Joel Toledo, owner of Green Door Nursery in Naples, aspires to help his customers cultivate a nurturing relationship with the plants they take home. In addition to conducting speaking engagements in the community, he also holds classes at his nursery. Here, he lays out the groundwork for building a burgeoning herb garden.
NI: What are the key necessities in a backyard herb garden?
Toledo: Start off with a great location. Choose a sunny or partially sunny spot, and consider accessibility. Being able to get to your herb garden in a pinch if you’re whipping up something for dinner as well getting a garden hose to your herb garden easily is important for thirsty herbs. It’s also essential to use a good quality soil mix. I recommend Fafard container mix. It is perfectly suited for South Florida weather, and we find that you can grow a variety of herbs and plants in it for beds or containers.
What should you use to start your garden—seeds, seedlings, or plants?
When advising customers here at the nursery, I recommend starting your herb garden with seedlings and plants because our growing season here for herbs is fairly short. The ideal growing and planting times are from October through May. Using plants that are a bit more established allows more time to use and enjoy them.
What are the biggest mistakes home herb gardeners often make?
The first common mistake is that herbs do not like very hot, dry locations; rosemary is the exception. Your herb garden should be receiving water two to three times a week and five to seven hours of sun. You also want to be sure that your herb plants are locally grown. Often times big box stores or grocery stores offer herb plants for sale, but typically they are grown out of state. Here in South Florida, we have a very specific climate, so as soon as you put them outside they quickly die. You will have a better success rate if you [purchase your herbs] from local nurseries and garden centers like us. All our plants here at the nursery are locally grown specifically for South Florida.
What are a few safe bets in terms of herb selection?
My personal favorites for not only cooking but the ease of care are rosemary, oregano, thyme, fennel, basil, chive, and mint—for mojitos!
What about some unexpected picks?
Society garlic. It is one of the few garlic plants you can grow in South Florida as a perennial. The leaves, bulb, and pretty purple flower are all edible and have a great garlic aroma. The plant is also a deer repellent and its crushed leaves are a natural mosquito repellent. Ginger is a perennial plant that grows well here. It grows from thick, white, tuberous, underground rhizomes that are very aromatic. The leaves are very attractive, and it also has fragrant white flowers that add a nice ornamental touch to the garden.
Beyond planting a garden in an existing bed, what are some alternatives?
I typically recommend herb gardens be done in containers, raised beds, and hanging baskets. Raised beds allow you to dedicate certain areas to just herb gardening as well as the ability to protect herbs from pests and chilly weather in containers, raised beds, and hanging baskets. Raised beds allow you to dedicate certain areas to just herb gardening as well as the ability to protect herbs from pests and chilly weather in the winter season. Containers and baskets allow the ability to rearrange and move around herbs in different locations throughout your garden to see which areas work best for them. A beautiful hanging herb basket is really fantastic in a lanai patio setting. Not only are they charming to look at and easier to collect from, but they also help [to keep away] any pest that wants to munch on the very delicate herbs. Herbs can be grown in a variety of container gardens. I typically recommend terra-cotta or ceramics as the best. I also like to put companion plants in herb gardens. Marigold flowers have natural bug-repellent qualities and are also edible so they serve dual purposes in an herb garden, as do pansies, which can be used in cooking, baking, and salad recipes.
What do you suggest for maintenance?
Typically with herbs, you want to use and pinch often. Pinching refers to taking the first inch or two off of the plants. This will encourage herbs to push out and become full. You want to water two to three times a week, but make sure that the leaves dry quickly between watering as too much water sitting on the foliage will cause fungus and rot issues quickly…. Because most of the popular herbs we are growing and using in South Florida are short-lived [i.e. basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro, and fennel] you’ll find that you have to change