I refer to the herb plants from our supermarkets as a gateway drug, because let’s be honest, for an awful lot of people, it’s the first baby steps they make towards gardening. Fresh herbs for cooking is one of the grow your own adventures most of us go on, and then we are hooked. But for most of us, those shop-bought herb plants live on our kitchen windows sill and after a week look pretty poorly and rarely are they still alive after a month or so.
So I thought it might be useful for us to have a wee chat about these plants and why they have a tendency to die on us and what we can do to stop it.
Ok so the main reason our shop-bought herbs struggle is actually a really simple one, the growers who sell these, want you to see gorgeous bushy vibrant plants on the shop shelves so that you are encouraged to buy them. You stand there salivating at the thought of tomato pasta with fresh basil, roast lamb with fresh rosemary or chicken with fresh tarragon. And before you know it, those little plants have jumped into your basket with promises of the best family dinners ever. To be fair, this happens to our basket with chocolate, cake and cheese, so it’s not a herb problem, but you get my drift.
Now how they do this is that they don’t actually grow one plant in a pot, no they sow maybe twenty or thirty seeds into that pot, so that you see what looks like a seriously bushy healthy plant but… when you have so many plants in that small pot, they are all fighting for whatever nutrients are in there and for what ever moisture is there and they are all competing against each other for the light. So what happens is that your individual little plants struggle to get water and seem to be constantly wilting no matter how much you water them, they go a sickly light green instead of the vibrant deep green when you bought them and instead of growing strong and bushy, they get tall and leggy (thin).
BUT…. there is hope.
Step 1: separate them
Take your herb out of the pot, and carefully, try to tease as many of the separate plants apart as you can. Some roots will tear and I know this can be a bit scary, but as long as each plant still has a decent amount of roots it will be ok. Especially since we are about to give it a much better home.
So once you’ve done this, you’ll also discover what a bargain you got, instead of one plant, you now have loads.
Step 2: re-home them
Now you want to re-pot those lovely little plants. Give them all a new pot or if you are struggling for pots you could get away with maybe 2 to a pot. Use nice new soil and bury the plants to about the same level as they were original, make sure they are patted down nice and firm. Also make sure you use a pot with holes in the bottom, as the excess water needs to be able to drain out of the pot. I know you may want to use a pretty pot, especially if you are keeping these indoors but you can always place the plant pot inside a nicer pot. Then give them a good water to help them settle in.
Step 3: where they live
I suspect most of the herbs you buy are probably going to be from the Mediterranean family of herbs. Things like Basil and Rosemary, so you want to mimic those conditions if you can. This means (for us in Scotland anyway), Basil will not survive out in the garden so keep it either in the greenhouse or on a sunny window sill. They do need a lot of sun. Also, these plants are used to dry climates, so not go mad with the watering, water sparingly once you have it settled. You don’t want the plant wilting because it is so thirsty but neither do you want to be soaking it every day, so keep an eye on how the plant is looking and make sure any excess water can drain out of the pot.
Rosemary also needs a little bit of knowledge as these are actually shrubs and so will eventually grow to be too big for your window ledge (eventually), but it will also develop woody stems as it grows and ages, so you may want to replace this one after a few years to ensure you keep those nice tender tips for cooking.
Thyme and parsley are also big favourites to being home from the greenhouse, these I have successfully grown in the garden here in Scotland. So if you want to have these ones outdoors, they should do fine.
So there you go, a simple 3 step guide to getting the most out of those shop-bought herb plants. So go check yours and make sure they are happy… and next time, we’ll talk about how to prune your basil to encourage it to grow and provide lots of tasty leaves for your cooking.