As the days grow longer and the chill of winter begins to thaw, the promise of spring gardening beckons! For many of us, the prospect of cultivating a thriving garden can be both exciting and daunting. With so much information available and countless variables to consider, where does one even begin? The good news: There are tons of medicinal herbs you can grow in your yard or balcony that are low maintenance and quite forgiving!

So, whether you’re pondering the best herbs to grow in your kitchen window or seeking advice on preparing your soil for the season ahead, this spring gardening Q&A is here to guide you as you embark on your gardening journey.

We interviewed Alexandra Rosenberg-Rigutto, a farmer, educator, kitchen herbalist, and devoted home cook living in the Great Lakes Basin. Alex directs and operates The Farber Farm and is building Northwoods Farmstead and Skill Center with her husband.  She hopes to empower others to find uplifting food and medicine in their bioregions, gardens, and kitchens. Follow along on instagram and check out her newly released Herbal Infusion Handbook.

Q: What are your top tips for the beginner gardener who is looking to start their home garden?

My #1 tip for home gardeners would be to focus on getting to know their soil types and soil needs first and foremost.  While planning all of the varieties of veggies, herbs and flowers you’d like to grow is super fun and often takes up much of our focus, our garden’s successes will always be bound with the attention we give our soil.  

Once you’ve picked an appropriate place to set up your garden beds (ideally a place that receives plenty of sunlight, is protected from predation, and has water access readily available), hop online and print out a soil testing worksheet from your choice of laboratory (I recommend Logan Labs in Ohio).  Follow the worksheet’s instructions, take your soil samples, and send them out for testing.  Once you receive your results, you will have a clear roadmap of what nutrients and amendments your soil may need to support proper plant growth.  

Think of this soil test as an HTMA test or blood work testing – but for your garden.  Proper amending or “soil supplementing” will ensure that our plants have the nutrition they need to support healthy growth patterns and robust crops!

Q: Could you recommend some beginner-friendly herbs or plants to grow in a spring garden?

My favorite beginner friendly herbs for spring harvests: Cilantro, Calendula, Mint (in a pot!!), Chives, Chamomile, Borage, Dill, Scallions.  

Also consider foraging: Dandelion, Burdock, Cleavers, Violets, Chickweed etc.  In fact, these common spring herbs may already be growing as “weeds” in your garden.

Beginner friendly spring harvest vegetables: Radishes, salad turnips, kale, arugula, head lettuce, mustard greens, fava beans, sugar snap/snow/shelling peas

Q: How do you determine which herbs or plants are suitable for spring planting in a particular region or climate?

In the farm and garden space, we refer to crops as either “cool season” crops or “warm season crops”. Spring, a semi “cool season”, can vary from place to place but generally speaking, the plants we grow in this time can tolerate light frosts, cold nights, and shorter daylight hours. In fact, these are vegetables that thrive in these cooler conditions, producing a much sweeter, milder tasting, and tender harvest. Have you ever tasted a super spicy and fibrous radish? That radish may have been grown in a hot season, turning spicy with the water and heat stress the plant encountered.  On the other hand, a heat loving tomato plant set out too early may quickly perish during a late spring frost.

Q: What are some common mistakes beginners make when starting a spring garden, and how can we avoid them?

We tend to get SO EXCITED about the growing season ahead that we jump the gun and set all of our plants out with no built-in support or action plan. Investing in your garden needs to be coupled with the discipline to not only maintain it properly, but to use our discernment and not test mother nature too much without a backup plan (such as having protective frost covers or watering systems in place in case of dry weather). 

So many folks start their transplants several weeks too early and begin planting hot season crops like basil, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc on the first warm day of spring without realizing that the nighttime temperatures may wipe out all of that hard work! We are all much better off when we have a planting strategy based on our local weather patterns.

Q: Can you share some tips for preparing the soil for spring planting?

First, start with a soil test! We would never start a supplement or herbal routine without knowing what we are trying to address first. Same thing goes for our soil amendments. Spring is an excellent time to add our amendments, compost, and trace minerals to our soil to ensure our plants have the nutrition they need for a successful season. Having a mulching plan in place is also a great idea.  Mulch will help us conserve water, reduce weeds, and feed the microbiology of our soil. I love using good quality, locally grown, unsprayed oat or wheat straw for mulch.

Q: What tools and equipment do you consider essential for beginners starting a spring garden?

Investing in a good irrigation or watering system is key! Out of all the fancy garden gadgets, a good quality watering system is the key to maintaining your spring efforts . This could look like soaker hoses, drip tubing, timers, or even just a long hose and a watering wand. Watering plants should be efficient and as simple as possible. Neglecting this piece of the puzzle will leave you very frustrated on hot days.

I am also quite partial to Japanese made hand tools. I love my Japanese Hori Hori garden knives and Japanese hand hoes for smaller-scale projects.

Q: What are some resources or books you recommend for beginners looking to learn more about spring gardening?

A few of my favorite farm and garden books are:

  • The Cut Flower Garden 
  • The New Organic Grower
  • Botany For Gardeners
  • The Holistic Orchard
  • Teaming With Microbes

Q: What are best practices for harvesting and drying herbs?

Herb harvest is a bit more complex than we generally think.  Depending on the plant part in question, there may be a specific time of day or year that yields the best quality.  Here is a brief breakdown:

  • LEAVES: Best harvested in the coolness of the morning time before the sun has had a chance to heat the plants.  There is a term we use in farming called “trigger pressure” – meaning, the amount of fluid in the leaves of leafy plants.  Leaves have a high amount of “trigger pressure” in the morning time due to the ambient moisture that often settles on the plants and soil as dew, as well as positionality of the moon (like the ocean tides!).  Water is higher in the soil strata in the night and early mornings, leaving plant tissues ultra hydrated.  This means your leafy green harvests will stay fresher, crisper, and less wilty for longer.  Cleaning and getting these materials into a dryer immediately will yield super high quality dried herb results!
nettle leaf harvest pictured here
  • FLOWERS: Flowers should be harvested on a dry, sunny day, and most often in the late morning or high noon (depending on the flower).  We want to harvest flowers when they are in their most open expression and on their first day of being fully bloomed before too much insect pollination occurs.  This delicate plant material should never be handled wet as it could degrade and bruise the tissues.  Flowers should be processed immediately!
  • ROOTS:  Roots are typically harvested either in the very early spring before the plant wakes up for the season, or in the late fall after the plant has died back for the year.  We want to dig our roots while the plant’s energies are inside of the root during these dormant times, rather than when the plant is putting its energy towards leaf growth or seed/flower production.  Carefully digging roots and making sure to clean them and process them right away is key, though the processing can sometimes wait longer than with tender above ground plant parts.

No matter what part of the plant you are working with, achieving a totally dry finished product protected from UV light is paramount to long term best quality storage.

Q: What do you suggest if someone really wants a garden but lives in the city and doesn’t have the space?

Find a community garden to join!  While growing in pots and raised beds is very rewarding and empowering, the joy that you will find gardening with others in your community is well worth it.  You will learn so much from your neighbors and engage with folks who you may have otherwise never crossed paths with.  Community gardens are incredible and often offer shared tools, water, and other resources to members.

Q: What are your favorite things to grow in your spring garden and how do you use them in your kitchen?

I am a North Country dweller, so our winters are long, cold, dark, and full of heavier tending foods.  The first tender and pungent vegetables and herbs of spring are always so welcome in our kitchen! My personal favorites are Allium family herbs like spring onions and chives, as well as Brassica family veggies like tender radishes, arugula, salad turnips and mustard greens. 

We typically have giant, herbaceous, green salads dressed with herbal vinegars to accompany our meals which encourage digestion, add volume and fiber, and are so flavorful!  Pungent scallions snipped into almost any dish are a favorite spring seasoning.  The ultimate spring treat would have to be Rapini- which is the flowering stalk of overwintered brassicas like kale and collards.  They are super tender and cook up perfectly flash roasted in a blazing hot cast iron pan with your favorite herbs and a sprinkle of parm!

Q: Is there anything that you wish you knew about gardening when you first started? 

My first garden was a total disaster!  I had no idea what I was doing and made a ton of costly and frustrating mistakes. The  #1 nugget of wisdom that I wish I knew was that it WILL get better! Garden losses feel huge in the moment, especially in the beginning. But I truly believe that ABUNDANCE is the way nature wishes to express herself and that every garden failure is usually met with fruitful successes later on in the season!  Just keep trying!

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