Does spending hard-earned Benjamins on tiny packages of mediocre herbs at the supermarket drive you bananas? One home cook finally broke down—and is so glad she did.
Are there things you’ve held out on, as a home cook? Making your own tomato sauce? Baking your own bread? Deep-frying wings? Whatever your culinary version of crossing the Rubicon is, I’ve been there, too. For me, until this year, it was growing my own herbs to use in my cooking. When I finally broke down and bought the soil and the starter plants, I realized very quickly I was on track to save somewhere between $50 and $100 on groceries. That is a lot of dough!
Most of us have had the standoff I’d had in the produce department of the grocery store, eyeing those tiny plastic containers of herbs and cursing them silently. Four dollars for that ratty clutch of almost-black thyme? Ack! I’d had the same experience with sage and basil—cilantro is always inexpensive in my wonderful Mexican neighborhood—so it was time to plant my own tiny containers gardens. And it proved to be a game changer, both for my budget and my dish execution.
It was the late Judith Jones, Julia Child’s formidable editor, who first instructed me to have a small herb garden when I interviewed her about cooking a full decade ago. “It’s such an easy money saver, and most people don’t do it,” she said.
For those of you who are accomplished gardeners, this is all old hat, of course. You’ve been happily snipping sage for your potatoes and chickens, basil for your tomato salads, and thyme for your lemonade for ages. You smile at those of us who are new to the game. You know that fresh herbs improve nearly everything they touch. One can make compound butters for steaks, or toss mint—an aggressive grower that requires its own pot—into limeade, Chinese or Thai stir-fries and Vietnamese summer rolls. Basil can be sprinkled on nearly any summery vegetable, and in a pinch can substitute for mint as a finishing note for Asian curries.
Among the easiest herbs to grow in small containers tucked inside or outside—depending on your hardiness zone (which you can check here)—are basil, chives, cilantro, tarragon, lavender, marjoram, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Imagine being able to snip chives for your morning soft-scrambled eggs, just like that. It’s an incredible feeling. Also, the verdant visual pop of fresh herbs can help even fussy carnivores get excited about Meatless Monday.
My one tip? Check the fine print on your go-to gardening site for which herbs need lots of water, which need less, and which need direct sunlight. I only learned recently that thyme doesn’t like a lot of water, which is probably why it’s been shrinking. Find out which plants should be successful near you by asking local gardeners or successful gardener friends what you should try first, and keep in mind that some plants might need to be brought indoors in order to make it through the winter. And when in doubt, look to your culinary repertoire; if you’re constantly cooking with chives, oregano, and marjoram, that’s what you should plant.
So take the plunge, buy a cheap pot or two and some inexpensive soil, and snag some starter plants or seeds. There are few better feelings than being able to lean outside your window or walk outside, snip a few herbs from a window box or garden, and using them to finish dinner.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.