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A foodie’s guide to cultivating an herb garden

Welcome spring into your kitchen with fresh, homegrown herbs

When thriving mint flows over the edges of the grow bag, it contributes to the lush garden aura that makes an apartment porch feel magical.
When thriving mint flows over the edges of the grow bag, it contributes to the lush garden aura that makes an apartment porch feel magical.

With the birds trilling early in the morning and lawnmowers buzzing throughout Grounds, there is no doubt that spring has finally arrived in Charlottesville. The warm and bright weather not only inspires me to spend more time outdoors — it reignites my passion for gardening. I have always been absolutely fascinated by the idea of growing my own food and an internet deep-dive into this very idea brought me to the informative Epic Gardening YouTube channel

I’ve learned that being a college student living in an apartment does not have to limit my gardening opportunities — there are plenty of easy-to-grow edible plants that thrive in balcony gardens. Herbs are the most simple and accessible plants to kickstart the apartment homestead of my dreams, so I decided to make a mixed pot of fresh herbs that not only adorn my balcony but will also bring the taste of spring right into my kitchen.

A mixed pot of herbs is a great way to increase plant diversity in a small growing space. To kickstart this year’s outdoor gardening projects, I purchased a multipack of grow bags. Grow bags are fabric plant pots that are cost-effective and versatile. Their cloth sides help prevent plants from becoming root-bound as they grow and instead encourage a more branched root system which increases the productivity of the plant. Soil is easy to find during this time of year, so any potting mix will work for a mixed herb pot. I bought my soil from Tractor Supply and may have impulsively bought a peach tree, too — oops!

Choosing herbs for your mixed pot can be both exciting and daunting since there are so many to choose from. I let my stomach help me in deciding which herbs to choose, hence why my final list consisted of basil, mint and rosemary — some of my favorite kitchen essentials. Most plant nurseries and some grocery stores have herbs in soil. I bought my plants from Trader Joe’s at Stonefield and Fifth Season Gardening on Preston Avenue. Mixed pot upkeep is easy with watering twice a week and pruning as I use the herbs. My herbs are on a section of my porch that receives bright indirect sunlight — full, direct sunlight may not be ideal for all plants as more sensitive plants may dry out or burn. I bought medium-sized potted herbs, so I was able to use a few leaves right away while being conscious to leave enough of the plant for it to continue growing. 

The fragrant lure of fresh basil makes my mouth water. I love using basil in my kitchen to make a classic caprese salad. With simple ingredients of fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil, caprese salad is easy to put together and tastes amazing. I like to layer the ingredients in a sliced, gently toasted baguette for the ultimate spring sandwich. Fresh basil is also tasty on a homemade margherita pizza. The variety I’ve planted is sweet basil.

Mint is a prolific grower in Virginia and has a slight tendency to overpower smaller or slower-growing plants, so my best tip is to avoid planting it in the center of your mixed pot. When thriving mint flows over the edges of the grow bag, it contributes to the lush garden aura that makes an apartment porch feel magical. Mint is the quintessential spring drink add-in. Water infused with mint and sliced cucumber or strawberries is one of my favorite ways to stay hydrated and feel luxurious in warm weather. Two main varieties of mint are peppermint and spearmint, which do have distinctive tastes — however, my favorite type of mint to grow is chocolate mint which smells incredible. 

Rosemary is another easy herb to grow that does well in the Charlottesville climate. I am a massive fan of parmesan rosemary biscuits, and there’s nothing quite like using homegrown herbs in the recipe. Long rosemary needles can create an awkward mouthfeel despite contributing warmth and flavor to a dish, which is easily solved by finely slicing the herb. 

Fresh rosemary is also easy to dry at home for use in the fall and winter after the growing season has ended. Rosemary-infused olive oil is another creative way to use up rosemary in the kitchen and can help to level-up your cooking. Rosemary-infused olive oil is delicious drizzled over toasted slices of a baguette followed by a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. 

For a splash of color, I added an edible flower — marigolds. The vibrant orange and yellow flowers blend beautifully with the textures of herb greenery in the pot. Marigolds attract pollinators and brighten up my balcony. While I have yet to eat one, I’m excited to try adding marigolds to spring salads.

Regardless of gardening experience, a mixed pot of herbs is a great addition to your outdoor hobbies this spring. Additionally, this project can be attempted indoors if you have a window that receives adequate sunlight — however, growing plants outdoors reduces the guesswork of encouraging herbs to thrive. There are so many other kinds of herbs — sage, thyme, dill, tarragon, chives — that are exciting to grow and use in the kitchen. 

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