Is It Cost-Effective to Grow Your Own Herbs?

Is It Cost-Effective to Grow Your Own Herbs?
R

Every spring, I brave the crowds at my neighborhood garden center to stock up on live potted herbs with idyllic notions about turning my little deck space into an urban herb garden to flavor my culinary creations throughout the summer. It never goes as planned. 

Truth is, I have a tendency to choose interesting plants that I'll never use. "I don't know anyone who grows tarragon," my cousin the chef told me last year. And I know it sounds cool, but what was I ever going to do with a curry plant?

Then I make it worse by ordering too much takeout (read: not using my herbs) when soaring temps make cooking indoors unbearable. I water the pots every few days when I remember, some of them die of neglect, and inevitably I forget to harvest the the survivors before the first frost in October.

So this year, I stuck to herbs that I commonly use and set a reminder on my phone to water them every night. Twice on days with temps above 90. Maybe this will be the year it finally all goes according to plan! I'll be keeping an eye on this collapsible hanging drying rack net, a very affordable $16.99 at Amazon, to buy closer to harvest time.

I spent $2.99 per plant, along with a large bag of potting soil and a bag of cheap rock to put in the bottom of the pots – paid for with a cash-back credit card, of course. That does work out to slightly more than a plastic clam shell packet of fresh-cut herbs, but the advantage of keeping live plants is that they're not wilting in your fridge, you can grab just a leaf or two if that's all you need, and they keep on giving all season long. If you would buy more than one packet of cut herbs in six months, and you've got good growing conditions, buying the plant is probably worthwhile.

But difficulty definitely plays a role here, and we're not exactly all master gardeners out here in the real world, so here's my somewhat black thumbed, very unscientific evaluation of what is worth growing yourself, and what definitely is not.

oregano

Oregano

I kinda love having fresh oregano around, and I usually go for Greek versus Italian because the round leaves are just so darn cute. It's so easy to step outside and snip a small piece off to add to sauces or garnish a bowl of pasta, but my favorite use is to bundle it with some fresh thyme and rosemary and throw it into my Instant Pot (or slow cooker) to make chicken stock. It seems happy in its little pot with partial sun, though it's definitely getting leggy reaching for the sunny side of the deck. I should probably move it to a sunnier spot.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worth the $2.99: Yes

cilantro

Cilantro

I have never not managed to kill cilantro within a month. Part of the reason is that it has a very short life cycle. You're supposed to harvest it almost right away, then let it go to seed. In a proper garden, I'm betting you can get a pretty good recurring crop going for the summer. In a little pot on my deck, it's a complete disaster and basically commits suicide. It can't go to seed in the little pot since the flowers tower and lean well outside of it. We're not even out of June and this thing is mostly dead already, before I ever got a chance to use it. Meanwhile, at the grocery store just one block away, a giant fresh-cut bundle of cilantro that it would take 2-3 plants to produce is, like, $0.89. Yep.

  • Difficulty: Deeply problematic for a container garden like mine.
  • Worth the $2.99: LOL, no!

chives

Chives

This thing, it looks like a muppet. Jim Hensen would be proud, man! Killing this thing requires less casual neglect and more murderous intent. I'm pretty much forced to give it regular haircuts just to keep it tamed, so I'm constantly throwing handfuls of chives into literally everything. It's also one of the few herbs that sometimes survives on a sunny windowsill well into winter.

  • Difficulty: Nearly nonexistent. It's practically an herbaceous tribble.
  • Worth the $2.99: Oh heck yeah!

spanish-lavender

Spanish Lavender

True confession time: I have zero idea what to do with lavender. I buy it so that I can pet it and then sniff my hands, because fresh lavender smells like everything that is happy and wonderful. I wonder if it would be a nice addition to the chicken stock? Maybe some some lavender lemonade popsicles? Throw some suggestions my way in the comments, people!

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worth the $2.99: The smell of happiness is $2.99. Enough said.

mint

Mint

There are a million and a half varieties of mint and I forget which one this is, but I always go for a basic generic sweet mint. I mean, chocolate mint plants sound cool, but what then what do you do with it? Plain nothing special mint, though, I chop that into a sweet and spicy strawberry salsa. I stuff a bundle of crushed leaves into a tea filter and throw it into a pitcher of water with some lemon slices, or infuse it into some cold-brewed hibiscus tea. And lucky for me, it's an easy, happy plant. Just keep it in a pot or it might take over your garden.

  • Difficulty: Ridiculously easy
  • Worth the $2.99: Absolutely

thyme

Thyme

I don't have strong feelings one way or another for thyme. Mostly, I find it kind of fussy since the leaves are so tiny. That problem is probably solved with drying, but I've never gotten that far with it. It blooms with these tiny white flowers that are pretty enough, and tossing whole sprigs into a pot of chicken stock works out great.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worth the $2.99: Meh. Maybe? Let's see how I feel in October.

sage

Sage

I'll be honest, I totally forgot about the sage when I was first putting my thoughts together for this article. It's just a forgettable plant. It's easy enough to grow. A sturdy and pleasant but nondescript bit of green in my container garden. Another good one for the chicken stock, and otherwise my plan is to harvest and dry it in the fall.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worth the $2.99: On the fence.

rosemary

Rosemary

Pet the lavender with one hand. Pet the rosemary with the other. Rub your hands together, smell them. Perfection. It's so good! That said, I use rosemary enough that I bought two plants instead of just one. It tastes so fresh and bright and goes well with just about anything you put on the grill.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worth the $2.99: Oh god, yes.

basil

Basil

Okay, I went overboard with the basil, choosing four varieties - sweet basil, red rubin, lemon basil, and African blue. But basil is so good! And versatile! In years past, I've kept a single plant in one of the small bucket planters and while it survived, I wouldn't say that it thrived. This year, the basil plants have their own roomy box on the deck rail and they are some happy campers. Pasta night is gonna be lit with all that pesto.

  • Difficulty: Easy to medium. Give it plenty of room and don't forget to pinch the buds.
  • Worth the $2.99: Fresh. Pesto. That is all I have to say.

What's growing in your garden this year? How do you use your lavender? And how the heck do you keep your cilantro alive? Please tell me in the comments!