs.  When the garden is in full production I have sage, lemon balm, rosemary, borage and comfrey as well.  But it's the herbs in pots I want to write about today because no matter where you live, they will keep the fresh herbs coming for your meals and save you money in the process.

Above and below: these are some of our in-ground herbs - sage, two kinds of parsley and rosemary.

Most fresh herbs at Woolworths cost $2.98 a bunch. If you buy a bunch of parsley, chives, basil, oregano and bay leaves each week, you'll be adding about $14.75 to your weekly shop for those basic herbs. It will be more if you're adding a greater variety of herbs.  Of course you could use dried herbs, but fresh herbs give a special taste to the meals we cook and they add nutrition, which dried herbs don't. Herbs are really easy to grow in pots.  The added benefit is that if you're renting, you can still grow them, even if your landlord says you can't have a garden. They're also portable, you can take them with you when you move and you can place them exactly where they need to be - anywhere from full sun to full shade, depending on the herb. Most herbs need good drainage. That just means that when you water your herbs, or if it rains on them, the soil needs to drain off the water so the roots don't get water-logged and die. If you have clay soil, herbs will not grow well. So the solution is to grow the herbs in pots - and to vary the size of the pot according to the amount of that herb you usually use.

Above: ordinary thyme.
Below:    lemon thyme.
For instance, most herbs will do very well in a normal pot of about 12-20cm. Remember you need to give the plants enough space for good root growth because the size of the root ball will determine the size of the plant. If you restrict the roots, the plants will usually remain small. So use a bigger pot rather than a smaller one.  Don't go the opposite direction and go too big because most herbs need to be able to fill the pot within a few months and some like to be root bound. Herbs such as mint will easily fill a large pot and grow well if you give it good potting soil and enough water.

Above - our oregano pot which sits in the entrance of the bush house, with morning sun and shade the rest of the day.
Below - our mint needs repotting. I hope to do it today because when I took these photos this morning, it looked very sad. I'm going to put it into a larger container - I have an ancient enamel baby bath - cut the plant back to ground level, moisten the soil and fertilise, and it will grow like the clappers.
I've grown herbs here in plastic troughs and polystyrene troughs but the polystyrene does disintegrate quickly when it's left to sit in the sun. Plastic pots are better for herbs because they retain the moisture a bit better than terracotta ones. So use your common sense. Don't go overboard buying containers if you have something suitable on hand. Recycle old containers, buckets, olive oil tins (minimum size 4 litres/quarts), polystyrene boxes but if you've only got terracotta, use it, you'll just have to water it a tiny bit more. If I were to buy something new to use, I'd go for two 4-5 litre plastic/rubber, two-handled tubs. You could make up two very good mixed herb gardens in two of them. Make sure you plant the herbs together that need the same conditions. For instance, most Mediterranean herbs (parsley, rosemary etc.) like drier conditions, herbs such as mint and oregano like moist, not wet, soil.

Some herbs can be difficult to propagate from seeds so I generally buy seedling herbs or I start them from root cuttings.  Mint and oregano easily grow from root cuttings.  Just get a piece of the plant with a bit of root attached, place in on the top of your filled pot - use good quality potting mix - tap down the soil over the top of the root, water well and leave it in a shady place to establish. After a couple of weeks, when you've seen some leaf growth, place the pot in a suitable place. Most herbs need full or partial sun but oregano and mint both like shade with only a small burst of sunshine in the early morning.

Even though they're classified as a vegetable, if you have a little more room, and you can find them, grow some Welsh onions too. They are perennial onions, which means, if you cut them correctly, you'll have them forever.  As you can see by the photo of our Welsh onions above, we cut them off about one inch above soil level and the onions quickly grow another top. Over the course of a year, they'll flower and multiply to keep you in fresh green onions all through the year. Yet another money saver.  And yes, they too can be grown in a container. I think a 4 litre tub full of Welsh onions would be a great asset to any cook's kitchen.If you have a friend who is growing these onions, they will grow well if you plant up the bottoms. Seeds are available here:

Buy a good quality potting mix but not the one with all the additives. You'll be doing your own fertilising so you don't need additional time-release fertiliser or water retainer. Potting mix here has a red Australian Standard stamp on it, that is the one we use. If you're overseas, buy your basic standard potting soil. Please note: you can't use garden soil, it will kill the herbs because it won't drain effectively in a pot. Remember to re-pot your herbs every two years.

The sunnier the position, the more water the herb will probably need. Pots need more water than your in-ground plants. I water my pots every two days in summer but watch yours and see how long they can go without wilting. When you know that, water just before you know the plant will wilt.

The slower a herb grows, the more flavour it will have, so don't go crazy with the fertiliser.  A monthly, very weak watering with comfrey fertiliser, or an organic liquid fertiliser as a weaker than recommended solution, will keep your herbs in tip-top shape.

You'll be using the herbs frequently so that will count as pruning for most of the year. Plants such as mint and oregano love to be cut back about once or twice a year.  Wait till the end of the season when the plant is naturally weaker, and cut it off to soil level. Then fertilise with a weak solution of whatever fertiliser you use and watch it spring back into growth.

It doesn't take much to get a small group of your favourite herbs growing in pots in the backyard or on the window sill. If you put in the time to do that, and to water them, you'll save a lot of money over the course of the year.  When you get into it, work out ways to dry or freeze your leftover herbs so you never have to buy herbs again. That is entirely possible, it just requires the desire and the commitment to do it. I think it's a very worthwhile frugal, self-reliance project.



  1. Late morning indeed! You made me giggle....8.10am..... I must admit you had me trick, I thought you weren't going to post today...

    Lovely post about the herbs Rhonda, the Welsh onions look like spring onions to me Rhonda, do you eat the bulbs as well? Is the flavour different?

    1. Hi Vik, yep, I'm pretty slippery. ;- )

      True spring onions are biennial and they set seed in the second year. Even though they flower, Welsh onions form bunches and multiply outwards - so if you plant one onion, at the end of the year it will be a bunch of six or seven. You can then divide them and plant on. Spring and Welsh taste the same, you can eat the bulbs, they have a stronger taste.

  2. g'day!
    lovely post, have a few herbs on the go & slowly collecting more through our mudbrick cottage & green harvest, so far i have; lemon thyme, thyme, oregano, basil, parsley, mint, nasturtiums & chives of the culinary types growing in the garden & pots, i also have; wormwood, tansy, comfrey, catnip, feverfew, lavender & white sage, so far, trying to keep them all alive in this current heat we are having is a tad challenging.
    having them fresh on hand is wonderful, the smells that linger for a long time after the herbs are used is blissful
    selina from kilkivan qld

  3. Hi Rhonda, I had planted out most of my herbs except the mint which can go crazy, but with the hot, dry weather we've been having, I have just sewn some parsley, dill and chive seeds in a pot on the verandah. We did get some rain this morning though. Yay!

  4. Your oregano looks very pretty growing in that pot Rhonda. I didn't realise that it needed less sun to do well.
    We have dedicated half our front garden to herbs not just for their culinary use but also the pretty floral display they give. It's one of my favourite places to weed and trim as the perfume from the plants is just beautiful.

  5. Hi Rhonda
    I love fresh herbs in cooking most of all but one that is great dried too is oregano. I have a lovely strong Greek oregano that needs a good hair cut mid summer and then it re-shoots. It goes into all sorts of cooking but is enjoyed most when scrunched on top of a simple pizza.
    And I grow chives in a pot, perfect for mixing into homemade cheese or cream cheese.

  6. I agree that herbs are a great food to grow even when you don't have much space. When we were renting we had lots of pots with herbs in and moved them with us each time we moved house! I just wish I could grow a bay, it is too cold here in the Winter for them. In fact I have just pruned back all my herbs as they have all died back, they will be back again in the Spring!

  7. Herbs are a great way to venture into gardening. You're right to put mint in a pot - it will take over the whole plot, given it's head (or roots!)

  8. What drives me crazy with bought herbs is the waste. So often I would (years ago) buy a bunch, use a handful then the rest would rot. Potted herbs allow you to pick just what you need - fresh!

  9. You seem to have read my mind, Rhonda. I have been thinking about expanding my herb collection recently. I just have rosemary, dill and coriander growing at the moment and have just planted some sage from seed (not sure how that will go).

  10. Hey there! Wow, what a great herb garden you have. You have pretty much everything. I keep trying a kitchen herb garden inside but it just doesn't seem to work. I love yours! Thanks for all the information!

  11. Yes, growing herbs is easy, satisfying and a great way to save some money and improve your meals. For market gardeners like us we've found that they are also a good way to supplement farm income. There is usually a good demand for fresh cut locally-grown herbs at the market. Great post.

  12. Rhonda, I just tried to post a comment but think it may have vanished into cyberspace. If it has, I'm not going to rewrite the whole thing, but suffice to say this is a great post and good timing for me with my fledgling herb pots!

  13. This is the first time I have ever commented on only a title without reading the post. I saw the title and thought: Oh No! We grow thyme, rosemary, curry, parsley, oregano, basil, and mint in our back yard. The mint and the basil have practically over run the place! LOL! We have been giving it away! I love to use fresh herbs when cooking and nothing beats strolling out to the back yard and picking the ones I have grown.

  14. Hi Rhonda
    I am just getting started to dabble in growing herbs. I would love to have a spot just for herbs. I have dried some and they are great for cooking in the winter. Yours look so lovely.

  15. couldn't agree more with the title of your post....it really has been years since i had to do herb-shopping:
    basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon, parsley, chives, coriander, borage, lavender, bay, fennel, feverfew, lemon balm, mint, comfrey, tansy, dill, lemon verbena, garlic (still eluding me...only had small, very small heads...)... it took time, patience, trial, error to get all g(r)oing....

    now i want to try horseradish, lovish(?), hyssop...

    very informative post, Rhonda....i need to remind myself to regularly "feed" the growings in the garden...

    1. Hi levenses. I went to your blog to see where you live, because climate plays a role in good garlic. First I thought you were in the UK because you wrote about having supper. Then I changed my mind when I saw "favorited". Now I think your in the US or Canada.

      So, with garlic, three things effect bulb size.
      1. Plant large bulbs. Small bulbs will give you more small bulbs, large will give you large bulbs. If you're planting up last year's garlic, plant only the outside bulbs.
      2. Garlic likes rich (with manure and compost), free draining soil and it hates weeds, so mulch when you see the first green shoots above the ground.
      3. Water regularly and don't let them dry out or become water logged.

      Also, we share a special link. I LOVE Rilke and I saw you had one of his quotes on your blog. I have his Collected Poems, it's one of my favourite books. : - )

  16. Hi Rhonda,

    this year I'm finally growing every type of herb I cook with and use for herb tea. I don't think you could prise the money out of my hand for a bunch of parsley now!

    I like to grow a lot of basil and make it into pesto to freeze for the Winter, as well as drying peppermint etc... for use through the cold months.

    Lettuce is the other easy thing I always recommend to people who want to save money - one lettuce a week at $3 is $156 a year - seems like a lot when you write it like that, doesn't it? I've also just put in a second lemon tree as we go through a lot of lemons. They have been $1.50 at Coles for some time now, or 5 small ones for $4. Again, even if you buy the cheaper ones that's $208 per year JUST for lemons!

    I'm envious of your fabulous looking herbs as here in Armidale mine are only just beginning to take off.


    1. Hi Madeleine. Another tip with the lettuce in warm climates is to sow a small tray of seeds and grow them in the shade. In the heat of an Australian summer, lettuce often goes to seed and becomes very bitter. A tray of seedling lettuces can be picked 12 at a time and used in place of a few lettuce leaves. When you start harvesting the tray, it's time to start a second tray so you always have a supply.

    2. Thanks for the great tip. My kids have actually complained that our lettuce is a bit bitter, and now I know why :)

  17. So glad to see your wonderful post, full of information!!! I have found that pot gardening helps with control of moisture conditions during excessive dry and wet spells. Pots can also be moved around in the garden or on the verandah to help with repelling pests. Plants contribute moisture to the air to help with evaporative cooling during hot dry spells, so maybe a helpful addition to the verandah spaces. The flavoring contributions of herbs can help minimize the use of salt and sugar, yet result in a tasty dish. Herbs as medicinals are also wonderful to incorporate into meal preparation.

  18. Hi Rhonda,

    This is a very well timed post- I have been meaning to grow herbs in pots for some time. I have had limited success in the past (mainly as I lived in Perth and couldn't water as much as they needed) but now that I am back in Melbourne I have had success with some cuttings of Vietnamese mint my Dad gave me. I think I will make a trip today to grab some more of his cuttings- namely mint and thyme. I will pick up some basil at the garden store.

    I have never met anyone who has had much success with corriander- it tends to dry out and go to seed. Has anyone got nay hints, as it is my most bought herb?!

  19. Coriander can be easy to grow once you understand a little bit about it. It's an annual so it will grow from a seed, produce leaves and flowers, then die, all in the space of a year. It does self-seed well so if you're lucky, your coriander will keep coming up from those seeds each year when the time is right. From my own experience here, it's best grown in winter because as soon as it gets hot, coriander will bolt to seed.

    I'm not a fan of coriander as a fresh herb but I like it as a spice - I prefer the roots and seeds.

    Good luck!

  20. We started a herb bed two years back. Still like to add more to it.
    I can't tell you what all is out there but still have plenty of room to grow. I know I would like to put in some color.
    Coffee is on

  21. What good timing for this kind of post. We moved into a new rental property a couple of months ago, and it's the first time we've had a garden since getting married. To our delight, the landlord is thrilled with the idea of us setting up a veggie garden in the overgrown backyard, so we're currently hard at work digging up the soil to get it ready for planting.
    Interesting to hear the tip about herbs generally not liking clay soils and preferring pots, I'll keep that in mind. Thanks as always for the excellent, practical tips for a simple life, Rhonda!

  22. Hi Rhonda,
    Fresh herbs are a vital part of our Caribbean cooking. It is our signature. In the old days they were used both for culinary and medicinal purposes, especially important in the island's isolated villages.
    On our specific islands, all meat is heavily seasoned/marinated in a blend of herbs. We refer to this as 'green seasoning'. This is a basic combination of 'chives' (they look like and behave like your welsh onion), garlic, ginger, pimento peppers, what we call 'chadon beni' (similar in taste to culantro), vinegar, salt and black pepper.
    Here is a link to a more complex recipe:

    Even with the advent of a deluge of foreign imports, you can still easily find, in almost every garden, a fresh herb.
    Whilst the 'green seasoning' is the essence of creole cooking, quite a variety of locally grown herbs (some brought over from Indian during our colonisation) also feature in our Indian dishes, another treasure derived from the unique mixture of cultures that make up our islands.
    One of our favorite snacks to munch on is called the 'chow' which involves a main ingredient, like green mango, cucumber, plums, or some other fresh fruit in season, sliced thinly and mixed with a fresh handful of herbs, vinegar, salt and the ever present, exceedingly hot, pepper.

    Trinidad & Tobago

  23. Great post. We did the same. As avid cooks, we were buying more than $30 of fresh herbs a week. Now we grow nearly everything we need. It's a massive saving and really satisfying just popping out to the garden


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