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A Plant Expert Answered All The Herb Gardening Questions We've Ever Had

Photo by Eddie Pearson
July 18, 2018

Calling all plant parents! To ring in the height of summer (for half of the world at least), this week mbg is serving up the ultimate plant-centric lineup. Every day, we’ll be tapping expert green thumbs for their current plant obsessions, design hacks, and foolproof care tips. Get ready, get set, get growing.

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Always wanted to grow your own food but not ready to commit to a full-blown veggie garden just yet? Herbs are an amazing starter plant, and you can bring them to life no matter where you live. Just ask Summer Rayne Oakes. The chef, environmentalist, and plant expert has been cultivating tons of herbs (along with 600-plus houseplants) in her Brooklyn apartment for years. Here, she answers our rapid-fire questions on everything you need to know before starting a collection of your own:

1. Any tips and tricks for knowing when an herb needs water?

Many herbs, particularly the non-succulent varieties, like basil, will get quite wilted. (In my garden this morning, I noticed my mint was wilting in the heat of the sun.) Since most herbs like and need sun, you tend to have to make sure they are more well-watered. Certain succulent varieties, like Cuban sage or Vick's plant, for instance, or ones that originate from more harsh terrains, like geraniums, can tolerate more drought.

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2. What about when it needs to be repotted?

Many people only grow herbs for a year (and constantly pinch them back) so they can be maintained in their pot for that year—or for quite some time. But it entirely depends on the herb! Certain plants, like rosemary and lavender, require much larger pots, so they'll often need to be repotted more frequently.

3. What's a good place to start an herb garden inside if you don't have a windowsill?

You can also start under grow lights. They will be bright enough for most herbs, and luckily there are a lot of options these days!

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4. How many leaves can you take off the plant for it to still thrive?

Generally lots of plants respond to a good cutting. It will take a little bit of time for the plants to regenerate, but mint in particular, as well as basil, are really forgiving and will only get bushier when you pinch them or give them a good clipping. I like to cut my mint back down to two leaves near the base every couple of weeks.

5. What's the best way to pick leaves off your plant?

You can use your fingers or a pair of bonsai or garden shears or kitchen shears to pinch the tips off the plants. Cut back at a 45-degree angle, just above a node, where you see leaves sticking out.

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6. Do you need to change the way you take care of herbs in the summer months?

Summer months often bring far more intense sunlight for longer periods, which means you likely need to be watering your plants more thoroughly and more often. Your plants will also grow faster, so you'll need to trim them or cut them back more often to maintain their health.

7. How can you make sure your herb is draining properly if you're growing indoors?

Make sure there's a hole in the pot! Pro tip: Terra-cotta will drain and wick moisture away more readily than, say, a plastic pot.

Photo: Eddie Pearson
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8. What's one herb that's surprisingly easy to grow yourself?

Cuban sage, which is also commonly known as "Cuban oregano" or "Cuban thyme." It's a much more succulent plant, but its leaves have a taste of sage, oregano, and thyme all wrapped into one.

9. What's a surprisingly finicky one?

People struggle with lavender. This is a Mediterranean plant, so it needs sunlight, sunlight, and more sunlight. But it actually doesn't need such a heavy hand on the watering. Additionally, it doesn't love being rootbound; it's a plant that prefers a larger pot.

10. How do you know when an herb is dead beyond repair?

It'll be brown and crisp, or if you pull up its roots and they're brown and brittle, you know you've reached a point of no return (and the plant should be composted!).

11. What's one mistake you see a lot of people make with their herb gardens?

Not enough light.

12. What's the biggest difference between growing herbs and growing houseplants?

You don't feel so bad when you cut herbs, but it can be very harrowing to trim your regular houseplants!

13. Best advice on growing herbs you've ever gotten?

Grow your mint in [its own] container, unless you want it spreading. Someone planted lemon balm (a type of mint) in my community's garden, and it has literally taken over!

14. How many herbs would you guess you've grown in your lifetime?

Phew boy. I'm not sure I can venture a guess, particularly if I'm including outdoor plants. Outdoors, I'd say hundreds. Indoors, I could gather a dozen or so different varieties annually for the past nine years or so.

15. The No. 1 reason you love growing herbs?

You can eat them!

Another awesome (and nutritious) thing to grow at home? Microgreens!

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.