Costa Rica Garden in a jar
One of my lifelong dreams has been to take care of a garden without inadvertently killing all of the plants in it. My “black thumb” has a long track record of being the curse of death for anything pretty and green. This week, I decided to change all that.
First, I took a taxi to the local vivero, or nusery. They didn’t have any seeds, so instead I purchased some starter plants. I got all of this for $12, spending $2 per plant on thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, lemongrass and hierbabuena (spearmint).
Next, it was time to figure out where to plant them. For the container garden of my dreams, I was determined to use 100 percent recycled materials. After a 10-minute walk around Tamarindo, I found more garbage than I could have hoped for, including: a bunch of wooden pallets, a pile of fertile compost ready for planting, a trash can, the wire cage part of a fan, two empty jugs of water and an interesting-shaped cinder block.
Sadly, I quickly realized that all of these items were far too ugly to bring inside my house. Sorry, nature – recycled trash just doesn’t cut it for this project. I promptly rode my bike to Automercado to buy some beautiful pint-sized mason jars to use as containers (if they’d had quart-sized in stock, I would have preferred those).
DISCLAIMER: This paragraph is geared toward botanically-challenged people like myself, who have absolutely NO PRIOR KNOWLEDGE of gardening. If you know anything at all about taking care of plants, you can skip this next part.
The challenging thing about plants is that you really have to pay attention to them. Unless you’re very in touch with nature, it’s often not terribly obvious that they are sick until it’s too late. Although herbs are perhaps the easiest thing to grow, you still need to check on them every day.
So let’s go over how to care for a plant. As we all learned in the third grade, plants need water, CO2 and light in order to photosynthesize energy. They also need fertile soil in order to thrive. When you water a plant, the liquid drips down into the soil and hydrates the roots, allowing them to soak up whatever nutrients are in the dirt. The rest of the water collects at the bottom where, if you don’t allow for proper drainage, it will get moldy and gross and eventually kill your plant. Since you can’t exactly poke a hole in a mason jar (unless you have a glass-tipped drill lying around), you are going to make your own type of drainage system by piling rocks at the bottom to provide a bit of separation between the water and the soil.
You always want about a centimeter of water at the bottom of the jar near the rocks. Keep in mind these jars have very little drainage, so be SUPER careful not to overwater – remember, there is nowhere for excess water to go but up.
Recycled containers, pots or the largest mason jars you can find ($2 per pint jar at Automercado)
Small stones or gravel (free)
Potting soil (cheap)
Activated charcoal (optional, cheap)
Fertilizer or worm casings (optional, cheap)
Cuttings (roughly $2 per plant at your local nursery)
Optional wood pallets for a decorative box (free or cheap if you ask around)
Total cost for a garden of 6 plants: $12-30
Prep work: Identify your most agriculturally savvy friend.
Just by mentioning this project to my friends and neighbors, one of them offered some charcoal to put in my jars – which will help hold nutrients and aerate the soil. Joy! Recruiting a knowledgeable gardening supervisor is ideal, but if you can’t find one that’s alright, too.
Step 1: Clean and prep the containers (in my case, the mason jars).
Rinse them out and take the tags off. Put about two inches of pebbles or lastre on the bottom. Top that with about quarter of an inch of activated charcoal, if you have it, and fill to three-quarters with soil (leave some space to put the actual plant).
Step 2: Remove the starter plants from their bags and free their roots.
Make sure the soil is slightly moist, cut the bags away, and squish the dirt in your hands until much of the soil crumbles away. This frees the root system, and will probably take a bit more force than you’re comfortable with. Stifle your gentler instincts and get down to business. So long as you aren’t ferociously ripping the roots apart, I’m told the plant will be just fine.
Step 3: Place them in the jars, and fill in remaining space with dirt.
Voilá! You’re done.
*Optional Step 4: Hammer together a rustic box to hold your jars.
I found several wooden pallets in my search for recyclable goods, and sloppily nailed them together to make a simple box. It’s a great way to display my brand new mason jar herb garden. Although hammer-and-nailing seems self-explanatory, if you have no experience in carpentry I recommend watching a YouTube video on how to properly execute this task.
Start thinking of your plants as having unique preferences and personalities, and I guarantee they’ll grow better. Each strain requires a slightly different method of care, and some will require transplanting to a larger pot as they grow.
Unlike most living things, thyme thrives on neglect. Keep the soil dry and don’t water it very often. Keep it in direct sunlight. Thyme is not acclimated to hot areas, so don’t expect it to live that long unless you grow it in a fairly cool place. Supposedly, it doesn’t matter how closely you trim a thyme plant – it will always grow back (I have yet to test this theory). If you have trouble keeping your thyme healthy, try a different variety or using more pebbly soil.
Like thyme, oregano does not require much attention. It likes rather sandy soil, at least six hours of sunlight per day and lots of drainage. Keep the soil moist, but be careful not to overwater – most websites recommend watering once per week, but use your judgement if the soil looks too dry. You want to get rid of any flowers as they appear, and begin harvesting it as soon as you see leaves. If the plant starts bending, move it closer to the light source; if the leaves start getting toasty or turning brown, move it away. In addition to being a delicious addition to Italian and Mediterranean dishes, oregano is also useful brewed in teas for treating upset stomachs.
If you’re taking good care of it, your basil plant will soon need a larger pot because of its extensive root system – but a mason jar will do for now. You want the water to be slightly damp but never soggy. This herb naturally wards off bugs, is a flavorful staple for many types of cooking and is positively amazing in pesto (just toss a bunch of it into a food processor with pine nuts and olive oil). Beginner gardeners should definitely include this non-finicky, easy-to-grow plant in their first garden for a fat dose of confidence.
The Greeks thought rosemary was good for mental focus, and encouraged students to consume it before studying for exams. It does not grow very well in Costa RIca, so don’t freak out when it dies after 2-3 months. Rosemary is delicious in chicken dishes and sauces – enjoy it while it lasts!
Lemongrass is generally very easy to cultivate in Costa Rica. It tastes amazing in teas and Thai dishes, plus it can be a pretty decent insect repellant if you rub it over your arms and legs. Lemongrass typically needs a lot of sunshine, so once its got a good start in your mason jar, you might want to transplant it to either a larger pot outside or directly into the ground. I put mine in a large pot outside that a) allows the lemongrass sunshine and b) provides a bit of elevation from local beach dogs that might otherwise pee on it. Meanwhile, I always keep a small “starter” cutting in a mason jar in the house.
HIERBABUENA (a.k.a. YERBABUENA)
The “good herb.” Different than menta, hierbabuena (also spelled yerbabuena) refers to a special type of mint similar to spearmint. Aside from being awesome in mojitos, it is often applied by naturalists as a pain reliever for headaches, toothaches and arthritis. Hierbabuena needs significantly more water than the other plants; it also prefers partial shade. Mist once per day if you really want to coddle it. If you have a tendency to overwater, you might need to move this to a container with better drainage than a mason jar (something with holes poked in the bottom so the excess water can spill out).
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