By Jane Villa

With so many herbs of herbs out there and a limited space in urban gardens, how do we choose which ones to plant? In Metro Manila, some are fortunate to have big yards and garden areas, while others have small spaces such as in balconies or rooftops of condominium to consider.

I am pleasantly surprised with the kinds of plants that grow and thrive in Metro Manila, as shared by members of our urban gardening group on Facebook, Manila Grows Food. I have seen people share success stories on growing herbs that come from different, mostly cooler climates and have found a place in our city, such as lavender, basil, mint, rosemary, and thyme.

Space considerations, container gardening

A lot of planting projects are hampered by the wrong thinking that one does not have enough space for anything. The good thing with herbs is majority can practically grow in any container, making them the ideal plants to grow if one doesn’t have access to a yard or if one lives in a condominium. Realistically, the bigger the pot or the area, the bigger your plants will be. However, in my experience, a 5 inches (in) (length) x 5 in (width) x 5 in (diameter) planter can sufficiently house basil, mint, thyme, or Italian oregano and provide you with a bunch of leaves for drinks for a couple of servings in a week.

Mint cuttings. You can plant these directly in the soil by removing the lower leaves and inserting stems carefully.

My space is a 15 foot x 10 foot area of our rooftop which I converted into a container gardening area that I call Madison Squarefoot Gardens, and across it is the bar area where I keep spirits, coffee, and tea for fixing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks for myself and the family.

The most useful herbs to use in a home bar

The most useful herbs to plant at home depends on one’s purpose. Do you cook a lot and want to incorporate herbs in food? Or do you like new flavors in drinks, both alcoholic and not?

In my case, I first decided to grow herbs that I can pick fresh and add to gin and tonics and basic lemon-based alcoholic drinks. The choice of herbs to plant was determined according to the type that are most useful with the drinks our family liked.

Basil

I find basil to be the most useful herb to plant because I can use them in a lot of ways. Gin goes well with basil, and I can easily make a gin and tonic or gin smash with it.

Lemon and lime basil, as their name suggests, has a lemon and lime scent and flavor. They are useful if I do not have any lemons or limes on hand.

Greek basil is my current gem. It is so small which make it perfect for my 5 in planters. The leaves are aromatic and can be used on any recipe that calls for sweet basil. I use this frequently on garlic rice!

I like Thai basil with a basic London Dry Gin such as Tanqueray, for use in a savory drink like a gin-based Bloody Mary.

Sweet basil is a must-have in any home. This was one of my first herbs and though I do not have this cultivar right now, they died on me, unfortunately, I am definitely going to grow them again.

Citrus garden

Because I like citrus-based drinks, including iced lemon black tea, Arnold Palmer, and most classic cocktails call for lemon and/or lime juice, it makes sense for me to grow citrusy herbs and plants in my garden. And as I mentioned above, the way lemon and lime basils smell sort of fall into this category, too.

I am also growing lemon balm which is an excellent tea on its own. Its lemon and minty scent and taste makes it go well with plenty of refreshing non-alcoholic and alcoholic mixes for the home. It is also a great at repelling mosquitoes. Crush a bunch of leaves and rub on the skin for instant mosquito repelling action.

While not herbs, I find these relevant to mention to this article: Recently, I have acquired a grafted citrus seedling. The person who gave me the plant forgot which citrus fruit will grow from it. I also have Meyer lemon and American lemon seedlings. All of them have yet to bear fruit, however, I am excited to learn how to grow them and look forward to the yield. I would like to add our own calamansi plant to my garden soon.

Mint, rosemary, thyme

These three, together with basil, are essential herbs for the home bar. If you have to grow only four herb plants, I would suggest choosing these four as combination. I must admit that I find growing these pretty challenging in my area as I have not been successful so far.

Mint is the most used herb in plenty of classic cocktails like the Mint Julep, Mojito, Gimlet. I have grown Swiss mint and spearmint in my garden, though I do not have them right now.

Rosemary can be used in Gin & Tonic. It is also an excellent herb to use with grilled food which one might want to serve with drinks!

Thyme is great with drinks recipes that call for honey, lemon, and vodka or gin.

Extras, expansion, and experimental

As you grow deeper in urban gardening, you will soon find yourself unable to stop planting new plant babies. Eventually, space constraints will be a problem one will think about later.

I find myself trying to see if a certain plant will grow in my garden. Some of the herbs I have tried include sage, lavender, borage, salad burnet, coriander, chervil, dill, marjoram, and Italian oregano.

Herb care 

Most people begin their herb growing journey by buying seedlings. This gives new gardeners a quick start as they can already use the herb leaves as soon as they bring the seedlings at home. That is also how I started with my first five being rosemary, Swiss mint, stevia, Italian oregano, and lemon balm. While none of my original five has survived to date, that has not stopped me from continuing to grow new plants.

Herbs are simple to maintain once established. The main things to consider with herbs are to make sure its pot has good drainage, that they are not overwatered, and that they are pruned regularly to encourage bushiness and growth. Herbs hardly need fertilizing apart from the occasional addition of compost or vermicompost to its soil or growing medium.

For in depth instructions on growing each type of herb, I go to websites gardeningknowhow.com and harvesttotable.com.

A lot of herbs have died in the course of my urban gardening days, but some also seem to die and grow back when left alone. I find that those I watch closely tend to be weaker, and those that I forget in one area of the garden for a month or so would give out stronger, better-looking leaves.

My personal advice based on observation is to continue even when some of our herbs do not make it. A lot of times, we give up on herbs faster than they give up on us, so do not be discouraged!

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2020 issue.