Saturday, November 15, 2014
Monday, March 24, 2014
Ask the Expert: How Do I Improve My Digestion?By Denis Faye
In a way, it's strange that this question needs addressing. After all, digestion is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, meaning it happens automatically. It's not like exercise or sleep or any other bodily function that we can control. You eat and it gets digested. No instructions necessary.
Or, maybe not. After all, just about everyone—myself included—has digestion issues from time to time, which is why TUMS® and Pepto-Bismol® are household names. (For the record, ginger tea with a hint of honey is a much more holistic—not to mention yummier—way to fight indigestion.)
How do you know if your digestion needs a little fine-tuning? Obvious signs include heartburn, excess gas, and too many/too few bowel movements. (One visit to the white throne a day is ideal.) If you really want to get into detail, your transit time—the time it takes food to get from one end to the other—should be about 24 hours. To test this, eat 2 to 3 beets in one sitting. Without getting too graphic, it will be extremely obvious when they've worked their way to your stool. If it's within a day or two, that's a good thing. If not, the tips below should help get things moving.
(Warning: The beet test can also turn your urine red—and in much less time than 24 hours. This is normal, albeit freaky. Don't panic.)
1. Drink More Water
Many of you would really, really like me to tell you that when you eat butter, barbeque sauce, and bacon fat they keep your body lubricated. Sadly, this isn't the case. It's water that keeps everything flowing smoothly throughout your whole body, including your gastrointestinal tract.
Drink at least half your weight in ounces daily. (If you weigh 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces of H2O.) This is an excellent way to aid digestion—particularly if you're having a hard time backing the brown bus out of the garage . . . if you know what I'm saying. https://www.facebook.com/FocusedOnFitnessWithAndyProvost
Some people say you should avoid drinking water when you're eating because it dilutes stomach acid, thus hampering digestion. Personally, I don't buy into this. Fruits like melon and citrus are loaded with water. Should we not eat those? If you feel you digest better if you don't drink at the same time, then listen to your body. For everyone else, I think it's OK to drink water while you eat.
2. Eat Slower
Digestion is hard work. Whatever you eat has to be broken all the way down to molecules—and that's a big job! By eating slower and completely chewing your food, you save the rest of your system a lot of effort, and you thoroughly mix saliva into your meal. The enzymes in your saliva aid digestion by allowing the breakdown process to begin before the food even gets to your stomach.
Also, eating slower makes it easier for you to judge how full you are. It takes your belly about 10 to 30 minutes to tell your brain that it's full. Ever rush through a big meal and then end up feeling overstuffed less than half an hour later? That's why. Slow down chow time and you'll start recognizing the signals that your body is full before you overeat.
3. Consume Smaller Meals
Your body processes food better when you eat less of it in one sitting. If you eat five or six smaller meals a day, your body will have an easier time digesting them and better absorb the nutrients.
If you want to see this theory in action, consider the last time you took a multivitamin and your urine turned bright yellow. This happened because your body was flushing out excess vitamin B. Now, if you were to chop up the pill and take it over the day in five or six parts, odds are your pee wouldn't go neon. This is because you were better able to absorb the B vitamins. The same goes for all the nutrients in your meals. (For the record, you don't need to do this. You're still getting plenty of benefit from your multivitamin without going through the stress of partitioning it.)
Another benefit of smaller meals is that, like eating slower, it helps you avoid stuffing yourself, which isn't great for digestion and, frankly, feels terrible.
4. Eat More Fiber
I'd need a whole separate article to explain all the benefits of fiber, but one of the most important things it does is to act like a broom to sweep your food down the intestinal hallway and shove what you don't use out the back door. Insoluble fiber is especially good for this and can be found in whole grains, seeds, nuts, and fruit and veggie skins.
But keep in mind, there is too much of a good thing. If you plan to up your fiber, do it slowly, maybe increasing it 5 grams a day. Otherwise, there's a good chance that you'll find yourself with a serious case of the toots. For most people, between 25 grams and 50 grams daily is a good range.
5. Eat Less Fried and Greasy Food
This isn't an excuse to get you to eat less junk. Some fat in your diet is a good thing, but too much can overwhelm your system, which is why heartburn and acid reflux are common when you eat one Buffalo wing too many. They're also a trigger for diarrhea, so they're basically nailing your tract on both sides. On the other hand, not eating enough dietary fat can cause constipation, so make sure you get enough healthy fats in your diet, including omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flax, as well as nuts, avocados, seeds, and "good" oils such as extra-virgin olive oil and coconut oil.
6. Supplement Your Diet With, Um, Supplements
All along your gastrointestinal tract are proteins called enzymes that break down the various macronutrients you've eaten. A few of the better known ones include protease, which breaks down protein; lipase, which breaks down fat; and amylase, which breaks down carbs. If you don't think they're doing the job, you can supplement with more digestive enzymes. Shakeology® happens to have an excellent enzyme blend that includes all the above-mentioned enzymes—and more.
Another supp proven to aid digestion are probiotics. Once food gets to your small intestine, a whole ecosystem of bacteria aid in breaking it down. Unfortunately, "bad" bacteria can often overwhelm "good" bacteria, so it's a good idea to send reinforcements down there from time to time in the form of probiotics. Shakeology also happens to contain an excellent probiotic strain: lactobacillus sporogenes, which has been proven to promote bowel health.
You can also get healthy bacteria from fermented foods like yogurt, kimchee, and kombucha.
7. Get Some ExerciseAnd you thought Brazil Butt Lift® was just for your rump! Working out helps keep things moving down south in a number of ways. It speeds up your metabolism, which speeds up digestion; it promotes blood flow, which makes all systems in your body run smoother; and it tones the muscles in your digestive tract. Now you can tell people you have a six-pack colon. (Don't actually do that. It's a joke.)
8. Keep a Food Journal
If you have digestive issues, you could have a food intolerance. The usual culprits are dairy, soy, and gluten. There are also foods that cause "intestinal discomfort" for many people, including beans and artificial sweeteners. Keeping track of everything you eat allows you to look for patterns in your digestion. When things aren't working properly, you can look back and make connections between that and what you ate, and if you're also tracking your exercise, your activity level. Also, if you get to the point that you need to see a nutritionist or dietician, they're going to ask you to journal anyway, so you might as well get a jump on the process. Just get yourself a notebook and write down everything you eat and drink, as well as how it makes you feel. (Here's a tip: "Bloated and gassy" is usually a bad sign.)
Digestion should come naturally. Unfortunately, in the age of processed food and sedentary lifestyles, it may need a little help. So follow these tips. With a little fine-tuning—and a lot of fiber—you'll be able to tell your bowels who's boss in no time.
Friday, March 21, 2014
Are You Making These Salad Bar Mistakes?By Zack Zeigler
You can breathe a sigh of relief. We're going to spare you the lecture filled with impractical "rules" for what you should or shouldn't eat at the salad bar. Instead, we're going to level with you about how to refine a few of your salad bar habits with some practical tips.
Don't worry, that doesn't include discussing table napkin etiquette or a brief history of the salad fork (that's the smaller, shorter fork, by the way). But it does include tips for how you can eat the foods you want while keeping your diet in check.
Mistake #1: You Don't Realize Salad Isn't "Free"
You might avoid the iceberg and head straight for romaine, kale, spinach, and mixed greens, but it doesn't take much to ruin what could be a healthy meal. Calorie-dense add-ons like shredded cheese, pasta, or those crunchy sesame noodles won't cause your spare tire to inflate . . . if you are mindful that they are much higher in calories than nutrient-packed veggies like cucumbers and peppers, or fruits like apricots and tomatoes. (We know, we know—some of you consider tomato a vegetable. The outcome of the Supreme Court case Nix v. Hedden  says you're wrong. Yes, theSupreme Court seriously spent time deciding that.)
Mistake #2: You Eat Too Much "Good" Fat
Fats are essential. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in salmon, eggs, olive oil, avocados, and nuts can help fight disease and regulate cholesterol levels. But an ounce of fat also contains more than twice as many calories as an ounce of carbohydrates or protein, so a truck-sized load of "good" fat on your plate still spells bad news for your gut.
Don't avoid fats entirely. Just don't pile 'em on. Use the thumb rule. When you're adding a serving of a fatty food, use about a thumb's worth. Generally, you don't need more than two thumbs' worth of fat on a salad, so maybe a wedge of avocado and a small spoonful of chopped nuts. (And you thought thumbs were just for rating movies.)
Mistake #3: Your Plate is Monochromatic
No need to hit every shade on the color wheel, but a hodgepodge of reds, oranges, yellows, and greens does more than pretty up your salad; it adds variety to your diet and delivers a variety of essential nutrients—particularly phytonutrients, which are unique to fruits and veggies—when consumed.
"Darker color veggies like broccoli, spinach, peppers, and carrots have the most nutritional value," explains Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, about phytonutrients. "But each color—red cranberries, white onions, orange carrots, green peppers—has different antioxidant properties and different ways to protect against things like cancer or heart disease."
Since variables like your sex, age, and how active you are determine how many fruits and vegetables you should consume per day, let this plug-and-play calculator from the Center from Disease Control and Prevention crunch the numbers for you.
Mistake #4: You Avoid Carbs
If you've turned your back on carbs, fearing they'll make you fat, it's time to put your hat in hand and apologize to them. Carbohydrates don't make you fat (hint: lettuce—and all other vegetables—are carbs); consuming too many calories does. So if you're training hard, you most likely want to go heavier on the healthy carbs, given they're your body's primary fuel source.
"Body weight can increase after a carbohydrate-rich meal because carbs hold water in the body," Clark says. "When you carbo-load, for every ounce of carbohydrates you store in your muscle as glycogen, you store about three ounces of water. So when someone eats a bunch of pasta and wakes up the next day feeling like they've gained two pounds, they have gained water weight, not fat."
Mistake #5: You Really Love Dressing
We've all done it; after pouring our blood, sweat, and tears into making a perfectly balanced salad, the whole operation goes kablooey after we drown it in an inch of dressing.
"Put the dressing in a side dish, dip your fork into the dressing, and then stab a forkful of salad," she suggests. "You can also dilute the dressing with water, vinegar, or even some milk if it's a creamy dressing." Clark adds, "A little bit of dressing on a big salad can be a lot of dressing. Say three tablespoons of dressing is 200 calories. If you have six tablespoons worth of dressing, that's 400 calories. So if you're using all of it, you could have had a piece of pizza."www.focusedOnFitness.Com
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
5 Reasons You Could Be Gaining WeightBy Steve Edwards
Nothing taps your panic button quite like gaining weight, especially when you're on a weight loss program. Unfortunately, it's an inevitable fact of life. Luckily, you've got me here to tell you that, as long as you're following a solid program, results will come. It's a physiological certainty (unless you have an underlying issue, like hypothyroidism).
I realize this might take further convincing, considering our instant-gratification society. But this ain't my first weight loss rodeo. I've seen almost every scenario you can dream up, most of which were solved by patience. That said, there are some strategies you can use to ensure you're getting the most out of both your diet and exercise program. Let's tackle five of the most common weight loss conundrums.
- I'm following the program perfectly. Why isn't it working?! Cortisol is a word you should become familiar with, as it's a key factor here. You've probably heard that it makes you fat, but you have no idea why "they" say that. What is cortisol? It's actually a performance-enhancing stress hormone that serves an important function in survival situations. Unfortunately, when we force too much daily stress on our bodies, we shift into a state of chronic cortisol release. This can cause us to store excess fat as a survival instinct. While it sounds pretty dire, it's generally only a serious problem in those with poor lifestyle habits.
The beginning of a diet and/or exercise program, however, is a survival situation. In a very simplistic sense, your body releases cortisol, which, in turn, causes excess water retention to help you rebuild broken down muscle tissue. While this is cortisol functioning properly, it does lead to a period of water weight gain as you adjust to a new program. It's nothing to worry about. By following a solid plan, your body will adapt by repairing this muscle tissue. This results in an increase in your metabolism and leads to weight loss if that's your goal.
The trick is that there is no hard line on how long this adaptation takes. It's based on your individual parameters. Just rest easy in the fact that it will happen, unless you force it not to, leading us to . . .
- I'm barely eating. Severe undereating causes cortisol release, as it's the definition of a bodily emergency. Beachbody® offers many kick-start (or express) eating plans where you undereat for a few days, but you're always encouraged to get back to a solid maintenance calorie level quickly. A short period of strategic undereating with proper hydration will help your body dispense of unneeded food (most of us chronically overeat) and regulate bodily functions. Go too long, however, and chronic cortisol release is the result.
This is a tough situation because our natural reaction to weight gain is to eat less. When you're exercising, it's important to keep your eye on workout performance, as opposed to how much weight you're losing. You should be eating enough so that your daily workouts improve over time. As long as that's happening, your body is adapting, your metabolism is increasing, and you will lose weight provided you also don't overeat.
- I've been doing hard workouts for weeks. On the performance theme, you need to continually improve, which is why workouts get harder as you move through any of Beachbody's programs. It's also why we add resistance (via added weight or gravity, as is the case with jumping) to workouts. If you're doing the same workouts at the same intensity constantly, you are not forcing adaptations that lead to changes in your metabolism. This is called a plateau.
A plateau, technically, isn't gaining weight—it's remaining the same—but a proper diet and exercise program should continually force improvements (in the form of adaptations). Otherwise, your metabolism won't continue to increase, which is the goal of most weight loss programs.
- My friend and I are doing the exact same thing and she's losing. Back to adaptation. We all react differently. The only absolute is that our bodies will change over time with a healthy program. A fitness rule called the Specificity of Adaptation states that it takes the body between 3 and 12 weeks to adapt to new stimuli, which is a very broad range. This is why it's vital that you stick to your program and not change it repeatedly based on your daily results!
In our test groups, two-week results have almost no bearing on who does best in the end. In fact, many people that undereat early and get off to a fast start will stagnate, while those who stick to the plan and eat as advised will start slower but train harder over time, leading to rapid weight loss as the program wears on.
- I lost weight for a while but now it's stopped. For ages on the Team Beachbody® Message Boards, this was our most frequently asked question. You eat less to lose weight. Things are going great, but suddenly you plateau—or start gaining. Odds are, your metabolism has slowed down in order to deal with the decreased calories. You're starving your now fit body, so it's doing what it needs to do to survive. The answer to this problem is pretty simple: eat more.
Again, this is a tough sell, so here's an example. One of our early Success Stories lost 40 pounds during a round of Power 90®, eating only 1,200 calories a day. He then stagnated for a long time and was very resistant to eating more, fearing it would kick-start a regression. We talked him into adding calories until, finally at around 2,000 calories, weight loss resumed. It then became so rapid he dropped through his goal, and about 20 pounds below, until finally, at around 3,000 calories, he leveled out. Then a daily diet of around 3,500 calories a day got him to a ripped 175.
So the moral of today's lesson is to trust your exercise program. We've been doing this a long time and we know what works. There are no magic bullets. Body transformation is based on making consistent, healthy lifestyle changes. Do that and you'll never need to ask yourself why you're gaining weight again.
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Recovery Done Right: 8 Ways to Prevent Muscle SorenessBy Kara Wahlgren
Aching after a brutal workout? Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can make you feel the burn while your muscles recover and rebuild. But, if you take the right steps after your workout, you can go hard without paying the price. Here are 8 easy ways to prevent postworkout pain.
- Stretch. Stretching is your first line of defense after a good workout. "When you train, you contract the muscles, and the muscle fibers get shorter," "Lengthening them after a workout promotes mobility, and can lead to a more thorough recovery." While fitness experts can't seem to agree on this strategy—one Australian study claimed that stretching had no impact on muscle soreness—it certainly won't hurt, especially if your flexibility is limited.
- Eat for rapid recovery. In a study on "nutrient timing," researchers found that a postworkout drink with between a 3:1 to 5:1 carb-to-protein ratio reduced muscle damage and improved recovery times. A tough workout depletes blood sugar, as well as the glycogen stored in your muscles. Restoring that supply within an hour of finishing your workout is your body's top priority. In a pinch, down a glass of grape juice with whey protein powder or a glass of chocolate milk. Denis Faye, "When the sugar [from the drink] rushes into your muscles to restore that supply, the protein piggybacks to jump-start the recovery process."
- Ice it. Immediately after a tough workout, icing your muscles can stave off inflammation. "Inflammation is one of nature's defense mechanisms, but it works like a cast—it immobilizes you. "When you keep inflammation down, that area is free to keep moving, and movement promotes healing." Like stretching, its effectiveness is up for debate—some researchers have claimed that ice is only effective for injuries and not for run-of-the-mill soreness, but it's a simple and safe option that many top-level athletes swear by. "Unless you ice so long that you give yourself frostbite, there's really no danger," Edwards says. "It seems to really speed up healing without any adverse effects."
- Change your diet. "When your muscles are sore, inflammation is a huge part of the problem," Faye says. To help reduce this inflammation, add foods that are rich in omega-3s—such as salmon, free-range meat, flax, avocado, and walnuts—to your diet. The natural anti-inflammatory properties of these foods can help dial back the soreness after overexertion. Amino acid supplements can also help with muscle recovery after a high-intensity workout.
- Massage your sore spots. A recent study found that massage can reduce inflammatory compounds called cytokines. One type of massage that's gaining popularity is myofascial release, which targets the connective tissue covering the muscles. You can hit these areas yourself using a foam roller—put the roller on the floor, use your body weight to apply pressure, and roll back and forth over the sore areas for about 60 seconds. But . . . before you do, make sure you're rehydrated and your heart rate is back to normal. "When your muscles are hot and loaded with lactic acid, you might make it worse,"
- Get heated. While ice can work wonders immediately after a workout, heat can help once your muscles have returned to their resting temperature. "Heat increases circulation, especially focused heat in a jacuzzi, where you can hit areas like joints that don't normally get a lot of circulation," Just don't jump in the hot tub immediately after a workout, because the heat can exacerbate inflammation, and the jets can pound your already-damaged muscles. "When your body heat is already high and you have a lot of muscle breakdown, sitting in a hot tub with the jets would be counterintuitive."
- Move it. You may be tempted to plant yourself on the couch until the pain subsides, but don't skip your next workout. Circulation promotes healing, so it helps to get your heart pumping—just don't overdo it. "Active recovery" is low-intensity exercise that gets your blood flowing without taxing your muscles. What qualifies as low-intensity? It depends on your typical workout. If you know your training zones, you can use a heart rate monitor. But, the easiest way to engage in active recovery is to exert around 50% of your max effort, and keep your heart rate below 140 bpm or so. Most workout programs should include a recovery workout, but if yours doesn't, a gentle yoga class or going on an easy hike are good options.
- Pop a painkiller—if you must. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can relieve pain, but many experts aren't sure if they're worth the risk. "A lot of athletes call it 'Vitamin I,'" But NSAIDs can cause nasty side effects and accelerate muscle breakdown. "The only time they might help is if you're in so much pain that you can't do low-level exercise—you can't get off the couch," https://www.facebook.com/FocusedOnFitnessWithAndyProvost?ref=hl In that case, meds might help, but be careful not to overdo it—because if you're not feeling pain, you may push too hard and cause an injury.
Friday, August 3, 2012
7 Colors of the Phytonutrient Rainbow: How Eating a Variety of Colors Can Keep You HealthyBy Elisa Lenox
Why is it that advice on healthy eating usually seems to center on what not to put in our mouths? With the endless ways we're taught to limit calorie intakes and watch out for "bad" fat and carbohydrates, it's almost easy to forget that there's a whole world of foods out there that don't threaten to give you heart disease, diabetes, or an expanded waistline.
Rather than focusing on what you shouldn't eat, let's take some time to focus on a few beautiful, flavorful, and health-building foods you should eat—specifically, foods rich in phytonutrients, the naturally occurring pigments that lend color and chemical protection to the plant kingdom, while also offering astounding health benefits.
The study of phytonutrients ("phyto" meaning "plant" and "nutrient" meaning, well, "nutrient"), also known as phytochemicals, is a relatively new field in nutrition, with more research unfolding on these substances than can be covered in one article. However, it's fair to say that what is currently known lends powerful credence to that ageless maternal advice "eat your vegetables."
Scientists have categorized classes of phytonutrients that offer different properties and benefits and it just so happens that many of these classes are represented by their colors. So read on and discover why becoming a connoisseur of the plant-based nutrient spectrum is a brilliant strategy that will help to preserve both your health and physical charm.
Blue/Purple – Anthocyanins are flavonoids that act as powerful antioxidants, neutralizing free radicals that cause aging and degenerative disease. There's even a connection between this phytonutrient and decreased visceral (abdominal) fat! A 2008 study from Chubu University in Japan found a link between anthocyanin intake and reduced incidence of metabolic disorders, including abdominal weight gain, hypertension, and impaired glucose and insulin metabolism. True, blue anthocyanin sources include red cabbage, blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, cherries, grapes, blue potatoes, eggplant, and radicchio.
Orange/Yellow – Multiple studies indicate that diets rich in beta-carotene lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer. This amazing phytonutrient falls into the carotenoid class that (along with the flavonoid group) has been credited in a 2010 Tufts University study for providing photo protective and antioxidant action in the skin. In short, these inflammation, wrinkle, and cancer preventing nutrients protect your skin from the inside out! To get a bit of beta-carotene, try sweet potato, carrots and carrot juice, winter squash, pumpkin, and cantaloupe.
Red – Lycopene has been in the news a lot lately for its positive influence on prostate health, but it’s also thought to prevent cervical dysplasia in conjunction with other carotenoids. In other words, it's also good for the uterus, making it an equal opportunity nutrient. In addition, a 1996 University of Minnesota study found a significant increase in longevity based upon the blood lycopene levels of nuns living the same lifestyle, in the same conditions. If you're ready to get into the red, try tomato and tomato products, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, and papaya.
Yellow/Green – The light absorbing properties of lutein are associated with eye health involving a decrease in cataract formation and macular degeneration. Mellow, yellow lutein sources include spinach, kale, collards, mustard and dandelion greens, summer squash, and pumpkin.
Green – Chlorophyll's abilities to bind toxins and decrease oxidative stress make it a powerful bodily detoxifier and explain how it can actually reduce body odor. You'll be seeing green with chlorophyll sources like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, green beans—any green vegetable. The darker, the better.
Green/White – Another detoxifier, sulphoraphane is part of the isotheocyanate class of phytonutrients that has been cited in multiple studies as a cancer preventative and detoxifier of carcinogens. Some super sulphoraphane sources include broccoli, brussels sprouts, broccoli sprouts, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, and watercress.
White – The anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial qualities of allicin lend to its reputation as an inhibitor of heart disease and gastric cancer as well as a potent immune booster. All-around awesome allicin sources include garlic, onion, leek, shallot, and chives.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to polychromatic eating. Use a food processor to quickly shred red cabbage and brussels sprouts into an easy chopped salad with pomegranate seeds, blanched almonds, and a homemade lemony dressing, or gently wilt kale or Swiss chard in olive oil with garlic, onion, and thinly sliced yellow bell pepper. Spiced sweet potatoes or winter squash bake in less than 40 minutes for a simple, energy-boosting carbohydrate serving. Fruit and leafy green packed smoothies are a fantastic way to throw together a quick, nutrient dense breakfast and don't forget the most convenient, and superfood-packed meal on the go is a whey protein shake. There are many that will give you over 20 phytonutrients and antioxidants in one delicious and easily portable package?
How can you ensure that you're drenching your system in these healthful, beauty-boosting nutrients every day? Make it a personal mission to sample from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily and get as innovative with your recipes as your imagination and nature's color palette will allow. Get creative and, before you know it, you'll be benefiting from the phytonutrient rainbow!
Urban Gardening Part Two: It's All in the Herbs
By Lisa Palac
7 Steps to Planting a Container Garden
It's spring, the time when everything starts to, literally, spring up. And every year, urban dwellers the world over have the same reaction: this is it! This is the year I finally plant that veggie patch and spend autumn feasting on homegrown produce. Then they look around their third-story walk-up with nothing but a fire escape for outdoor space and realize that's just not going to happen.
Or is it?
Even if you've never grown anything before, but have always wanted to take part in this rite of spring, a container herb garden is a perfect way to begin. Here's how to get started:
- A place in the sun. Herbs basically need three important things: full sun, lots of water, and good drainage. For best results, herbs must be grown outdoors. If you live in a seasonal climate, make sure the last frost has come and gone before planting. If your plants aren't doing very well as the season progresses, they might need a sunnier spot or perhaps, a bit less sun. This is one of the essential truths about plants: they've got to have their "spot" to flourish.
- The easiest herbs to grow. "If you want to see if you have a green thumb, start with mint," says Cassy Aoyagi, co-owner of FormLA, a team of Los Angeles-based landscape architects specializing in sustainable practices. "Mint just takes over," she says. Mint is a perennialherb, which means that it lasts from season to season, and there are many varieties of mint including spearmint, peppermint, and even chocolate mint.
The next bulletproof perennial herb, according to Aoyagi, is rosemary. Incredibly hardy and fast-growing, rosemary can tolerate full sun, but can do with much less. It can withstand over-watering and also survive a drought. It's a hard one to kill. If you choose an upright woody variety of rosemary, says Aoyagi, you can use the fragrant stems as skewers for grilling vegetables. Stems of rosemary can also be used to infuse olive oils and marinades. Other easy-to-grow classic perennials include thyme and oregano.
Basil, cilantro, and parsley are annual herbs, which means they only last one season and are replanted annually. They can absolutely be planted alongside perennial herbs in the same container. If you want to make, say, fresh pesto, however, you'll need more than a single plant. In fact, you'll need at least five or six. If this is the case, you may want a separate pot for large groups of single-variety herbs.
- Choosing the best soil. Fish emulsion, worm castings, bone meal, and bat guano hardly sound appetizing, but they are used in organic soil to fertilize the most delicious things. Most organic potting soils available for sale already contain all the ingredients you need to grow lush, healthy plants. For a container herb garden, you don't need additional fertilizer. Organic potting soil is preferable to the mix known simply as potting soil, because commercial soils often contain low-release fertilizers and other chemicals that could potentially be unhealthy.
- Container size and shape. All herbs can be planted together in the same container. For example, a 12-inch round ceramic pot can hold four or five herbs. Here's an ideal container size: a wood rectangle that measures 36 inches long by 12 inches high by 12 inches deep. If you can go 18 inches deep, even better, as the more room you give the roots, the larger and healthier the plants will be. Also, make sure there are holes in the bottom of whatever container you choose, so the water can drain out.
- Buying the plants. Although you could start from seeds, it's much easier to buy a mature plant. Plants are generally sold by the size of their container. Starter herbs are usually sold in 4-inch pots. Some vendors will sell several individual plants of the same variety in one 4-inch pot, knowing that the plants will be repotted. You can visit a plant nursery or farmer's market to buy your plants, or order online if you're looking for a particular heirloom variety.
- The planting. Let's say you're going to plant five herbs in a 12-inch round pot. First, fill the pot about three-quarters to the top with the organic potting soil you've purchased. Next, take the starter herb out of its plastic container by turning the plant upside-down and gently removing the plastic container. Using your fingertips, gently dig in and separate the roots just a little bit, so the roots are no longer compressed in the plastic pot shape. Then, make a little hole in the soil where you intend to plant the herb. Allow 3 to 4 inches between herbs. Set the herb in the soil and cover with more soil. Instead of patting the soil completely flat, try to build a slight mound on the top of each plant, as this little "hill" often helps with drainage.
- Care and Watering. One of the fundamentals of plant care is this: the more you trim your plant during the growing season, the more new growth you get. So the more leaves you pinch off your basil plant, or the more sprigs of rosemary you clip, the fuller and more leafy your herbs will be. At the end of the season, many perennials will appear fairly dormant. At this stage, you could cut the plant way back, and it will spring back as the weather warms up. Here's another fundamental: the only way to really know if the soil is moist enough is to stick your finger deep in the dirt. For plants that require full water, it should feel damp but not soaking wet. Signs of overwatering and underwatering can seem very similar to a novice, such as leaves yellowing and dropping, but if you test the soil with your finger, you'll have a good idea of which direction things are going.
Now it's time to reap the fruits—or leaves, anyway—of your labor. A sprinkle of chopped basil on a salad makes it exponentially more delicious, especially if you've grown it yourself. Plus, look at all you can do with fresh mint: cilantro mint chutney, cucumber mint soda, mint ice cubes, chilled peach mint soup. Not to mention that both parsley and cilantro are high in antioxidants. Growing your own herbs is also a really fun and extremely satisfying way to get just a little more green in your day.