Gardening with Herbs in Chicago for the Year of the Herb

Gardening with Herbs in Chicago for the Year of the Herb
"Easy Growing" book cover (right) A small-space herb garden by Gayla (left)

2012 is the Year of the Herb in Chicago. The candidates for this year's One Seed Chicago election were all herbs. This year's One Seed Chicago winner will be announced at the Green & Growing Fair at the Garfield Park Conservatory on April 28th. Several groups and community gardens will be growing and celebrating this year's One Seed Chicago winner, along with many other herbs. Your first chance to buy herb seedlings and plants in Chicago will be at the Green & Growing Fair market this year.

To help prepare your Chicago herb garden, I conducted a Q&A with garden author Gayla Trail. Gayla's third book, "Easy Growing: Organic Herbs: Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces," was published this winter and I highly recommend it. Our Q&A covers underrated and overrated herbs, mistakes first time gardeners make, cultural use of herbs, and what herbs you should grow, and which to avoid. Plus, a secret use for lovage.

MBT: I've grown my fair share of herbs, but -I've never seen them as exciting plants before. What compelled you to write a book on growing herbs?

Gayla Trail: I made the book for a few reasons. One is that I did not have the space in “Grow Great Grub” to really get into herbs and edible flowers in depth. The page count was set before I started and I soon realized that there was far too much that I wanted to say but couldn't. Beyond that is the fact that herbs are so easy to grow and a great way for small space and beginner gardeners to get their feet wet in growing edibles. Herbs are a total sensory experience. I can’t pass by one without stopping to touch and smell my hand, a habit that got me into trouble in the years before I knew what was what… like the time I mistook stinging nettle for lemon balm. Ouch! From that day on I have been able to identify stinging nettle on sight without fail.

Growing food is special but there’s something extra nice about stepping out of the back door in bare feet to fetch a handful of fresh herbs for dinner. I miss that experience something fierce during the winter months.

MBT: Did you grow up in a family that made their own tonics and home remedies from homegrown herbs? I think growing up in a culture that still very much uses folk medicines probably contributes to my apathy for growing herbs. There's probably some shame underlying it all. When someone was sick you had to go out and fetch the "yerba buena" sprigs from the garden instead of going to the drug store and picking up medicine.

Gayla Trail: This is a good question and a complicated one to answer. My maternal side is from the West Indies and I was the first born here in Canada. I grew up in a very homogenous, white suburb where there were few people from other countries and cultures. Anything that was not typically Western was seen as backwards, weird, and “other” so I definitely suffered from some of the shame that is engendered in a homogenous environment.

My mother wasn’t into any of that (folk remedies, growing your own food, etc). I think that she felt a certain pressure to conform based on race, class, and the prejudices of the day that cultivated a dismissive attitude and disinterest in these things that for her would subject her to being seen as a backward, brown-skinned island girl by her white in-laws and the community surrounding us. The attitude seemed to be that you go to the doctor and get a pill for what ails you and the supermarket for your food. Taking matters into your own hands in any capacity was seen as either an ignorant backwards way of being or to be feared as some sort of “voodoo” black magic business. At the same time, my grandmother who came to Canada as a senior citizen and did not suffer the same pressure to adapt or assimilate served as an example of another way of being.

When I wrote about herbal tea in my first book, “You Grow Girl: The Groundbreaking Guide to Gardening” I tried to write about my childhood experience of it through my grandmother, but didn’t know how. Putting everything that I said above into context in just a few words was impossible and made it difficult for me to tell the story so I left it out. I thought my grandmother was trying to poison me the first time she gave me ginger tea for a stomachache! Looking at my environment and upbringing it’s no wonder that I had that fear. However, the tea did not kill me, it made me feel better! I won’t suggest that I changed overnight, but that experience was one of many that sowed little seeds in my mind and opened me up to the idea that there are ways to meet your needs and care for yourself by yourself.

I wrote in the intro to that book that our generation is in the unique position of choice when it comes to food gardening, canning, cooking, and other self-reliant activities. We don’t have the pressure of tradition, social expectations, or even necessity (to a certain degree and depending on how you look at it) forcing us into it. That physical and psychological distance makes it easier to see the value in and feel pride rather than shame in cultivating the skills and knowledge of the past.

MBT: Where there any herbs that you grew while preparing the book that were new to you that you wish you'd grown before? Is there an herb that you think gardeners should seek out early in their gardening journey?

Gayla Trail: I had grown everything mentioned in the book previously so there was nothing completely new to me. However, I approached the book with an open mind towards herbs that I’d previously dismissed and was mindful about growing and experimenting with them again. For that reason I did come to a new appreciation of certain plants that I wasn’t inspired by previously. The one that comes to mind is chervil since I now make a point of growing it, whereas in the past it was neither here nor there.

I love nasturtiums and can’t say enough about them so while they don’t quite relate here, they are a generally underappreciated edible flower that I tend to actively promote to new gardeners.

MBT: What about the opposite? Is there an herb you wish you hadn't grown at some point, maybe because it took up too much space, or the harvest wasn't worth the work?

Gayla Trail: It’s mostly considered medicinal and therefore doesn’t get much mention in the book, but boy do I ever regret growing wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). The trouble is that it self-seeds aggressively. Aggressive really isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. That plant is downright abusive. It will eat your young! I planted it in a planter box on my roof many, many years ago and was never able to eradicate it fully. I dug up thousands of seedlings from every nook and cranny on that roof over the years and I’m sure that now that I’m no longer there to weed, it will take over.

While I do have an appreciation for the idea of wormwood, I’d only suggest growing it if your plans for the future include making your fortune in wild crafted absinthe.

I’ve never regretted growing any culinary herb as I’ve always been able to maintain a modicum of control with the most aggressive plants simply by eating them!

MBT: While reading the book I came to the conclusion than an herb garden is a perfect garden for urban gardeners who lack time and space. Unlike many vegetables that require lots of space or regular watering to produce a crop, an herb garden seems more forgiving and less demanding. Do you agree?

Gayla Trail: Absolutely. There are exceptions, but on the whole herbs are much less demanding than vegetables. Producing watery fruit such as tomatoes or cucumbers takes a lot out of a plant and requires good soil nutrition and lots of water. Most herbs are grown to produce leaves, flowers, and small seeds. Many herbs can withstand drought as well as poor nutrition, and some are actually better tasting when nutrition is poor. Plants like borage become tall and lanky in rich soil, but grow into a more compact, sturdy form in poor soil.

I’m a believer that you can grow anything in a pot if you have the right pot for the plant so that should not deter you from growing vegetables and fruits on a balcony or roof. However, herbs do produce a larger bounty in a tight spot. You don’t have to wait three months to begin harvesting snippets to add to meals and many are available for harvest straight through the growing season.

MBT: Say I'm someone who is interested in growing something I'd actually eat, but I only have one 12 inch pot in a sunny spot on my porch. What should go in it this year?

Gayla Trail: A 12”-deep pot is a nice depth that will afford you lots of options, especially if we’re sticking to the topic of herbs. I’d never tell anyone exactly what to grow since taste is subjective; however, most people want to grow basil and 12” is just fine for most types. I’d go deeper with the regular, sweet Genovese. I’d suggest choosing a variety that is very useful but harder to find at the supermarket. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is a very beautiful and tasty variety. I’d also suggest a lemon-flavored type such as ‘Mrs. Burns’ as it is unusual and versatile. I like it in fish, vegetable, or chicken dishes, and it even works as an herbal tea (hot or cold). You can also infuse it into simple syrup and drink it with gin or add it to carbonated water.

MBT: Let's say I have an extensive vegetable garden, what's an herb I must grow to compliment my heavy producing crops?

Gayla Trail: Well, again, if you’re growing tomatoes then you absolutely must grow basil. They compliment each other in meals and in the garden. I plant the basil just after I plant the tomatoes, with the basil underneath or surrounding each tomato plant. This works in the ground and in large containers. Basil is very diverse – growing a handful of varieties is almost like growing completely different herbs.

That said, alliums are kitchen staples and I can’t imagine a garden without chives or garlic.

MBT:  What's your favorite source for interesting herbs? Propagating your own herbs? Is it a catalog, community garden plant sales, or the dry good section of an ethnic market?

Gayla Trail: All of those places are good options. Many perennial herbs reproduce prolifically so food gardeners often have chives, oregano, or mint that they are desperate to give away. You’ll often find these staples at community plant sales for at least half the price of a store-bought pot and double the size. Ethic markets are a good place to learn about herbs you haven’t seen before and they sometimes sell herbs that are fresh enough to root as cuttings. Lemongrass and Vietnamese coriander (aka Rau Ram) are good examples. I’ve found some unusual herbs for sale on the street here in Toronto’s Chinatown. There’s a group of elderly ladies who set up on the same corner and sell little pots of this and that from their garden on makeshift tables made of boxes. I always check to see what they have. I’ve also received seeds for some unusual plants from other keen gardeners who are on the lookout for rarities.

MBT: While riding the 'L' in Chicago I often see the remnants of potted herbs on porches, decks and window boxes that didn't make it through a summer. I can tell it was an herb garden because there's always a crispy rosemary plant. What's a mistake that you think people who get psyched about growing herbs in the spring make that leads to so much plant death by summer?

Gayla Trail: The number one beginner mistake is growing in pots that are too small. As a beginner it can be hard to conceptualize that the little plant in a 4” pot is going to quadruple its size within a few months so beginners tend to underestimate the pot the plant will need down the line. Consistent care becomes more essential as the plants grow and spring’s rain gives way to summer heat. Beginners don’t realize that you’ve got to adapt your gardening patterns as the seasons change so many plants die from neglect simply because people didn’t realize that what they only had to water weekly in May needs to be checked on daily in July. Bigger containers don’t dry out as quickly and make that transition much easier.

I also think that the gardening industry sets beginners up for failure because they sell ready-made mixed plant pots that look gorgeous in the store, but are so crammed full of plants that there is no room for growth and the plants die due to overcrowding.

MBT: Is there an herb that you think is overrated? I grew stevia once and by the end of summer I had a huge shrub and was like, "OK, that's cool, but now what?" I realized I only grew it because so many gardeners were raving about it, and it was heavily mentioned in various media outlets that year.

Gayla Trail: I’ve really enjoyed growing stevia over the years but you are right that it is an incredibly strong herb – the bounty of one summer’s harvest from a single plant will produce more than any household can use in a lifetime. It’s also a bit finicky and I think a lot of my initial enjoyment was in solving the puzzle of its quirks. My only real complaint is that the price was really inflated when the plant first became available. Now it’s the same price as anything else, but I recall paying $7 for that first 4” pot.

I paid $15 for a teeny pot of wasabi (!) years ago and was unable to provide it with the right growing conditions. I would not suggest growing it.

MBT: How about one that is underrated or misunderstood?

Gayla Trail: Most people know that English lavender looks and smells divine, but they don’t know how to cook with it. They usually come around once they learn how diverse it is as a culinary herb.

Lovage is mostly unknown. I have to admit that I had it tucked into the back corner of my community plot for a few years with no clue how to use it until I met an Eastern European woman who instructed me (through hand signals since she did not speak English) to char the leaves on the stove burner and then crumble them into chicken soup. I am indebted to her because it is so delicious! We use lovage regularly now and wish we’d known about that trick a lot sooner. I will also say that the only way to drink a bloody Mary or glass of tomato juice is through a lovage straw. It completely transforms the taste and adds that something extra that you won’t get otherwise.

MBT: One of the things I appreciate about your work (books, pictures, blog posts) is that you often repurpose household items into containers for plants. It shows that gardening doesn't require shelling out money for fancy containers and pots. What's something in the average cupboard or pantry that everyone can toss a plant into?

Gayla Trail: If you’re not picky about the aesthetic appeal then I’d say that the clamshell packaging that salad greens come in at the supermarket are really useful and functional containers. I make holes in the bottom and use them for sowing trays of onions, greens or herbs that I need in abundance. The lids make a perfect water catch tray or you can put it on top during germination to keep the soil moist. Deeper clamshell packages make excellent miniature greenhouses. Big yoghurt containers are my favorite for seed starting larger plants like tomatoes because they have the perfect ratio of depth and girth. They’re also a nice size for growing herbs on a windowsill. I initially had a project slotted for the book that was a sleeve to put around the ugly containers but it was axed for space.

If you’re picky about how things look then dresser drawers are my number one curbside treasure. Beautiful wooden wine crates are impossible to find, but I often see old, broken dressers put out for the trash. The drawers are the perfect depth for growing greens. Again, you will need to drill some drainage holes or smash out the bottom and fashion it into a tiny raised bed.

***

Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule for this Q&A, Gayla. Pick up her latest book "Easy Growing: Organic Herbs: Organic Herbs and Edible Flowers from Small Spaces," and bring it to the Green & Growing Fair at the Garfield Park Conservatory this Saturday to help you pick out some herb starts for your garden. You can also keep up with Gayla on her blog, You Grow Girl, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

 

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