By Sharon Liao
Whether you're crazy for cilantro or mad for mint, fresh herbs are a must-have.
Not only can they take a dish from everyday to gourmet, but they're also packed with powerful nutrients. According to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many common greens -- like oregano, thyme and rosemary -- pack in more disease-fighting antioxidants than fruits and vegetables. And the greens are surprisingly easy to grow on your own.
"You don't need a huge plot of land or even a green thumb," says Susan Littlefield, the horticultural editor at the National Gardening Association.
Follow these six simple steps to cultivate your own garden, and you'll be happier and healthier in no time. Bonus: Being outside can also boost your mood!
1. Do the prep work
When deciding which herbs to plant, consider your cost and your favorite flavors. If you like to cook Asian dishes, try Thai basil, which tends to be more expensive at the supermarket, says Littlefield. For first-timers, she recommends hardy plants that thrive in most environments, such as basil, parsley and chives.
2. Find the perfect spot
Choosing the location of your garden is kind of like playing Goldilocks: The soil shouldn't be too wet or too dry. To test out the consistency, squeeze a handful of dirt together. It should form a ball that falls apart when poked; if it crumbles or forms a hard clump, find another patch. "Also look for a bright spot in your yard," says Littlefield. "With the exception of mint, herbs need direct sunlight."
3. Time it right
"If you start your garden too early, a late-season frost can wipe out your herbs," says Littlefield. Call your local garden center and ask about the projected last frost date in your area; you should sow your seeds a few weeks after that day. In the meantime, you can grow them into seedlings in a pot indoors. "Spring is usually an ideal time to plant," she says. "Later in the summer, it can get too hot for some varieties, like dill and cilantro."
4. Dig in
Use a spade or garden trowel to turn over and loosen the soil, which allows roots to take hold. Place seeds in shallow holes 12 to 18 inches apart and lightly cover with about 1 inch of soil. Or, plant seedlings 6 to 12 inches apart. After you're done, you may find yourself grinning: Soil contains a compound called Mycobacterium vaccae, which can boost levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, reveals a study from Britain's University of Bristol.
5. Water thoroughly
"A common rookie mistake is not watering your plants for a sufficient amount of time," says Littlefield. "The liquid needs to penetrate the soil's surface and reach the root system." One way to check: Dig a few inches to see if the dirt is fully damp. (Or, stick your finger into a potted plant.) "For most gardens, you should run a trickling hose for about 20 minutes," says Littlefield.
6. Harvest regularly
Once your herbs are flourishing, clip off their leaves often to encourage growth and keep them from flowering. Have too much of a bounty? Consider freezing them. Or, dry them by placing them leaf-side down in a brown paper bag and stashing them in a warm, dark place for two to four weeks. You can also add them to each beverage and meal for an added hit of vitamins. To do this, crush mint into tea and lemonade; chop parsley, tarragon and cilantro into salads; and marinate meats in olive oil mixed with dill, basil or rosemary.
Sharon Liao is an award-winning health editor and writer who has been on staff at Prevention, Fitness, and Reader's Digest magazines. She has contributed to Seventeen and Weight Watchers Magazine, as well as The Intellectual Devotional: Health.
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