Kitchen Herb Garden Nook

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sage

This post isn't about cooking, but it is about food. I'd like to keep this blog away from a totally rigid one-entry, one-recipe format, so here's my first entry that doesn't concern actual cooking technique.

This entry has a corresponding Instructable to go along with it, since it concerns building something. And a corresponding Flickr set, too, in case the images on the Instructable are too small to read details like measurements easily.

Instead, it's about growing my own herbs. I've long tried to grow herbs because, well, I use them a lot, but never in huge volume, and I tire of buying them from the grocery store in a bundle at least twice as big as I need for $1.50, and then throwing the rest out when it wilts. One of my goals with cooking is to use everything, to avoid waste, and that's always been a source of inevitable waste.

Curry, Lavender

I built some box gardens for my backyard, and those were doing well while it was still raining, but eventually the blistering heat of the Austin summer managed to finish off my herbs. I've never really been much of a gardener, so I don't really know the right way to prune plants to maximize their growth, the right times to water, and generally how to keep them alive. Plus, I don't spend a lot of time in my backyard. Some days I don't go out there at all. And like they say, out of sight? Out of mind. That hasn't helped the situation any.

In one particularly egregious example, I've tried and failed to grow rosemary (from an existing plant) four times, now. Rosemary grows wild in Austin. There are stores on 6th Street whose sidewalks are lined with giant rosemary hedges. It's a little embarrassing that I can't keep rosemary alive. When I told a guy at a nursery about that recently, he couldn't stop laughing.

Peppermint

Well, I don't give up easily. Why not grow the herbs indoors, I thought? Then I happened to wander into a Sur La Table recently and spot this new gizmo, the AeroGarden, a sleek little black device that grows herbs (or tomatoes or other random plants) aeroponically -- they are suspended in midair, the roots hanging freely down, and the device mists the roots with nutrient-rich water and gives them the appropriate amount of light to grow them at maximum speed. It really does work; the Sur La Table I went into had one set up, and over a couple weeks, those seedlings turned into big, lush plants.

I have three problems with the AeroGarden. First, it's not very big. Even in that image on Amazon with the herbs so fully grown it looks like a jungle, I could easily use all of one of those herbs on a single meal. That's not enough parsley for 1/4c chopped. You couldn't make enough pesto for a single plate of pasta with that basil.

Second, even on Amazon, it's $170 for the device and the herb starters. And third, since it's this wacky aeroponic system, you can't just get seeds. You have to buy their starter kits, and they're about $20 each for the various kinds. Herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, whatever.

Organic, local small herb plants are generally about $2 each from any of the local nurseries, and assuming I manage not to kill them, I can grow those to any size I want. I have a giant pile of garden soil in my backyard still, enough to pot hundreds of herbs, and I have a decent wood shop.

I decided to see what kind of indoor herb garden I could build, and at what cost.

I ended up making a custom corner shelving unit out of the following materials. Every single one, save the tinfoil, was from Home Depot.
  • 24" x 48" sheet of birch plywood: $10
  • some scrap plywood I had sitting around: maybe $5
  • tinfoil: let's say $2
  • big roll of cheap plastic sheeting: $10
  • some shelf brackets: $5
  • a piece of plastic tube: $1
  • two cheap shop lights: $10
  • one old-fashioned outlet timer: $7
  • two compact fluorescent grow light bulbs: $40
  • Total: $90
Ninety bucks! Just over half the price of a single AeroGarden. And the light bulbs alone were almost half of that, at twenty bucks a pop. And, since they're rated for 10,000 hours, I shouldn't have to replace them terribly often.

Plus, I built and installed the whole thing, from scratch, in 4 hours in a single night, and it has a ton of shelf space. I have 15 different herbs on those shelves right now, each in a 5" round terra cotta pot, and there's still some space left.

It came out pretty well, if I may say so myself.

Finished Herb Garden, Lights Off
With the lights off

Finished Herb Garden, Lights On
With the lights on

It actually matches the kitchen pretty well, looks surprisingly attractive. It's also low-maintenance: the plastic sheeting and plastic tubing mean both shelves drain down into a yogurt container on the floor, so while I do have to water the plants by hand, I can just pour water on them and let them drain automatically on their own. The lights are programmed (via the outlet timer) so they bathe the herbs in fake sunlight, currently, from 9am to 5pm. Plus, if it turns out some herbs really prefer less sun, I can put the lights on separate timers and put the light-loving herbs together on one shelf and the others on the other.

It remains to be seen if I can keep them alive now, but I think my chances are as good as they're going to get: everything but the watering is completely automated, the herbs are right smack in front of me in my kitchen where I will see them all the time, and their climate is completely controlled.

If you're interested, I photographed the whole building process and posted it as a fully-annotated, ordered Flickr set. Update! I also wrote up an Instructable for it! There should be enough detail in there for you to completely replicate my design, if you want. It doesn't take terribly sophisticated tools, either: you could cut the wood with a handsaw, even. There aren't many cuts to make. Otherwise, you just need a hot glue gun, staple gun, hammer, screwdriver, and a bunch of tape.

If you're inexperienced with woodworking, you might not finish it in a single evening, but seriously, there is nothing advanced about this construction. I'm pretty confident that anyone could put this together in a weekend.

2.) Diagram

Happy gardening!

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3 Comments:

At October 11, 2007 12:22 AM , Anonymous Nina said...

WOW. That looks fantastic. I know you say that just about anyone could make that, but it probably would have taken me a few months -- at least -- to set it up on my own. Maybe the flickr set would shave that down to a few weeks. :)

 
At October 11, 2007 7:18 AM , Blogger Darius Kazemi said...

I actually saw the same thing you did in Sur La Table, and was intrigued. I think I may actually have to build this.

 
At January 24, 2009 8:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

sweet site, and sweet herb garden setup...gave me the ideas i needed to cover the exposed side of the fridge with a hanging garden. right now it's just a homage to appointment cards...not very attractive or environmentally conscious. p.s. nice stand mixer.

 

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