Seriously, Grow Your Own Herbs
You dont need a massive garden and a green thumb. Just put a pit in a pot. So many of my friends are what Id call garden curious. The dream is simple: ample backyard space where they can grow their own food, compost, and live out their most cherished ideas for a greener life. The reality: Time and space are limited. But no one needs to wait for the perfect conditions to grow something. In my own experience with Lazy-Girl Gardening, Ive seen the best results when Ive embraced low-stakes experiments focused on food I love. I have grown tomatoes, peppers, lettuce greens, and herbs in my apartment; today, lemon-balm and mint plants I started from seed adorn my kitchen windowsill, and for the past two summers, I have grown sungold tomatoes in containers on the sliver of concrete I refer to as my terrace. Though it wont bear fruit for the next five years, my pride and joy is a three-foot-tall plant I grew from a grocery-store avocados pit. Growing vegetables at a modest scale allowed me to reduce the carbon emissions associated with my diet in a small but meaningful way. My plants have saved me a few trips to the grocery store, to buy food shipped in from far away. It has also reconnected me to a sense of seasonality. And gardening, no matter the scale, is downright relaxing. Even if you dont have an expansive permanent space to garden, consider following these three principles to start. Practical apartment gardening is an exercise in living better right now , instead of waiting for the right circumstances. The climate is changing fast enough that the best conditions for gardening might be whenever you start; paying attention to plants and how they grow will put you that much more in touch with those shifts. Embrace the Small In the world of plant-based lifestylesthink juicy monstera plants spread across the pages of Homes & Gardens and viral photos of Oprah harvesting ginormous vegetablesbigger is better. Against the standard established by the backyard jungles of HGTV, which I watched obsessively as a newbie gardener while living in an 1,100-square-foot unit that I shared with two roommates, any plants I grew suddenly looked meager. Hoping to compete with plant parents in my circle and, yes, Oprah, I began to devise ingenious ways to grow plants in the limited space I had. I lined my room almost wall to wall with plant projects: a few attempts to grow peppers here. A trial of various broccoli varieties there. I even installed two hanging baskets in the ceiling, hoping to use the vertical space to grow butterhead lettuce. One day I awoke and couldnt open my bedroom door. If I didnt start thinking smaller, Id be living on top of my plants, instead of among them. Embracing small plants inevitably means embracing container gardening and the plants that are well suited for it. In pursuit of the biggest, lushest veggies, Id failed to consider their sunlight and spatial needs. Plants that have a wide spread (lettuce), grow tall (peppers), or have deep root systems (carrots) arent necessarily ideal for confinement. I ditched the large, leafy plants. I went with herbs. When it comes to getting people interested in gardening, I always start with herbs because its something that most people are familiar with, and they grow well in small spaces, Cynthia Nazario-Leary, an environmental horticulture agent in northern Florida, told me. As a daily tea drinker, I wanted to grow herbs that I could easily harvest, dry, and steep. That meant lavender, which can grow indoors year-round, and mint, which grows at weedlike speed. These thrived beautifully in full sun, planted in separate pots. As I became more comfortable growing on a smaller scale, I expanded into cilantro and rosemary, which I cook with frequently. When my mint and cilantro started to wilt in the colder months of winter, I misted their leaves in between waterings to retain their moisture. This intentional act of care made me mindful of how my own needs shift in the winter, when shorter, frigid days make me crave sunlight and warmth. Read: Britains great tea heist If youre dead set on growing vegetables, containers can still work. But not without trade-offs. If you dont mind sacrificing some space, using large planters (five gallons or bigger) allows you to accommodate a broader range of plants with varying root depths and leaf spans. Fabric grow bags are a lighter alternative to plastic or terra-cotta pots but can dry out your plants, so youll need to water more frequently. My favorite container-gardening hack is to reuse containers that Id otherwise throw away. Takeout containers are great for this, but you can also use plastic margarine or yogurt containers and milk cartons. After adding some holes in the bottom for drainage, you now have a solid container in which to start vegetable seedlings, propagate ornamental plants, or even grow microgreens. Container gardening does require a little more thought than just sticking a plant in the ground, in the sunlight, if your goal is to reduce your carbon emissions. I use organic, peat-free potting-soil mixtures in all of my containers, for instance. Many commercial potting soil contains peat moss, commonly sourced from bogs in Canada, which are exceptional carbon sinks. Harvesting any amount of peat has potential climate impacts . And as Nazario-Leary told me, Plants that develop fruit or flowers require a lot of energy in the form of sunlight, so growing plants like tomatoes and peppers indoors might mean you need to invest in a good LED grow light. Although LED bulbs are more efficient than incandescent lights (which are now functionally banned in most cases, although that does not apply to plant lights ), these energy inputs add up. Be Scrappy In addition to seeds, you can also grow new plants from old ones. Instead of tossing out the tips or ends of grocery-store root vegetables, I chuck them in water to encourage root formation, then transfer them to small pots in a sunny window. Plenty of us played around with this during the pandemic: For me, it worked especially well with staples such as garlic, ginger, celery, green onions, lettuce, and potatoes. I now regularly replant the white tips of grocery-store scallions and a few lettuce cores so I can harvest clippings for my cooking over several months. Using food scraps as gardening material is a simple way to reduce your household food waste and extend the life of your groceries. Anne-Marie Bonneau, a chef and zero-waste-cookbook author, regularly recycles food scraps to regrow food directly or to use as compost. As Im prepping in the kitchen, it costs me nothing to set my scraps of green onion or leek aside, to soak in water and regrow in my kitchen, Bonneau told me. Growth-inhibiting chemicals may be present on commercially grown vegetables, especially potatoes, but a thorough wash with soap and water should remove these. Read: The missing piece of the foraging renaissance All of this does have good climate math. Most produce grown in the U.S. travels about 1,500 miles before its sold . Containers and packaging generate 82 million tons of waste each year, according to the EPA . The non-compostable produce stickers, mesh bags, and clam shells associated with fruits and vegetables certainly dont help. Bonneau, who has committed to a plastic-free life, ticked off for me the pluses of growing plants; they eliminate packaging waste, shave off some food miles from what youre eating, and save a few dollars. But gardening isnt just about avoiding emissions: In the end, small experiments like these will change your carbon impact only a small amount. But I do it anyway. I may not be changing the climate with my small projects, but I do notice how our climate is shifting, and understand it more viscerally because I garden. As Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant ecologist and author, wrote, Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart. Stay in Your Zone As much as I loved the challenge of growing plants in my apartment, when I received a slot in a nearby community garden after a three-year wait, I couldnt believe my luck. Without thinking, I immediately replanted my indoor herb experimentsmy rosemary, lavender, cilantroin my new garden bed, hoping to capitalize on the longer days of sunlight and rainfall of early spring. But a week later, most of my herbs had turned to withered tendrils. This new garden was a crash course in the importance of growing seasons. In my neck of New England, evening temperatures drop below freezing well into May. My rosemary plants especially had no chance against the spring frost. Since this setback, Ive become obsessed with the U.S. Department of Agricultures Plant Hardiness Zone Map , which categorizes every region in the country based on plant-growing conditions. The lower the zone number, the colder the temperatures in winter. In my region, hardiness zone six, beans, broccoli, lettuce greens, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes do well in a growing season from May to October. For gardeners in the Pacific Northwest, which spans zones three through eight, winter vegetable production is possible thanks to oceanic weather patterns that bring more rainfall . Growers in the Southwest, zones six through nine, should plant vegetables like okra, peppers, and eggplant, which grow well in the regions hot and sunny conditions. Gardening indoors can help control the temperature, but there will always be some limit to what you can grow based on where you live. Becoming more familiar with growing seasons and bioregions gave me new awareness of the global food system that allows me to enjoy a tropical mango in December. Now I eat more in alignment with my regions growing seasonprioritizing my own food and farmers markets when I can, opting for winter squash and root vegetables in colder monthswhich has pushed me toward a plant-based diet. For the average American, buying locally might achieve as much as a 4 to 5 percent reduction in household greenhouse gas emissions , although other dietary changesnamely eating less meat are a more powerful way of shrinking your carbon footprint. If you grow a few herbs and then eat a steak for dinner every night, youre missing the point. Read: Nowhere should expect a cool summer Caring for the plants that feed me gives me a deep sense of place and the ways in which New England is changing. A 2021 study revealed that New England is warming faster than the rest of the planet; experts predict that global warming will lengthen the regions growing season . This could mean opportunities to produce fruits and vegetables that were previously difficult to grow, but also more extreme weather events and pests that can destroy crops. Gardening has made these changes apparent to me. Having lost a few crops to sunscald from hotter days, or from blight and leaf miners, which now appear with greater frequency , I worry about farmers facing these challenges on a larger scale. Growing my own food in scrappy, small ways that honor the ecology of where I live reminds me just how much my own health as a human rests on the health of the plants that we grow. This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMIs Science and Educational Media Group.