If you’re a budding gardener, growing an herb garden is easier than you think and an ideal way to flex your green thumb. Plus, you get the satisfaction of seasoning your culinary creations with fresh herbs snipped from your own backyard.
InsideOut spoke with Tom Balon, co-owner of Vigoro Nursery, to seek his expert advice on how and where to begin. Tom grew up on a farm in Canada and later attended agriculture school; he’s lived in Grand Cayman for 20 years.
“I always say, ‘don’t try too hard. Let Mother Nature have its way.’ You can have herbs in a large pot or planter on your patio or in larger grow boxes, whether raised landscape timbers or side by side; or they can also just be in a special area of your garden,” says Tom.
Although plants do best in their natural environments, Tom says you can grow small potted herbs next to a warm sunny window if you’re short on outdoor space, depending on how cool you keep your house.
He recommends purchasing bagged soils like potting or peat soils or composts because local soils can be quite heavy for many herbs.
“Some people do prefer the local soils; however, it can be trial and error until you get it right,” he says, adding that some herbs do better than others based on where you live.
“Certain pests like whiteflies can be a problem in a particular area, while other plantings may do very well in the same area and not be phased at all.”
Says Tom: “I always tell my clients to initially try a good assortment and then find what works for them – and always try new things.”
Luckily there are plenty of options of herbs that grow well in Cayman. These include: dill; thyme; mint (spearmint and peppermint); cilantro, also known as coriander; culantro (not to be confused with cilantro); a variety of basil; sage; chives, including garlic chives; parsley; oregano; rosemary; tarragon; and rue.
“Some herbs are better planted by the seed, like basil and oregano, while others produce a better yield if planted from seedlings, like chives, parsley and rosemary,” he says.
In terms of your garden’s location, Tom always advises that herbs be in full sun and to create a couple of options within those parameters.
“I have one garden in full sun where it’s very hot all day long, and another in morning sun with afternoon shade,” he says.
Many herbs do very well all year round due to Cayman’s tropical climate, but Tom says that the best season is through the winter because of the more moderate temperatures.
“Although, some herbs like rosemary, thyme and culantro do grow well throughout our hot summers,” he says.
It’s best to water herb gardens by hand rather than with an irrigation system, especially if the gardens are smaller; and adding the right amount of water is the first step to success.
“Hand-watering really lets you give more or less to the various plants as needed,” says Tom, adding, “Always remember, there are three key elements to any garden: Number one is the water; number two is the water; and number three is – you guessed it – the water.”
When it comes to harvest time, herbs will be ready at various intervals. “Some herbs like basil can be snipped and used frequently, while others need to be more mature, like chives, because more plant means more flavor. They will do their thing if you do yours, and it’s all part of the fun.”
With the issue of pesticides on everyone’s minds lately, there are safe alternatives, but Tom treads carefully.
“It’s a tough subject, because one must use a ‘chemical’ to keep certain pests at bay, but any ‘chemical’ should be natural or biological for your edible gardens. I use that word because a lot of people get scared by it, but chemical really refers to anything in a bottle used for this purpose – organic, natural or otherwise – so don’t be frightened by it, just be smart with it.”
Tom suggests to always look up labels and specs and ask questions all the time since one country’s edible ratings may not be the same in another. “For herb gardens, I recommend good, old-fashioned dusts like Sevin and Captain Jack’s products; Earth-tone bug sprays are great, too.”
The good news is that herb gardens tend to have fewer pests than other types of gardens. Even those pesky green iguanas turn their noses up to them, preferring the taste and fragrance of juicy vegetables and sweet flowers instead.