Starting an Herb Garden
If you love fresh herbs as much as I do, your own herb garden is a must when relocating to Costa Rica. My favorite vendor at our farmers' market sells bunches of basil, mint, rosemary and oregano at dirt cheap prices, but over the past few years living in our Central Valley home, I've grown more keen on the idea of growing my own food.
Costa Rica is known for its rich volcanic soil, and our Central Valley property has some nice, loamy dirt. I found through trial and many deceased plantings, that the key in our garden was getting the herbs off the ground and into a raised platform of some sort. Our neighbor uses hollowed out bamboo stalks for her herbs and small veggies, while our friends down the street prefer PVC piping with small holes drilled in the bottom. After months of losing one herb after another to various nocturnal plant-munchers, we decided to build a proper wooden platform (roughly 4X4 and three feet off the ground), and try again.
When starting an herb garden, location is key. Some plants prefer lots of sun, while others thrive on filtered sunlight and damp soil. If your yard receives sun all day long, you can try planting shade-loving herbs in the shade of taller, sun-loving herbs like oregano, rosemary, or tarragon. Or, you can place some screen mesh on one side of the garden, creating a nice sun shade during peak hours of the day. In my experience, mint plants really need the shade, while the rest of my aromatics -- lemongrass, tarragon, basil, sage and rosemary-- flourish with moderate sunlight.
My first stop was our plant nursery, known locally as the vivero, where I purchased each herb starter plant for $1 a piece. I combined roughly three parts regular dirt from our garden with one part quality top soil from the nursery. To this I added rich compost retrieved from our garden, along with as many earthworms I could find. Before transplanting the herbs out of their nursery bags into the garden, I watered the root balls thoroughly to encourage growth. After planting, I watered each herb generously, then added organic fertilizer, and the waiting game began. Two weeks later and my basil was under attack, but a natural pesticide made with garlic and onion did the trick.
Thanks to Costa Rica's tropical climate, temperatures rarely drop below the low 70's in our neck of the woods, so there's no need to worry about wintertime frosts. Now -- six months later -- 90% of my herbs have really taken off, especially the tarragon. I've since added two chili pepper plants to the garden, which surprised us with tons of chilies within weeks of being planted.
Herb Garden Maintenance:
- Watering and drainage are very important. Always water new herbs regularly, but once they are established, reduce the watering by half. Be sure that the soil is saturated but well-drained – this will stop root rot.
- Fertilize your herbs at least once a month with organic fertilizer, which you can buy at any plant nursery.
- Prune leaves on a regular basis to promote healthy growth; remove dead flowers and leaves, and rid your garden of all weeds.
- An organic pesticide, either commercially produced or homemade, will help prevent aphids and other pests from destroying your herbs.
Pairing Herbs with Cuisine:
- Basil leaves are the perfect complement to goat cheese, mozzarella or tomatoes
- Rub sage leaves and butter on whole chicken before roasting
- Blend tarragon with 1 clove of garlic and olive oil for a delicious salad dressing
- Rosemary and mint are wonderful accompaniments for lamb
- Add sprigs of mint to your favorite tea or cocktail
- Sprinkle dill over salmon or trout for extraordinary flavor
- Oregano spices up your Italian red sauces and is fabulous in omelets as well