Friday, June 17, 2011

"Frugal" gardening: Herbs.

Lush patch
My messy front-door herb patch.

Most of my hobbies are things that folks used to do from scratch because it was cheaper (or they had no other options) before mass industrialization: Sewing, baking bread, growing veggies. They are all "frugal" hobbies, and all of them have become more popular with the downturn in the economy, as folks look for ways to save a little dough.

Which is why it's really interesting that I seem to lose money on all of them!

For example, gardening. Blog posts like this one, itemizing the savings brought by a vegetable garden amaze and baffle me. I admit, I don't keep close track of our spending vs. the market value of our harvest, but I would be surprised if, finances-wise, our garden broke even. I live in California, land of cheap, cheap, cheap produce. Even local, organic produce at the farmers' market is inexpensive compared to conventional produce in other parts of the country (where they have to ship the produce from, you guessed it, California). And I live in a cool-summer climate, with about two weeks of good tomato season (I'm not going to win any prizes for my tomatoes at the County Fair, that's for sure). And I plant too many flowers (poor return on your investment). And how do you account for the value of your labor, anyway? 

So while I try to save money on gardening (by planting from seed when it's easy, etc.), I'm not really a "frugal" gardener. I garden because I enjoy it, not because it saves me money. It's good for the planet, it's great exercise, and it's fun to play in the dirt, watch things grow, and eat the things you grow.

In my experience, however, there is one type of garden plant that really pays its own way: Herbs.

If you have just a few pots, and you want to grow something that will save you a little money, plant some perennial herbs like sage, oregano, thyme, mint,  and rosemary. If you have a little plot of land, plant a dozen parsley, cilantro, and basil plants. You won't need a complex spreadsheet to figure out that you've saved a bundle and managed to avoid a heap of little plastic packages and bags. Buying little bundles of fresh herbs at the store ain't cheap, and since most recipes only call for a sprig or two, often half of the bundle goes to waste anyway.

I can't remember the last time I bought fresh rosemary (or sage or thyme). In my climate, they grow year round. Each plant, which has provided fresh herbage (in exactly the amount we need at the time) for our cooking for years now, cost about what one of those bundles in the produce section of the grocery store goes for. If you grow from seed, you could probably have 100 plants for the price of one bundle. (But who needs 100 sage plants? This is an example of a time when growing from nursery starts is plenty cost-effective.)  And in our Mediterranean climate (these herbs are native to the real Mediterranean), they practically grow themselves. They like dry, poor soil. No kidding: The best way to kill a sage plant is by planting it in really nice soil and watering it a lot.

This rosemary plant started out as a tiny little seedling in a 2" pot.

And in the summer, we are usually well stocked with cilantro, parsley, and oregano. Oregano is perennial but dies down in the winter. Cilantro and parsley are annuals and will eventually go to seed and die, so we usually plant several six-packs each of parsley and cilantro throughout the season. (Dill is another good annual herb. We're growing some this year - for potato salad and pickles.)

And of course, mint. No discussion of herb gardening would be complete without a plug for and a warning about mint. Not only is mint easy to grow and delicious in teas and cocktails, it spreads like crab grass and is damn near impossible to kill. Okay, you've been warned. Keep it far away from your prized vegetable patch (or very contained). Mint julep, anyone?

In an effort to get rid of some persistent crab grass, Steve once sprayed this patch with the potent herbicide, Roundup. The crab grass died. The mint patch survived. (Don't try this at home, kids. Roundup is nasty stuff.)

Basil is a wonderful herb to grow as well, if you have the conditions for it. Our local snail/slug population seems to think we grow it just for them, like some kind of special mollusk treat, so I can't say we get our money's worth from our basil crop - in fact, we hardly get any basil crop at all. But if we could grow it well, it would definitely save us some money, because we buy a whole heckavalot of fresh basil.

And those are just the basics, the workhorses of our kitchen. There are many more exotic herbs that give you less bang for your buck, but are beautiful, aromatic, and attract bees and butterflies to your garden (which in turn keep your fruit trees and other vegetables pollinated and happy).

So there you go. Herbs are money.


  1. Looks really beautiful.

    Happy Gardening,
    Kristina K.

    Urban Farm Wife

  2. Your lucky snails! A special treat, that's cute :-) We have had a bit of luck keeping the critters away by growing basil and salad greens in large pots, and right outside our windows so we remember they're there. We probably lose money on veggie seeds and seedlings, too....

  3. At least it's not as terrible a money pit as sewing, though, huh?

    We've done basil in pots too, but we need a LOT of basil. Wish I could figure out how to get it to thrive in the ground. Hm.

  4. Sorry to hear you have such problems with basil! It seems like you always need a lot of it for the best recipes (like pesto), and you're right, a few leaves in a plastic container from the grocery store doesn't really cut it.
    I have not been able to get potted rosemary to live through the winter. I think it must be lack of sunlight -- we have north-facing windows and not much light gets in. Your rosemary looks like it's absolutely thriving!

  5. Hi Laura! Thanks for commenting! Rosemary is tougher to grow in cold-winter climates. It doesn't like to go below freezing, and it needs a lot of light if you grow it indoors. Where I live, we almost never get a hard freeze, so it grows really well outdoors.

    A friend recently suggested I erect a wire-mesh barrier around my basil to keep the snails out at least long enough to get them past the seedling stage. Doesn't sound like the prettiest solution, but I love basil, so I may try it! (Of course, with two dogs and a baby, we stay away from snail poison, big time.)


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