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Can’t grow herbs? We tried this indoor garden

Our writer loves cooking with fresh herbs, but failed for years at growing them.

I love cooking with fresh herbs, but have failed for years at growing them. Too much sun, not enough light. Too much water, starved for a drink. The results have drooped, wilted, curled and burned.

But I may have hit pay dirt with a countertop contraption that has turned my kitchen into a lush, herbal paradise. The advertising mad men had me at “No Green Thumb Necessary!” I was hopeful but cautious after a string of failures.

First came the Earthbox from Ellenton. A neighbor bought one from a farmer who invented the 30-inch box with its own watering tube and potting soil. My hopes soared after spending about $100 on the box and the supplies.

I purchased a variety of herbs to plant and placed the box in a strategic area of my backyard where the sun isn’t too bright and the palm trees provide midafternoon shade. I followed the watering directions precisely.

See pods after one week. [ Kathy Saunders ]

After a while, I started to see sprouts, but I could never figure out if the soil was too wet or too dry. It felt wet to the touch, but living on the water has its drawbacks. The reflection off the water, along with the salty sea spray, roasted everything in the box.

In the past year, I have tried two separate types of mason jar herb gardens. In both cases, none of the seeds even pushed above the dirt.

When the coronavirus forced us inside in March, the first shortage I noticed, besides toilet paper, was fresh herbs. I managed to get the last few tubes of herbs from my local grocery store refrigerators, but they expired within a few weeks. Since I was cooking more than ever, the timing was terrible.

I’m not sure when I developed such an appreciation for fresh herbs. I grew up in a military family and my mother never used fresh herbs. We lived in government housing and shopped for provisions at the commissary, where fresh anything was hard to find.

But I know I don’t want to live the rest of my life without the vibrant color, sweet scents and distinct flavors of homegrown herbs.

Thankfully, now that I have a new gadget from AeroGarden, I won’t have to.

Herbs after four weeks. [ Kathy Saunders ]

During an internet search for fresh herbs, I stumbled upon several indoor herb garden setups that promised basil and dill within weeks. Other than the $399 for the Platinum Bounty Elite garden with nine seed pods, what did I have to lose? Amazon had it to me within days and I began my life as a quarantine farmer.

AeroGarden has several less expensive options as well. I opted for the Platinum Bounty Elite version because mine was a gift from my husband who wanted to splurge a little. Who was I to object?

I selected the herb seed option, but the company also sells kits for vegetables, lettuces and flowers.

The best part about the garden is that it is dummy proof. The Bounty Elite has a small computer screen on the front that tells me when to add fertilizer (which comes in the kit) and water. It also signals when the plants are plenty hydrated. The clever contraption sounds the alert when they need plant food, which is usually a capful of the provided liquid fertilizer.

Thai Basil ready to prune. [ Kathy Saunders ]

All I had to do was plug in the garden, insert the nine individually marked pods into holes (the taller herbs in the back) and add the water and plant food. Each herb pod is marked with the type of plant and how long it usually takes to sprout. I got two pods of Genovese basil, curly parsley, Italian parsley, dill, Thai basil, thyme, mint and chives.

The herbs grow under a light that shines for 17 hours on a timer you control. The light is airline-runway bright; it can illuminate my entire kitchen and family room overnight.

Within three days after planting, I had sprouts of Genovese basil. Five days later, most of the others had sprouted, too. At 14 days, the first time I was directed to add more plant food, I had 4-inch-tall herbs in most of the pods. The chives and the thyme were next to grow, followed by the parsley and mint. The dill seed pod never sprouted, but I contacted the company and they replaced it. In 25 days, I harvested the basil and made pesto.

The countertop gardens come with recipes, and the company website (aerogarden.com) offers tutorial videos and blog posts on everything from pruning the herbs to garden crafts. My next step will be trimming the roots of the herbs to keep them from getting too tangled underneath.

When I needed a little encouragement, I sent an email to the company and received a call from a representative who suggested I add distilled water to my garden to protect from any hard water. I sent photos of my herbs and she was able to give me tips on where to trim them. Also, she said the garden should last up to six or seven months.

I don’t plan to replant the herbs in pots. That’s apparently an easy option. My prior experience doesn’t provide much confidence.

But I haven’t given up — I’m thinking about planting lettuce next.

Recipes

Since I started growing herbs I have been adding them to nearly every dish. I chop whatever I have in abundance and add it to omelets for breakfast. I include them in my salads for lunch, tossing herbs in with the lettuce or adding them to homemade dressings. And, I finish all of our dinners with fresh herbs, including parsley for garnish, chives on baked potatoes and mint in our freshly brewed iced tea. Two of our favorite recipes are basil pesto and herb-crusted baked salmon. Here’s how I make them.

Basil Pesto

1 to 2 cups fresh basil leaves (stems removed)

¼ cup toasted pine nuts (I warm them in a pan on the stove for a few minutes)

⅛ to ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

Salt and pepper, to taste

Olive oil (I use Nicolas Alziari Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which I buy on amazon.com)

Add all of the ingredients except olive oil to a food processor and pulse a few times to blend. Then, while processing, slowly add olive oil until the mixture becomes a smooth consistency. Toss immediately with warm pasta and extra grated Parmesan cheese or transfer to a small bowl and cover it with a thin layer of olive oil to refrigerate.

Source: Kathy Saunders, Tampa Bay Times

Herb-Crusted Salmon

2 to 4 salmon fillets (I use precut slices, about 4 inches wide)

½ cup to 1 cup chopped fresh herbs

2 to 4 tablespoons melted butter

Salt and pepper, to taste

Olive oil

Dry the salmon fillets with a paper towel and place them a couple of inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Mix all of the remaining ingredients in a bowl and add olive oil to create a paste. (I sometimes add finely chopped shallots for extra flavor and panko bread crumbs if I need something else to bind the ingredients.)

Cover each fillet with a “blanket” of the herbs. Bake in a 400-degree oven until the salmon is cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on your oven. Keep a close eye on the salmon so the herbs do not burn. If they are cooking faster than the salmon, cover with foil to finish.

Source: Kathy Saunders, Tampa Bay Times

Lemon Dill Vinaigrette

½ cup chopped fresh dill

½ cup champagne vinegar

2 tablespoons chopped red onion

1 tablespoon lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ tsp pepper

2 garlic cloves, peeled

½ cup olive oil

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a blender and process until mixture is smooth. Slowly add olive oil while blender is running; process until well combined.

Source: AeroGarden

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